Academic Contests Shaping Curricula For the Humanities

By Kathleen Kennedy Manzo — June 13, 2001 8 min read
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Tamara Twardowski never found much inspiration in history class. Throughout her schooling, the junior at Padua Academy, a Roman Catholic school for girls here, saw little connection between her life and the people, dates, and events packed into the pages of her history books. Science, in contrast, had always sparked her imagination and motivated her to do well in school.

So when Ms. Twardowski—the first child in her state to be born through in vitro fertilization—had the chance to study the history of the scientific advances that led to her birth 17 years ago, she saw how the subject could come to life.

She was able to revisit the hospital where she was born, talk to the doctors who helped her parents conceive, and read the journals her mother wrote throughout her long-fought battle to have a child. In the end, Ms. Twardowski had a much deeper understanding of how science and medicine have affected people’s lives.

“It made me look at my life and the past in a totally different way,” Ms. Twardowski said of the research project and exhibit she presented at a state history contest recently. “I didn’t know history could do that.”

Many of her classmates have had similar revelations this year as part of their projects for National History Day. The yearlong program was established 25 years ago by history professors at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland to improve the teaching of history through in-depth research projects for students and professional development for teachers.

Even with little of the publicity and recognition—or public and private funding—that surround the top mathematics and science competitions for students, academic contests in the humanities have had an impact in the classroom, many educators say. They provide curricula and instructional resources to help teachers meet state standards, and they engage and motivate students to learn deeper lessons about history, government, economics, and other critical subjects.

Primary Sources

Thousands of history and social studies teachers around the country have turned to contests to enhance, or replace, the use of textbooks. Each year, more than 700,000 students and 40,000 teachers take part in National History Day, primarily in the classroom and in local competitions. The program—scheduled for this week—emphasizes the power of primary sources for giving students a more expansive view of history. It calls on students to dig into archives, conduct interviews with local and national heroes, visit historic sites, and present their findings in research papers, exhibits, dramatic presentations, and documentaries.

Other contests take a similar tack. For 14 years, students have taken part in mock congressional hearings as part of the We the People programs sponsored by the Center for Civic Education, in Calabasas, Calif.

The civics programs, which include textbooks and training for teachers, test participants’ knowledge of the U.S. Constitution and public policy, and how they are applied to real-life situations.

And this year, nearly 350 teams of students from 22 states participated in the first Economics Challenge National Championship Series, launched by the National Council on Economic Education.

Though most participants are involved on the local level, the contests hold competitive state trials and national championships.

“The programs give students a chance to delve into a particular topic or examine the life of an individual in depth and extend what happens in the classroom,” said Harvey Carmichael, a Virginia-based consultant who provides training for social studies teachers. “The sponsoring organizations have done an awful lot to provide resources to teachers.”

Beyond the Superficial

At Padua Academy here in Wilmington, teachers have made it a requirement for 11th graders to embark on a 16-week investigation into a topic of their choice, using the National History Day framework.

“This is the one time these kids learn something beyond the superficial,” said Barbara Markham, who heads the academy’s history department. “Students really become historians. Most students don’t get to do this kind of research until they are in graduate school.”

The program has inspired some impressive work, Ms. Markham said, even among average and struggling students.

Margaret Sentman, a junior at Padua, was not enthusiastic about the project at first.

To meet the requirements, Ms. Sentman opted for a simple report on the history of the Ford Motor Co., picking up on several other reports she had written on the topic over the years. But once she delved into her work, searched historical documents on the Internet, talked to relatives about their recollections of the heyday of the American automobile industry, and interviewed an auto historian, her project evolved into an elaborate exhibit. Her work stunned her teachers because of the depth of her research and her analysis of the impact the innovation had on society.

Her classmates, Jessica Rubini and Kristen Santori, turned a passing interest in Jane Addams into a moving play that portrays the social problems of the early 20th century and the social reformer’s efforts to help poor immigrants survive. Using primary documents from the special collections housed at the University of Chicago, the students pieced together the beginnings of Hull House, the settlement house Addams founded in Chicago.

