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National History Day (NHD) is an opportunity for teachers and students to engage in real historical research. NHD is not a predetermined by-the-book program but an innovative curriculum framework in which students learn history by selecting topics of interest and launching into a year-long research project.

The purpose of NHD is to improve the teaching and learning of history in middle and high schools. NHD is a meaningful way for students to study historical issues, ideas, people and events by engaging in historical research. When studying history through historical research, students and teachers practice critical inquiry: asking questions of significance, time and place. Through careful questioning, history students become immersed in a detective story too engaging to stop reading.

Beginning in the fall, students choose a topic related to the annual theme and conduct extensive primary and secondary research. After analyzing and interpreting their sources and drawing conclusions about their topics’ significance in history, students then present their work in original papers, exhibits, performances, websites and documentaries. These projects are entered into competitions in the spring at local, state, and national levels, where they are evaluated by professional historians and educators. The program culminates with the national competition held each June at the University of Maryland at College Park.

Each year National History Day uses a theme to provide a lens through which students can examine history. The theme for 2015 is Leadership and Legacy in History. The annual theme frames the research for both students and teachers. The theme is intentionally broad enough that students can select topics from any place (local, national or world) and any time period in history.

Once studentschoose their topics, they investigate historical context, historical significance, and the topic’s relationship to the theme by conducting research in libraries, archives and museums, through oral history interviews, and by visiting historic sites.

NHD benefits both teachers and students. For the student, NHD allows control of his or her own learning. Students select topics that meet their interests. Program expectations and guidelines are explicitly provided for students, but the research journey is created by the process and is unique to the historical research. Throughout the year, students develop essential life skills by fostering academic achievement and intellectual curiosity. In addition, students develop critical-thinking and problem-solving skills that will help them manage and use information now and in the future.

The student’s greatest ally in the research process is the classroom teacher. NHD supports teachers by providing instructional materials and through workshops at the state and national levels. Many teachers find that incorporating the NHD theme into their regular classroom curriculum encourages students to watch for examples of the theme and to identify connections in their study of history across time.

NHD breathes life into the traditional history curriculum by engaging students and teachers in a hands-on and in-depth approach to studying the past. By focusing on a theme, students are introduced to a new organizational structure of learning history. Teachers are supported in introducing highly complex research strategies to students. When NHD is implemented in the classroom, students are involved in a life-changing learning experience.

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