Today I was a judge of papers for The Chicago Metro History Fair at the Newberry Library here in Chicago. The annual competition is in its thirty-first year. Driven and supported by their teachers, approximately 20, 000 Chicagoland private and public school students compete. The goal is to help students learn history by doing history. The focus of the competition is local history. Students are allowed to choose a theme and develop their own thesis. There is a national theme, and to be eligible to move to national competition, student must write to the theme, but it is not required. The 2008 national theme is “Conflict and Compromise.” The national winner will be chosen on National History Day in June in College Park, Maryland.
In the judges’ orientation we learn the four criteria on which to base judgement of historical research:
1. knowledge – strong thesis, depth of factual information, understanding of context, facts well organized to support theme
2. analysis – thesis is tightly focused, evidence analyzed to support argument, connection to topic of greater historical context
3. sources – blend of secondary and primary resources. Responsible internet use. Use of varied reference modalities.
4. presentation – well organized, compelling, best use of sources, high attention to detail, makes history relevant & alive
And we’re also taught a format for our comments: the sandwich theory. Piece of bread #1 is a positive comment. Meat of the sandwich is a positively-worded suggestion to improve the paper, and piece of bread #2 is a closing positive comment. So an example would be:
“Strong, well researched paper on the assassination of President James Garfield. You did a very creative job of recreating the scene on the train platform in 1881. Consider exploring the role of unwashed physician hands in his death. I enjoyed reading your paper and congratulations on a well written analysis, Jimmy.”
This explains many comments written on my papers throughout the years.
I signed up to do the judging for mostly selfish reasons. I was about to take my first history class as an adult and I figured that I’d learn exactly what I just described – how to research, organize and write a good historical paper. I had no clue. I am part of what Margaret Truman Daniel described as the “social studies generation.” We didn’t learn history. Maybe someone tried to teach it, but I certainly didn’t learn anything. At 39 I realized I couldn’t have said for certain whether or not Benjamin Franklin had been President. The one teacher who was supposed to teach me history in grade school, Mrs. Moy, spent most of the class telling us to read quietly to ourselves while she left the room to smoke (at least we assumed she was smoking. It wasn’t until I was an adult that I realized how bad this was. As a kid, that was just how it was.) In high school I don’t know how I got by. I don’t remember a day of history class, but I do believe I took one.
I’m amazed (and thrilled) that sixth, seventh and eighth graders are learning the difference between a primary and a secondary source. I just learned that a few months ago. And the internet is making research better and worse. Important facts I learned on this topic are:
.com & .net & Wikipedia = bad
.org, .gov, .edu= good