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National History Day: Leadership and Legacy in History

by Courtney Speckmann, White House Historical Association on

In June, I had the opportunity to work with National History Day staff at the National Contest in College Park, MD to facilitate a teacher professional development session, participate as a judge, and present the first ever White House History special prize. We worked with many teachers from across the country to look at White House connections to the theme for next year’s contest and interacted with students who were bursting with excitement and pride at making it to the finals and had worked very hard on their exhibits, documentaries, performances, websites, and papers.

Each year more than half a million students participate in the National History Day contest by choosing a topic that relates to the theme, conducting primary and secondary research, and analyzing sources to draw conclusions. The theme of this year’s contest, Leadership and Legacy in History, really resonated with staff at the White House Historical Association. It’s not hard to argue that there are many leaders who can be linked to the history of the White House. In also looking at legacy students were forced to move beyond biographical information and analyze the impact a leader has had on society, examining multiple perspectives and change over time.

In a recent op-ed piece in the Baltimore Sun by William D. Adams, chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities, he argues that learning and teaching history is vital for the country. Adams writes that it’s important for students to know that we value history and care about their engagement with it so that they can expose themselves to views they don’t necessarily share, participate in civic and national discourse, and help maintain a robust democracy.

 

“The success of National History Day, which the National Endowment for the Humanities has supported since 1978, is all the more impressive when set against the background of the waning of the commitment to the teaching of the humanities generally, and history in particular, in school systems around the country.” –William D. Adams

I saw firsthand how students were impacted by their participation in National History Day. One group of students in particular stands out because they chose a specific leader in order to focus on a negative and controversial legacy. While conducting research, they were surprised to discover that there were also a lot of positive legacies that came from his leadership. Instead of choosing to only highlight the negative aspects as they had planned, they came up with a new idea to focus on both the positive and negative.

When asked about something important they had learned through the process of participating in the contest, they told us that although they had a specific idea in mind when they chose their topic, they learned that history is complex and not always black and white. They went on to say that it’s important to not judge people because there are usually two sides of every story. Now that’s a great lesson that can also be applied to their classmates, teachers, parents, and current leaders!

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