Congressional Support

As part of their original research, students involved in the History Day projects across the country have met with former presidents, petitioned Congress to correct what they found to be historical inaccuracies, interviewed Holocaust survivors, and published books.

“History Day is a revelation for kids that the study of the past is not boring, and it has meaning and relevance for their lives today,” said Cathy Gorn, the executive director of the program and an adjunct history professor at the University of Maryland College Park.

One Florida student, for example, found errors in the historical military record during his research on the sinking of the USS Indianapolis by Japan during World War II. The student was able to make a case before Congress that the dishonorable discharge of the captain, Charles McVay 3rd, was unwarranted.

Those success stories have won support for the programs among state lawmakers and members of Congress, who have picked up the mantle for improving history education. In fact, the We the People program was created in 1987 by an act of Congress to address concerns that American students did not know enough about the nation’s history.

More recently, Sen. Robert C. Byrd, D-W.Va., introduced the Teaching American History Grant Program, which this year provided $50 million in grants to help schools improve history teaching. Some of the grants have been awarded to expand schools’ involvement in History Day programs and other contests. Sen. Byrd won an amendment last month to the pending Senate bill reauthorizing the Elementary and Secondary Education Act that would extend the program and increase its financing to $100 million.

On the House side, Rep. Jim Ramstad, R-Minn., has asked the Appropriations Committee to provide a one-time $10 million earmark for National History Day.

If approved, the money could help the program catch up with the financial support that some math and science competitions enjoy, organizers say. Some of the contests emphasizing those subjects—the Intel Science Talent Search and the Siemens Westinghouse Science and Technology Competition—offer hundreds of thousands of dollars in scholarships each year and provide resources for teachers and students.

In Oklahoma, meanwhile, the state Senate passed a bill this spring to recognize National History Day as a resource for improving the teaching of social studies in the state. The House failed to pass the measure, but at least one legislator vowed to revive the issue in the next session.

Aligning With Standards

While many teachers agree that their lessons benefit from incorporating primary materials and extensive outside activities, many also lament that they struggle just to get through the coursework required to help students meet state standards and pass state tests.

“History Day really did open my eyes to how I needed to use more analysis and interpretation and primary documents in the classroom to help students get more out of history class,” said Fran O’Malley, who uses the National History Day curriculum with his 8th grade honor students at Talley Middle School in Wilmington. “But to do History Day well, and still prepare students for state testing, I have to spend a lot of time developing a schedule for myself and for students.”

Proponents argue that the best programs are aligned with state standards and help teachers better address all the content and skills included in them.

History Day “is a rigorous program that requires more effort on the part of teachers and students. It isn’t simple, but it’s worthwhile,” said National History Day’s Ms. Gorn. “And in the long run, it is going to help teachers meet standards in a more meaningful way.”

Some experts, however, urge teachers to take care that contests and associated activities and projects are substantive and do not take too much time away from traditional lessons.

“In many schools, activities more than supplement the lesson,” Gilbert T. Sewall wrote in American Educator, the American Federation of Teachers’ magazine, last year. “Activities are the lesson,” said Mr. Sewall, the president of the New York City-based American Textbook Council, which promotes high quality in instructional materials for history and social studies. He argues that such activities can be useful in engaging students in their studies, but that they should not displace the cultivation of active minds.

The key for any teacher is to be sure the aims of the contest are in line with the aims of the standards, according to John F. Burns, a history and social studies consultant to the California education department.

“Many themes in these contests align very well to state standards, but some do not,” he said. “Any teacher has to balance the amount of time they have to present material with the amount of time an activity takes. Sometimes it’s a balancing act.”

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A version of this article appeared in the June 13, 2001 edition of Education Week as Academic Contests Shaping Curricula For the Humanities


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