Teacher's Guide

Preparing for National History Day

National History Day and National Endowment for the Humanities Scholar Medals.
Photo caption

National History Day and National Endowment for the Humanities Scholar Medals.

"In history, a great volume is unrolled for our instruction, drawing the materials of future wisdom from the past errors and infirmities of mankind." 

— Edmund Burke 

National History Day makes history come alive for students by engaging them in the discovery of the historic, cultural, and social experiences of the past. Our collection of resources are designed to assist students and teachers as they prepare their NHD projects and highlights the long partnership that has existed between the National Endowment for the Humanities and National History Day. Resources for this year's theme "Breaking Barriers" and previous years are available. 

Guiding Questions

Who has broken barriers in history?

What qualifies an event as a turning point in history?

What have debate and diplomacy produced in history?

How have conflicts been transformed into compromises across history?

To what extent have those who have taken a stand inspired change?

What factors contributed to the event or action you are investigating?

The NEH and NHD: Partners for History

National History Day began at Case Western University in Cleveland, Ohio in 1974 and the National Endowment for the Humanities has funded and partnered with National History Day since 1978. Each year, the NEH awards special prizes and top projects are recognized with a NEH/NHD Scholar medal. 

The Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers Prize is awarded in both the Junior and Senior divisions to an outstanding entry in any category that utilizes the newspaper resources that are available on the Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. EDSITEment offers research ideas and a feature on special collections included in Chronicling America at our Chronicling and Picturing America Teacher's Guide.



The National Endowment for the Humanities produced "In the Field" series included an episode on National History Day to tell the story of how NHD began, and give students space to share why they enjoy the NHD competition and what they take away from participating. 

EDSITEment has also partnered with the Smithsonian Learning Lab to create collections of resources and questions to assist students with the relevant NHD themes and development of research skills. You will find collections from the past few years through the drop down menus below and at the Learning Lab Collections created for NHD.

For its outstanding work over the years and across the country, the National History Day organization received the National Humanities Medal in 2011.

Chronicling America and National History Day

Each year at the National History Day competition the National Endowment for the Humanities awards the Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers Prize in both the Junior and Senior divisions to an outstanding entry in any category that utilizes the newspaper resources that are available at the Chronicling America database.

You may already know about Chronicling Americathe long standing partnership between the Library of Congress and the National Endowment for the Humanities, which provides free access to millions of digitalized pages of America’s Historic Newspapers. Users can search and view newspaper pages from 1690-1963 and find information about American newspapers published between 1690–present using the National Digital Newspaper Program. 


The above video provides tips on how to navigate and extract excerpts from the Chronicling America digital newspaper database. EDSITEment offers research ideas and a feature on using special collections included within Chronicling America at our Chronicling and Picturing America Teacher's Guide.

Curating Content for the Classroom: The Problem of Bias

Reading old newspapers opens a window into a world that hold a multiplicity of values, many of which are sharply different from ours. The unfiltered news and commentary of yesterday holds wonders but also requires a teacher’s sharp editorial guidance to be most effective. The existence of racial or gender bias in articles or advertisements that would have raised no concern back in the day, may make modern students or their parents uncomfortable. Be prepared to encounter such moments and to use them to help students understand their own beliefs and values, as well as to learn how complex an encounter with real history is. To assist you in this process, we have linked to a short guide to teaching sensitive material.

Moreover, most historic papers were affiliated with a particular political party and consequently have a strongly partisan editorial policy, in the literal sense. Happily through the tools available, students can easily learn about—and from—the distinctive perspectives of these newspapers. Chronicling America makes it relatively easy to discover the history and political profile of the paper under examination by way of the “about” section that accompanies almost every newspaper title.

For example, the “about” section of The Toiler  gives a fascinating “biography” of the “Official Organ of the Communist Labor Party of Ohio.” Though short lived, it was merged with another title to form what became known as the Daily Worker, the Communist Party of America’s national paper. For an introduction to the partisanship of 19th- and early 20th-century newspapers and an interesting argument about the positive side of this partisanship, see the article "The Rise and Fall of Partisan Journalism."

