About the Author

Michael Yell

Michael Yell is a 7th-grade history teacher at the Hudson Middle School in Hudson, WI. He holds National Board Certification in Early Adolescent Social Studies–History, and is a past president of the National Council for the Social Studies.

Michael Yell Uses National History Day for Classroom Differentiation

Photography, Sam and Me, received 28 Nov 2011
Tue 3 2012

[Differentiation] is a way of thinking about the classroom with the dual goals of honoring each student’s learning needs and maximizing each student’s learning capacity.

—Carol Ann Tomlinson, Caroline Cunningham Eidson (1)

As classroom teachers we know that our students in any one classroom can have many different needs. Although the acronyms change from state to state, we deal with average students, bright students, emotionally-behaviorally disturbed students, those with learning disabilities, with Asperger's syndrome, as well as students who are “off the charts” gifted.

A danger often discussed in terms of the gifted is the potential that they might lose their motivation if they go continually unchallenged.

To help us with the education of most students with special needs we have specialists and educational aides. This is also the case with our gifted children, yet the needs of these students at times are often not met in the regular classroom. Although there are many definitions, gifted children learn easily and are often well ahead of their peers in their ability to learn. A danger often discussed in terms of the gifted is the potential that they might lose their motivation if they go continually unchallenged.

There are a number of ways in which we can differentiate our instruction, and, for the past dozen or so years, I have offered a differentiation for my gifted and high-achieving history students that includes the content, the process of learning, and the product that they create. Both my high-achieving and gifted students and their parents enjoy this differentiation immensely—it is participation in National History Day competition.

National History Day is an academic program that hundreds of thousands of students participate in from coast to coast. With the help of their teachers, students choose historical topics that interest them. Each topic must be related to the NHD theme for the year which, for the 2011-12 school year is Revolution, Reaction, Reform in History (2). Students research their topic using primary as well as secondary sources, analyze and interpret, and form a hypothesis about their topic’s significance to the theme, and present their work in a research paper, documentary, website, exhibit, or an original performance (students can work in groups for every project except the research paper). I have taken kids to the regional competition, many to the state History Day, and I have had three students (and their families) go on to the culminating National History Day event at the University of Maryland.

I provide an opportunity to become involved in National History Day to all of my students, as well as those I do not teach, via my History Club.

In my experience, the National History Day process and competition are an ideal instructional differentiation for the high-achieving and gifted students in my history classes. However, I do not limit it to those who have been identified as gifted and talented by our district program; as I have said, I give this opportunity to my high-achieving students as a differentiation, as well. Finally, I provide an opportunity to become involved in National History Day to all of my students, as well as those I do not teach, via my History Club.

In using National History Day for my differentiation, I found that there are several important things to keep in mind:

  • Substitution: Make differentiation for high-achieving students instead of, not on top of... In other words, just giving these students more work to do is not how I handle differentiation. If the goal is to challenge the students and keep them motivated, just piling on more work will not accomplish that goal. Rather, the work should replace to a great extent the work that they have to do in class. My students who choose to participate in the National History Day differentiation keep up with the ideas and subjects in class via readings and discussions with me, but they do not have to do the day-to-day work that is required of other students. Instead, they work in the library, the gifted resource room, and at times even at the local university.
  • Universal Availability: Make National History Day available to all students. While I only offer it as an instruction differentiation to my highest achieving students (many of whom are identified by the gifted program), I do offer the opportunity to get involved in the program to all my students, as well as to all students in the school. In the middle school in which I teach we have many afterschool clubs for students. I offer a History Club which also involves the students in History Day. My students who choose to get involved in History Club may do their National History Day project for extra credit, and I talk to the teachers of other students who want to be involved in the club about using it for differentiation or extra credit.
  • Presentation: Clearly present what National History Day is to the students for which you plan the differentiation. My students are invited up during lunch and I make a presentation to them. I also have a letter that is sent home to the parents of those students.
  • Selecting Students: Finally remember, the challenge of National History Day as a differentiation for students is the challenge of independent learning. I will be there every step of the way to help them, but ultimately it is up to them to research and create their project. When choosing the students you wish to offer the differentiation to, make certain they are up to the challenge of working independently.

This year for the first time, our middle school will offer National History Day to students that I do not teach. I and the gifted resource teacher will be talking with gifted students in the other houses and grades as well as mine. I am glad to help facilitate this, as I firmly believe that participation in National History Day is an invaluable differentiation for my students. In March, we will take school vans and bring all our competing students (as well as a number of parents) to spend the day at a nearby university to compete in the regional National History Day. Some may go onto state, some even the nationals in Maryland. But regardless of how far they go in the competition, it will be an incredible growth experience for them.

For more information

What do other Teachinghistory.org teacher-writers have to say about National History Day? Eighth-grade teacher Amy Trenkle says in her blog entry, "The website and documentary categories are particularly wonderful for integrating social studies content and using technology to display the students’ hard work and knowledge."

In Ask a Master Teacher, former high school teacher Jack Schneider helps a teacher align National History Day projects with state standards.