I spent my day yesterday at Saint Cloud State University with several hundred middle and high school students and a hearty crew of adults.
I was one of those hearty adults, a History Day judge. It’s a good way to spend a day.
Minnesota is a part of a larger organization, called National History Day, that’s been around since 1974. More than 600,000 kids each year take part in this event competing locally, regionally, and for some, at state and national events. They’ve worked for weeks or even months to prepare for the contests creating websites and displays, writing papers, and developing presentations and skits. Each year the kids get a theme. This year was about tragedy and triumph. They take the theme and individually or as groups use it to explore a topic in history of their choice.
It’s neat to see how it makes history come alive for these kids when they get to choose what they want to study and they get to lead the research and figure out for themselves how they’re going to learn. It’s a little disarming to find how events in my own lifetime are now finding their way to History Day. Walking through the exhibit hall was actually a chance to see quite a few events I could remember– the Iran Hostage Crisis, the Jacob Wetterling story, and the OJ Simpson case, along with many that were really interesting and outside the realm of most classrooms. These kids are exploring things like the Radium Girls, the Stonewall Riot, escapes from Alcatraz. Their eyes are opening.
I got to judge junior group websites this year. These are middle school aged teams of two or three kids who are designing Weebly sites on a specific topic. It was pretty cool. The “penicillin girls,” as my fellow coach and I called them, brought us bacteria and mold they’d collected to complement their website work. The “hockey boys” had gotten an interview with on of the US players from the 1980 Olympic Hockey team. This is a really cool way to touch history.
How great it is when we let our kids lead the way and simply act as the supportive guides that we are meant to be. We are born with a natural inclination to explore, discover, and learn. It’s why we reach out for toys, crawl, and eventually run. It’s our nature to learn. We do it with many of the same tools we did when we were babies. We reach. We test. We try different methods. That’s what these kids were doing by nature with the help of teachers, parents, and others who just gently nudged when needed.
I love it when kids get to do things like that whether it’s History Day, playing outside and learning about science by licking slugs (yes, at least some types of slugs will make your tongue go numb. Try it.) or getting on stage with the play they’ve been working on or the new piece of music they’re playing because they want to make music or act.
Do what you can to support a kid learning through experience. You won’t regret it. In fact, you may learn quite a bit through the experience too. I know that I do!