Teaching with Ethnic Newspapers

Ethnic newspapers are an especially exciting and revelatory part of Chronicling America, most especially as we begin the centennial of the Great War. IrishLatin American, and Jewish newspapers have now been joined by eighteen German language newspapers. There are also seven Native American newspapers: three from tribes in Minnesota and four from Oklahoma.

Most impressively, there are now forty-three African American newspapers from sixteen states and the District of Columbia. South Carolina alone is represented by ten papers!! These papers allow us to trace the daily lives and opinions of black people from the days of Emancipation and Reconstruction through the establishment of Jim Crow, World War I, and the Great Migration

A feature essay on using these newspaper collections and what the perspectives they bring to U.S. history provide is available at our Chronicling and Picturing America Teacher's Guide. Or, you can go directly to Chronicling America and use the “All Digitalized Newspapers” tab in the search menu.

The “Golden Age” of Newspapers

The greatest concentration of Chronicling America material currently available online runs from 1900–1922, offering an unrivaled view of the heyday of what Doris Kearns Goodwin has called the “golden age of journalism.” Here one can immerse oneself in the Populist and Progressive Eras, the leadership of Presidents Teddy Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson, and the return to “normalcy” under President Warren Harding. On the world stage, this is the period of the Great War, the Russian Revolution, and the worldwide influenza pandemic—all of which are covered in great and fascinating detail in these pages.

The date range and states included in Chronicling America’s newspapers collection are constantly expanding. You can begin to explore the riches of this database by simply searching Chronicling America by keyword or by using the suggested list of topics arranged by subject, decade or large theme.

Teaching and Researching with Chronicling America

EDSITEment provides a robust collection of resources and lessons that incorporate Chronicling America. Teachers and students will find these materials helpful in navigating the database, creating research questions on a given NHD theme or project topic, and incorporating historic newspapers into classroom discussions and projects. 

Chronicling and Mapping the Women's Suffrage Movement—This lesson brings together digital mapping and the Chronicling America newspaper database as part of an inquiry into how and where the women’s suffrage movement took place in the United States.

Thomas Edison's Inventions in the 1900s and Today: From "New" to You!—Students can trace the history of Thomas Edison's inventions through EDSITEment's lesson plan and this fascinating article on the history of the incandescent bulb from Chronicling America.

The Industrial Age in America: Sweatshops, Steel Mills, and Factories—Technological innovation isn't always entirely beneficial. Read Upton Sinclair's first hand account of the abuse that accompanied the industrial revolution while engaging in this lesson on the era of industrialization in the U.S.

Chronicling America: Uncovering a World at War—This lesson gives students the opportunity to interact with historical newspapers from the WWI era available through Chronicling America and engage in dialogue as they decide: Should the Unites States remain neutral or join the fight?

NHD Advice from the Experts

The National Endowment for the Humanities and National History Day collaborated to produce videos featuring NEH grant recipients for the benefit of students and teachers as they prepare their projects. The first set of videos focus on the skills related to writing, researching, and editing that are applicable to all project types. The second set of videos address each of the categories students can compete under for National History Day.

NEH Project Skills

Margaret HughesHistoric Hudson Valley's Associate Director for Education, offers guidance on crafting an argument, and strategies for how to successfully incorporate that argument into a National History Day project. Margaret has been a judge for the Lower Hudson National History Day regional competition for five years.

Leslie Hayes, the New-York Historical Society's Director of Education, offers valuable advice and questions students should ask in the process of validating primary and secondary sources for use in National History Day projects. Leslie is an NEH grant recipient and will be co-leading a summer 2020 seminar for K-12 educators entitled, American Women, American Citizens: 1920-1948.

Dana WilliamsHoward University's English Department Chair and professor of African American literature, shares her experiential insight and guidance for success in the writing and editing process for National History Day projects. Dr. Williams has received five NEH grants, and is currently completing a book-length study on Toni Morrison's editorship, which will be published by Amistad, a division of Harper Collins, in 2021.

