Editor’s note: This is a guest post on how to incorporate National History Day into your classes this year from MSTA Member Derek Frieling in cooperation with the State Historical Society of Missouri, in partnership with the Missouri Humanities Council. For more information, contact Maggie Mayhan at mayhanm@shsmo.org or 573.882.7083.

I highly encourage you to have your students participate in the National History Day contest. And even though “history” is in the title, this program is not just for social studies. Let me explain.

National History Day (NHD) is a unique opportunity for students to explore the past in a creative, hands-on way. They can compete as individuals or groups in five different categories: documentary, exhibit, paper (individual only), performance, or website. Students in grades six through twelve are eligible to participate and are divided into junior (middle school) and senior (high school) levels.

Although most sponsoring teachers are social studies, the program lends itself to a variety of fields. Language Arts teachers: all categories have a writing component, not just papers. Science teachers: I have seen many projects on scientific topics. Drama teachers: have your students write and act in their own play in the performance category. Gifted teachers: many schools utilize NHD as a cornerstone for their program. And the possibilities don’t end there!

National History Day is often cited as the best program available for PBL. Your students are in charge of building their projects which go much deeper than teacher-directed instruction. They will become experts in their topic, knowing much more than you by the time they are finished.

I introduce NHD to my students the very first day of school because I want to establish that NHD is as important to my class as the syllabus and other protocol. In my classes, I provide a structure of guidance, but the work is done by the students.

I suggest setting up a schedule of miniature deadlines throughout the school year (or semester). Students are required to turn in each stage of the project: topic idea, pre-bibliography, thesis statement, outline, visual and writing samples, rough draft, final draft, etc. I have found this method to be most effective to ward off procrastination and produce more professional projects. Not only does this create milestones of accomplishments for the students; it keeps you on track.

Concerned about the amount of time NHD will take in your class? While it does require some class time, it’s very manageable. I allocate some class time to work on NHD projects, so I can help the students get started and provide initial guidance—but never more than 30 minutes once every three or four weeks.

NHD projects are the bulk of the homework in my class. The benefits are two-fold: first, with longer stints between deadlines, students can budget their time, so they are not overwhelmed with assignments due overnight from several different teachers or if they are involved with an extracurricular event. Second, with NHD, it is impossible for students to copy from each other—just make sure you give them instruction on avoiding plagiarism and using proper citations, so they create original, strong projects.

Finally, every year NHD has a theme. This year students are exploring Conflict and Compromise in History. Have your students tailor their topics to match the theme. Whatever their interest, they can make that tie-in. Can you think of anything in history worth examining that didn’t have some sort of “conflict” that encompassed two or more opinions that needed some “compromise” in order to be resolved?

Yes, NHD is a lot of work, but that hard work is rewarding. When students take their projects to the contest in the spring, nothing thrills me more than to watch them get excited about academics and to see their efforts pay off!

Have a great school year, and I hope you incorporate National History Day in your classes. Visit the NHD website and the National History Day in Missouri website to learn more and get started today.

If you have any questions about using NHD effectively in your classroom, please feel free to contact me at Derek.Frieling@sjsd.k12.mo.us.

Derek Frieling teaches World History, AP European History, and Dual Credit American History. He is also an adjunct professor at Missouri Western State University where he teaches Methods of Teaching Social Studies and American History Since 1865. Derek’s students have participated in National History Day for the past 20 years, and he also has contributed to other NHD programs including NHD 100 Leaders in World History and Normandy: Sacrifice for Freedom.