“Not only a better writer, but also a better person”: What National History Day Teaches Young Writers

Written by Meg Petersen, Professor of English & Director of the National Writing Project in New Hampshire at Plymouth State University

When I asked a small middle school student in a white shirt and a bow tie what he had learned from writing his National History Day paper on Bobby Fischer and U. S. Foreign Relations, he mentioned that he had to revise a lot of the language. I asked him what he meant.  He said that his language was not respectful.  He had been using words like “crazy” to describe Fischer and had changed that to more respectful words like “mental health issues.”  “You know,” he said, as if it had occurred to him for the first time, “Working on this paper made me a better writer, but I think it also made me a better person.”

For the past several years, I have volunteered as a judge at the state and national level for the National History Day program.  This nationwide contest invites students in grades 6-12 to submit projects individually or in groups in the areas of papers, websites, documentaries, exhibits and performances. Each year the contest develops a certain theme “in history,” such as Conflict and Compromise in history, the 2018 theme.   As a National Writing Project site director, my expertise is in writing and not history, thus I have served only as a paper judge.  Papers are read before the actual competition and judges have the opportunity to interview students about their work. 

At the national level of judging, papers are judged first in groups of ten.  The top paper in each group advances to the finals.  Because this needs to be done ahead of time, each panel of judges needs to pre-rank the entries and inform the contest organizers which paper will advance to the next level. This makes the interview less important than at the local or state level, where papers are rated on the day of the contest.  

As someone interested in teaching writing, I took advantage of this feature of the contest to ask the national finalists in my group of middle school students in the junior division some questions about what they had learned about writing through their participation in National History Day. Their answers tell us something about how the structure of the contest promotes student learning about the process of writing as thinking, as well as the focus of their investigation.

Most students, especially at the middle school level, have never written a paper this long or involved, and had never done such in-depth research.  They were out of their element, far beyond the reach of easy essay formulas. The contest provided a laboratory for them to learn about research, revision and thinking through writing. They encounter conflicting sources, work their way through firsthand accounts.  They make sense of copious information. Many do it year after year.

When I asked students about decisions they had made as they revised their papers, the first thing that invariably came up was the word count.  The contest has strict guidelines.  Papers may contain no more than 2500 words.  Most of the papers that make it to the national level tend to bump right up against this word limit. We are cautioned as judges to look out for students who try to evade the word limit by packing picture captions or footnotes with extra information.  Students coped with the word count issue in a variety of ways.  One student told me that he wrote a paper of 10,000 words and then cut it back to 2500.  He accomplished this feat by removing whole chunks of his paper and streamlining the material to fit his quite complicated thesis about the relation between the Navajo Code Breakers and the First People’s Boarding Schools.  He told me how he had to focus not too much on one topic or the other, but rather on clearly establishing the relationship between them, so that he could keep the focus on the thesis. The paper had to concentrate on that relationship, so he told me that he asked himself what the reader needed to know, and made decisions accordingly.  Another student told me that she had learned through trying to cut back to meet the word count, how her writing was full of unnecessary words and that she had never noticed how many times she repeated herself in her writing until she had to do this merciless editing. 

Another student mentioned something that gets at another feature of the contest.  I noticed that some of her information, a whole section of her paper that addressed the relationship between the legal ramifications of the Salem Witch Trials (her topic) and the founding fathers, had been added quite recently.  (We can tell from the annotated bibliography when they accessed sources.)  It turns out that one of her judges at the state competition had made her aware of the connection and suggested several sources she might consult.  Judges at all levels are encouraged to take a trajectory view, and to coach students at the initial levels of the contest about possible revisions should their paper be selected to advance to the next level.  Students are allowed, and even encouraged, to revise their work in response to these comments.  Even when working at the national level, judges are encouraged to help students think about what they might do differently with next year’s entry, or if they are seniors, what they can take with them to their college research and writing experience.  This student wanted to include the new information and recognized its relevance but was already at the word limit.  She made the decision to go back and remove much of the information about the background of the Salem Witch Trials in order to better focus on the aftermath.  She said sometimes you have too much information and you think you need to include it all, but what you really need is what will help your reader understand your thesis.

It is unclear how much involvement classroom teachers have with this process.  My impression is that most students who make it to the national level come from schools where there is a lot of support for the contest and a culture of working with it.  But this is not always true.  Some students rely exclusively on the judges for feedback.

Judges receive careful preparation at every level of the contest.  They are counseled on how to keep their comments specific and positive, coached through phrasing that will respect the work students have done and give them solid advice on how to improve.  Examples of effective and ineffective comments are shared with judges, and contest officials monitor the kind of feedback students receive, sometimes intervening if necessary. The structure of the contest itself, with its carefully designed rules, including the word count and the emphasis on process at all levels, helps to support young writers.  The expectations and standards of the contest are high.  Students are expected to consult primary sources, to contextualize topics in history and to develop original theses and break new ground with their research.  Yet the contest is carefully designed to support them through this process.  From the enabling constraints of the contest theme, the resources provided for educators and judges, and the key component of encouraging revision as entries progress through the contest, the design supports student learning, not only about history, but about good critical thinking through writing. Writing teachers have much to learn from this worthy project which clearly produces better writers, and maybe even better people.