NEH Project Categories

These five videos, one for each project category, feature experts in the fields of documentaries, exhibits, papers, performances, and websites. They are hosted by National History Day Director of Programs, Lynne O'Hara, as well as one of our affiliate coordinators. Watch them here or view them on our SchoolTube. The SchoolTube link for each individual video is also at the NHD link.





2020: Breaking Barriers

The 2020 theme "Breaking Barriers in History" offers students opportunities to explore how individuals and groups have overcome obstacles on their way to changing history. The NHD theme narrative provides questions and examples for students to consider as they design their research projects. For instance, who was responsible for constructing a barrier? How and why did barriers form? Are the barriers natural or human made? Were the barriers reduced, restructured, or removed? Are all barriers negative?

The National History Day theme webinar for "Breaking Barriers in History" is a great starting point for any topic and project.


You can also view acclaimed documentary filmmaker Ken Burns curate a Breaking Barriers playlist for ideas and inspiration.

EDSITEment Learning Lab Collections:

Breaking Barriers: Innovation and Industry

Breaking Barriers: Women's Suffrage

Breaking Barriers: United Farm Workers

Breaking Barriers: Race, Gender, and the U.S. Military

Breaking Barriers: The Reconstruction Era

EDSITEment resources for "Breaking Barriers"

2019: Triumph and Tragedy

The 2019 theme of "Triumph and Tragedy in History" offers students opportunities to explore multiple sides of an event or issue to consider the short and long term ramifications in history. Was triumph a positive development for few, some, or many? Did people or places recover from the tragedy? Did a tragedy inspire triumphant actions and/or results in another time and place? 

EDSITEment resources for "Triumph and Tragedy"

2018: Conflict and Compromise

For National History Day students, the 2017/2018 academic year will be filled with research related to the theme of "Conflict and Compromise in History." This expansive theme allows students to choose from a generous range of topics, whether from the ancient world or the history of their own city. Students need to begin research with some reliable secondary sources in order to gain a broader context before progressing to the appropriate primary sources.  They will need to ask a series of questions about their chosen topic: What happened? How did it happen? Why did it happen? What were the consequences?

EDSITEment resources "Conflict and Compromise"

Learning Lab Collections

EDSITEment Lesson Plans

2017: Taking a Stand

For National History Day students, the 2016/2017 academic year will be filled with research related to the theme "Taking a Stand in History." This expansive theme allows participants to choose from a generous range of topics, whether from the ancient world or the history of their own city. Students will all need to begin research with secondary sources, however, in order to gain a broader context before progressing to the appropriate primary sources. Their final argument will be constructed on this foundation and should address the effects that their research has uncovered on their chosen topic.

2017 NHD Documentary, 1st Place Senior Individual: Warsaw Ghetto Uprising


EDSITEment resources for "Taking a Stand in History"

2016: Exploration, Encounter, Exchange

The theme of National History Day 2016 "Exploration, Encounter, Exchange in History" is broad enough in scope to encourage investigation of topics ranging from local to world history and across any geographic area or time period. Consider this theme an invitation to look across time, space, and geography to find examples in history of when people took a risk and made a change.

EDSITEment resources for "Exploration, Encounter, Exchange" 

2015: Leadership and Legacy

This year’s theme Leadership and Legacy in History” offers a remarkable array of suggested topics for research projects.  Students may consider the following questions when investigating history and designing their projects: How should a leader be remembered? Who writes the history of leadership? How do we evaluate the short and long term influences of people and events? 

EDSITEment resources for "Leadership and Legacy" 

  • Simon Bolivar and Gran Columbia: Leading the Fight for Independence from Spain
2014: Rights and Responsibilities

The 2013-2014 National History Day theme is “Rights and Responsibilities in History.” Under this broad topic, students have opportunities to explore a variety of topics as they prepare their respective projects. A few research questions to assist with inquiry include: Are all rights equally protected? Are the rights of all people equally protected? What responsibilities do people have to uphold their rights? When and why have rights been restricted and expanded in history? What role does geography play in the expansion and protection of rights?

EDSITEment resources for "Rights and Responsibilities"