The Best Middle and High School Program No One Knows About

Courtesy of Dawn Crone
Olivia Freeman at Pearl Harbor during a trip with National History Day’s Sacrifice for Freedom program.

In an earlier version of this article, the photo caption said Olivia Freeman was pictured at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific. Freeman was at Pearl Harbor. The caption has been corrected.


An Iowa high school student considered the future of her family farm through the lens of Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring.” One middle-schooler analyzed tensions between Bangladesh and Pakistan with fierce moral clarity. Another educated himself about trade policy to understand Puerto Rico.

The kids I met at the National History Day finals in College Park in June weren’t afraid to confront history. They were rushing toward the hard truths some adults want to hide from them. Their original research projects – some of which I judged – showed just how distant partisan debates about education can be from the real experiences and convictions of American kids.

Encouraging middle and high school students to participate in National History Day is one of the wisest things parents and teachers can do. Contestants develop skills that will serve them for life: curiosity, critical thinking and research. Communities touched by students’ work get a vital reminder that history, done right, upends any reductive agenda.

Founded in 1974 and modeled on science fairs, the core National History Day program aims to teach historical methods rather than a particular narrative. Each year, half a million students in grades six to 12 examine primary and secondary sources to develop an original argument about a subject they choose. They present their findings in papers, documentaries, performances, exhibits and websites.

As they advance through local and state rounds, these young researchers get feedback from judges – usually teachers, historians, librarians and citizens – on how to broaden their exploration and sharpen their analysis.

History Day isn’t just preparation for the academy. Celebrity chef Guy Fieri made it to nationals in eighth grade with a project on soft pretzels. National security adviser Jake Sullivan is a program alumnus. More than 20 years ago, I fell in love with writing and investigation while working on History Day papers at the archives of the Massachusetts Department of Transportation and the Lexington Historical Society.

The projects are a testament to students’ ambition. Elizabeth Green, who ran the History Day program at Pascagoula High School in Mississippi for almost 20 years, brims with examples. One mentee talked her way onto the phone with music journalist Chuck Klosterman for a project on punk rock. Another gathered personal journals and photographs of the 1980s movement to preserve deaf leadership at Gallaudet University.

Kids learn that even gaps in the record can be revelatory. Olivia Freeman, now a freshman at Miami University in Ohio, investigated the life of Navy Steward Third Class Vernon Kirk, who served aboard the World War II submarine USS Swordfish and was lost when it sank. “You can find out a lot about a state or place with how they keep their records,” she told me, “especially how they keep their records of Black people.” The paucity of information, Freeman said, cut Black Americans out of history and severed them from their ancestors.

The competition also encourages students to look at what makes sources valid or untrustworthy – essential in this moment of widespread misinformation. Whatever kids grow up to be, learning to read formal and technical materials is useful. Green explains: “We have to be able to interpret and understand documents to protect ourselves, to protect our family, to make wise choices.”

Many explore painful episodes and thorny questions of injustice. Their grit is a rebuke to the idea that children are too sensitive for the harshness of history. Sevier County High School student Molly Bohanan worked with her teacher, Rebecca Byrd, to explore the conviction of Maurice Mays, who in 1919 was accused of murdering a white woman in a case that led to riots in Knoxville. He was executed in 1922, and an ongoing movement seeks his exoneration. Green mentored an eighth-grader who interviewed a woman, Carolyn Maull, who at a similar age had survived the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in Birmingham, Ala., in 1963.

History Day can deepen kids’ ties to their communities. The requirement that students use primary sources often leads them to local historical societies and museums, such as the Beck Cultural Exchange Center in Knoxville. Here Byrd’s students researched the city’s civil rights movement.

Other students work with local historians. Green’s students read a graduate thesis by Scotty Kirkland of Alabama’s Department of Archives and History as part of their research on the lynching of teenager Michael Donald in 1981.

National History Day also runs spinoff programs such as Sacrifice for Freedom. Participants research World War II veterans from their states to write eulogies that they read at gravesites in the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific in Honolulu or the Normandy American Cemetery in France.

Students often end up in contact with veterans’ families. Bohanon chose Johnnie Harrison Bailey, only to realize he was related to her pastor. The family shared photos and memories to help her. In return, Bohanan shared her impressions of Bailey’s resting place in Hawaii, a pilgrimage many in his family hadn’t been able to make.

These competition trips can be life-changing. Alondra Reyes, a longtime History Day participant, felt torn between military service and college until she met a professor while visiting the Naval War College in Newport, R.I., who told her that she didn’t have to choose.

Now a senior at the Naval Academy, she’s researching the history of women there, to create a record of how far midshipmen like her have come. Reyes told me that when she feels discouraged, she reads the eulogies she and other students wrote to remind herself of the tradition of service she aspired to.

Reyes and her parents got to go into the White House during one of her trips to History Day nationals. “We had the opportunity to . . . look from the inside out,” Reyes recalled. “I’m a little Mexican girl, raised in the state of Mississippi with immigrant parents. How am I here?” Her commitment to learning from the past to inform the future is one obvious answer.

Cathy Gorn, executive director of National History Day, has observed students like Reyes – and political battles over history education – for four decades. She thinks the kids know themselves better than the adults who want to shield them. “They come at this stuff fresh. It doesn’t make them feel bad about who they are. It doesn’t make them hate their country,” she told me. “It teaches them to love the fact that we have a Constitution that can be amended, that we can work to fix the problems and the difficulties and the horrors.”

The best way to prepare children to build a better future is by giving them opportunities to engage with the past, trusting in their courage to do so. That’s the lesson of National History Day.