History Lessons Beyond the Classroom

By Susan Nolan

An interested student is a passionate researcher. Devin Page, a social studies teacher at Northern Middle School in Owings, knows this. He has been preparing students to compete in National History Day for 19 years.

National History Day, a Maryland-based educational non-profit, is in the business of cultivating a passion for research. Annually, middle and high school students compete at the local level to win the chance to advance to state and national competitions. Building on a provided theme, students turn their research into films, websites, academic papers, exhibits or performances. Only two projects per category are chosen to advance to the national level.

The students choose the topics they work on. “The National History Day competition is not tethered to our curriculum,” says Page. “Students choose a topic based on their own personal interests and that interest compels them to dig deep into research.” 

Page introduces his students to National History Day in the fall, but the projects aren’t due until late January or early February. “For a middle school student, this is a long-term research project so it’s important that they choose a topic that genuinely interests them,” he says.

Mike Yuscavage agrees the freedom students have in choosing a topic is essential to their success. He teaches history and sponsors the National History Day Club at Arundel High School in Gambrills. 

“I start each year by telling kids to write a list of ten topics they’d like to research,” he says. “I tell them that it can be anything. Then, I whittle the list down to the topics that might—even loosely-—fit the annual theme. We’ve had some unique topics go to the state competition.” In the past, his students have presented projects on pop-icon Michael Jackson and the innovations found in the TV series Star Trek. 

Yuscavage says students have to “step up their game” for National History Day. “To participate on the state or national level, their research must go far beyond Google. They need to conduct interviews and dig deep into primary sources. They need to do college-level work.”

This year’s theme was Debate & Diplomacy in History: Successes, Failures, Consequences. The state competition was held on April 30 at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and produced by Maryland Humanities. With nearly 500 students presenting their in-depth research, topics ranged from the Cuban missile crisis to the partition of India to the origins of the European Union. 

Students are not the only ones recognized for their hard work. Yuscavage and Page were honored as the Maryland History Day Statewide High School and Middle School Teacher of the Year, respectively. 

“It’s a tremendous honor,” Page says. “Knowing how many teachers there are in the state of Maryland and how many phenomenal teachers are at Calvert County Public Schools that I respect and highly admire…knowing the arc that Maryland History Day has taken over my own career, I am truly humbled.”

“For any teacher, it’s really humbling to think that someone out there is recognizing our work,” Yuscavage says. “I’m really appreciative that I was selected.”

The national competition will be held virtually June 12 through 18 with over 3,000 students participating from all 50 states, U.S. territories and International American schools abroad.   

Local winners advancing to the national competition are Addison Johns and Chloe Myers of Annapolis High School and Lucy Loughlin and Addie Twomey of Central Middle School in Anne Arundel County, and Seth Hilton and Will Walton of Huntingtown High School in Calvert County. 

Local special prize winners are: (Anne Arundel County) Aleah Dinmore of Arundel High School, and Jonah Kadlec of St. Martin’s-in-the-Field Episcopal School; (Calvert County) Zara Ahmad and Samuel Richardson of Northern Middle School, Danica Mehl of Mill Creek Middle School, and Carlo Riano of Plum Point Middle School.

Learn more: MarylandHistoryDay.org or nhd.org.