Maine National History Day 2014: Three Cheers for Hands-on History Education

by Larissa Vigue Picard, Director of Education & Interpretation

The crowd of students, teachers, and parents cheer for history as the 2014 Maine National History Day awards ceremony gets underway on April 12 at the University of Maine.

More than 250 middle and high school students from all over Maine participated in Maine National History Day (MNHD) this year, which took place on Saturday, April 12. That’s an increase over last year, despite the major transition from an Augusta locale to the University of Maine campus in Orono, which took over host duties this year from the Maine State Archives. Led by Associate Professor of History Liam Riordian, under the auspices of the College of Liberal Arts & Sciences, the program fits perfectly under UMaine’s new Humanities Initiative.

Now organized and run by a statewide consortium that includes Maine Historical Society, Maine Humanities Council, and the Margaret Chase Smith Library, in addition to the entire University of Maine system, History Day has long been a fixture in the state. However, limited resources and staffing have kept it from growing to its full potential.

The judges’ room. Judging teams interview students in a particular category and age group (middle or high school), then assess the projects based on a number of criteria. The process takes several hours.

This year, Maine Historical Society and Maine Humanities Council recruited the judges and ran the Judges’ Room the day of the competition (and will continue to do so in future years), and a new state coordinator–John Taylor, with the Margaret Chase Smith Library–proved himself more than up to the task of organizing every detail of the massively complex event. Now that UMaine has agreed to host the program for at least the next 3-5 years, and lead the development of regional competitions that will feed into the statewide competition, signs are good that the program will only grow stronger.

And that’s great, because the intensive, hands-on program is a proven winner among history and Social Studies teachers–and especially with students. They get to choose a topic under a broad annual theme, and then select one of five categories–exhibit, documentary, performance, paper, or website–through which to showcase hours and hours of research and reflection. Students can compete as individuals or in small groups. Three winners are chosen in each category, and the first and second place awardees are eligible to represent the state at the national competition in Maryland.

One section of the Exhibit Hall.
One section of the Exhibit Hall. Exhibits are one of five History Day categories students can choose. The others are Website, Documentaries, Performances, and Papers.

Thanks to a major study by the National History Day organization, there’s considerable national research to suggest that participation in History Day makes a difference in the classroom and over the long-term. It’s a welcome counter-balance to the increasing emphasis on standardized tests in the public school system. History Day projects take a long time, they are unique to each student, and they allow students to reflect deeply on a topic of their own interest. You have only to listen to the students as they earnestly answer judges’ questions, or squeal with delight when their names are called at the awards ceremony, to understand that this project has allowed them to embrace learning in a way that is not possible via a test.

The excitement throughout the day at Orono this year was palpable. It showed on everyone’s faces–from students to teachers to judges to organizers. The facilities and logistics were superb, and the fact that UMaine history majors and graduate students acted as campus guides and cheered on the students at the awards ceremony was priceless. Even a National History Day representative from Maryland attended the event, and congratulated all involved on a fantastic event.

An excited medal-winner talks with a friend. Whether or not students place in the competition, they are rewarded by the experience.
An excited medal-winner talks with a friend. Whether or not students place in the competition, they are rewarded by the experience.

Maine Historical Society is extremely proud to be a longtime and prominent supporter of this event, which makes history come alive for students. History education is about far more than textbooks and dates. It’s most effective when students learn to do the hands-on, investigative, analytical, reflective work that real historians do. We hope that statewide support will increase in MNHD by leaps and bounds in years to come, and that many more Maine history and Social Studies students will reap the benefits of participation.

For more images of the 2014 Maine National History Day competition, please visit the MNHD Facebook page.


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