Friday, July 19, 2013

Lessons from National History Day (NHD): How my students improved their use of projects and how I learned to work more closely with the arts (Post by Guest Blogger Dennis Yuzenas) is a national treasure.   Before reading this post, please click here to navigate the site a bit and get oriented if you are not familiar with its features.

GUEST BLOG by Dennis Yuzenas     Contact Dennis at
According to a recent report, many states have yet to practice a critical 21st Century skill: Common sense. The report reveals that although most states have adopted the Common Core State Standards (CCSS), their diplomas remain CCSS deficient.

Here’s part of the solution to the problem cited above: National History Day. 

Never heard of it? Go to and click on “Contest.” It’s a lot like Science Fair only not as anal or OCD. It’s nothing like a spelling bee. Sorry, Alex Trebeck. It’s made for “every kid”.  A complaint I’ve heard from parents over the years was that only freaks and geeks win “the big competitions.” True or not, that’s the perception that’s out there. Every kid has a different mix of intellectual strengths. Remember all that work Howard Gardner did a few years ago? NHD is made to allow students to nurture and develop every intellect. No, really!

I’ve been “doing” NHD for about a decade at both the middle and high school level. In both public and private schools. I have, quite literally, seen this project turn unmotivated, disinterested, and worst of all, disengaged students into learning machines. 

Then there’s the “F” word. It’s fun. I get really jazzed when the “NHD Drop Dead Due Date” approaches. Students are in my room before school, after school, and during lunch. Multiple teams working feverishly to get ‘er done. 

Now that the vice grip that was the FCAT has been released, and not a second too soon, it’s time to get back to educating.   Congress apparently felt the same:  just today a bill was introduced to leave No Child Left Behind behind. The Common Core standards being phased in this year are great simply because they’re not the FCAT.  Why they’re limited to just Language Arts and Math is anyone’s guess. The last twenty years of standards-based education looks an awful lot like a bad case of the “minimum basic skills blues.” Doesn’t maximum skills teaching sound better? 

There’s a great paragraph from an article in the PB Post today [July 19, 2013--centered on Common Core workshops being held around Florida] that is reproduced here:
The standards provide an outline to teachers about what their students are required to learn and understand, but still give teachers flexibility to teach their own way, said Mary Jane Tappen, the state’s K-12 deputy chancellor.

A couple of paragraphs later:
“We’ve moved from just information about the standards now to ‘What do lessons look like?’ and ‘How do we build instruction?’” Tappen said. “Some (teachers) are very ready and eager. Some are hesitant and need a lot of support.”

I have a suggestion for the ready and eager teachers: Do NHD. For the hesitant and those that need a lot of support: There are a million reasons NOT to do NHD. If your heart’s not in it, don’t waste your or your students’ time.

Since the “F” word has already been used, let’s use the “P” word. Passion.

NHD allows teachers’ and students’ passions to bubble to the top of the educating experience. NHD aids teachers in building a classroom culture based on cooperation, team planning, goal orientation, task centered, hands-on experiential, shared control, centered on high interest material, in a discovery-based, interdisciplinary, environment. Oh, don’t forget to include nurturing creativity. I shared this with a friend of mine who works for a successful public relations firm and she said it sounded like her job description!

Interesting coincidence that her job description fits the NHD project description. 

Let’s add one more layer to this discussion: There’s a lot of talk lately about “21st Century skills.” Remember the first paragraph? Google Tony Wagner, that Harvard fellow that has written extensively on what our schools need to do to prepare our students for the future, for more on this tangent. Going back to the NHD description earlier: The skills fostered in creating an NHD project are all 21st Century job requirements! 

NHD projects can be custom-made for every teacher and any classroom. I’ve seen it work in Gifted and AP and ESOL and ‘regular” and ESL—the whole acronym gambit. 

Last year’s NHD projects constructed for my class included input from no fewer than 16 other staff members. A huge contribution to a project focused on the Vietnam war was made by a member of the custodial staff. Guess where this fellow spent his last days of adolescence and experienced a huge dose of manhood? 

When projects are all completed, we do a “Gallery Walk.”  Each team or individual presents their project and, as a class, we talk about them. Other staff members are presented with the criteria for what makes a superior project in the eyes of the good people at National History Day World Headquarters and tasked with choosing the projects that go on to represent our school at the Palm Beach County NHD competition.

NHD works for my students and me. Parents love it. Administration loves it. It’s cool. Or phat. Or tote. Whatever means really good in the current vernacular.

Guest Blogger Dennis Yuzenas
Contact Dennis at
His website:

LINK to seven survival skills:

No comments:

Post a Comment