Yesterday in class, students presented their National History Day projects to Tony Andrade, the Fairfield County Coordinator for National History Day. The idea was to replicate the actual judging process students will experience at the competition on March 19th. Putting on my sternest judge’s voice, I asked students questions about what they had learned through completing their projects: Why is your topic historically significant? Why should all high school students learn about your topic? What is the other side to your story or position? How can your topic help shed light on current events/issues? Mr. Andrade, Ms. Hawes and other students followed up with questions and comments, all with the goal of helping the presenters improve their projects.
Soon after the presentations began, I realized students weren’t simply demonstrating mastery of the historical content; instead, through the process of National History Day, they had become historians, going above and beyond the recitation and evaluation of facts by uncovering unique stories and crafting novel arguments.
For example, when Julia and Sofia presented their museum exhibit based on interviews with two Jewish refugees who had fled Nazi Germany, they were showing the power of personal stories to illuminate complex historical events. When Flora, Juliana, Nicole, and Katherine told the story of three Women Air Force Service Pilots during World War II (two of whom they interviewed) through a dramatic performance, they were bringing to life the contributions of three individuals who have shaped our country in profound ways, yet whose names don’t appear in a typical textbook. When Joey presented his exhibit on Connecticut’s contributions to World War II, he was highlighting the role played by people across the state, from factory workers to soldiers who’d never return home. When Jari, Keda, and Molly performed their play about the emotional impact World War II had on veterans, they were using history to shine a light on the plight of soldiers today, specifically those suffering from PTSD. And when Grayson and Fjolla screened their documentary about Robert C. Hunt, a veteran of D-Day whom they were fortunate enough to interview, they were making an important statement about how perspective shapes history. The list goes on and on. By completing their projects, students brought together a wide array of sources, told stories, and made original arguments you’d be hard-pressed to find anywhere else–even in a world where the Internet makes seemingly any historical topic accessible with only a few keystrokes.
Now when people ask me what I teach, I’m tempted to forgo the usual response of “Social Studies” or “History.” Instead, I’m wondering if I can tell people I teach students how to be historians–a subtle difference that I believe underscores the core tenets of Innovation Lab.
A few years ago, all of the teachers at GHS read Drive by Daniel Pink. I came back to Pink’s ideas when participating in the design of Innovation Lab. He argues that instead of using typical incentive schemes–financial, or the academic equivalent, grades–motivation must come from “Autonomy, Mastery and Purpose.” As a teacher in Innovation Lab, I get to see this philosophy in practice on a daily basis. For National History Day, students had autonomy in choosing their topics and directing the design of their project. They worked toward mastery, both in terms of knowledge and in carrying out their ideas, whether they created a website, exhibit, performance or documentary. And most importantly, students found a sense of purpose. Instead of learning so they could take a test, they were learning so their topic could take its rightful place in history. And that’s an accomplishment you can’t grade.