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EdNet Learning Lab: National History Day Competition and Washington DC Trip

It was not long after we got onto the bus last year after our first spring trip to DC and Gettysburg with our 8th graders that we began planning for the trip’s 2017 version. What was not discussed at that point was the likelihood that I’d end up at the National Conference for National History Day the week after. In fact, I hardly knew about NHD at that point. 

Some time over the summer I came across National History Day, researching what it was and what it entailed. We have an “extensions” course at our school that allows us to teach another class that branches out from our disciplines but helps to refine the skills that would help students in any class. National History Day seemed to fit that mold more than most other possibilities so we ran with it. Simultaneously, the opening stages of the spring trip began with surveys sent out to parents and kids gauging interest, a proposal to the School Committee for approval, and an overwhelmingly large amount of emails and requests for funding that would support our students at Hanscom MS. 

Our school sits on Hanscom Air Force Base, serving only students who live at the base, meaning their parents are either actively serving in one of the branches or are retired from one. Despite the national adoration of soldiers in recent years, their paychecks vary greatly, so having financial aid support is more of a must than a hope in our school for larger excursions like this. Being a small school, our per student costs typically are also higher, so that financial support is not always for individual aid as much as group aid to reduce the overall cost. Between a DonorsChoose fundraiser, a parent-led fundraiser at school, and several requests to supportive organizations, we raised about $10,000 for a trip that would cost us as a group close to $40,000. This was about the beginning of November and I was already wearing down. 

One other challenge to our school is that our kids are by nature transient. The military puts their parents where they are needed, not necessarily when it’s most convenient. So despite being the second year in a row doing this, the carryover effect isn’t as strong at our school because about half the kids who went last year don’t even live on our base anymore. In fact, one of the hardest moments last year was pulling into the school’s lot about 11:30 at night and seeing one of our kids break down in tears as the bus stopped. It was her last day at Hanscom. She had to move the next day. We have lots of those moments at our school and in the culture we teach in. As such, we had to convince a whole new set of families not only that this trip would be great for their kids, but that we would also be able to help them get the price down enough to be more affordable. With all that effort, we met our minimum-required number of travelers on our very last day to do it. So the trip was on!

National History Day was picking up steam in school. After about a month or so into the project competition the kids started to realize it wasn’t as far off as they thought (or at this point potentially hoped).. Dedication varied. Some students realised they needed new partners; others worked tirelessly to perfect their project; while others missed school to meet with the local historical society. It was getting real.

In late January my co-teacher and I hosted our school’s first ever competition, and I made sure to let everyone know. Other staff were invited to serve as judges; district administrators were invited to come to our breakout space and the classrooms where we hosted documentaries. Parents, too, took time off from work to come see our small class of thirty-four 8th grade students put on two group performances, produce two documentaries, write one historical paper, and create six exhibits. Some turned out great, some were okay, some not so great, but in the end every student walked out of that competition with the satisfaction of having completed the project, receiving clear feedback that would help them on any class assignment, social studies or not. Three would move on to the district competition taking place that next month. 

During this time, the spring trip also picked up momentum. While two students moved out of HAFB, three more moved in and all wanted to go. We blew past our minimum number of travelers and now were scheduled to take nearly our entire class of now thirty-seven students. We sought out some bonuses to our itinerary: Pentagon tour and tour of the White House. And we reached out to Congressman Moulton, veteran of the Marine Corps, about meeting us while in DC. All that seemed left was to actually go on the trip.  

Our district competition for NHD was somewhat uneventful for two of our three groups as the top three would move on and their categories only had three entries. They were moving on. The exhibit group, by contrast, walked into the exhibit area and realized quickly that the level of effort that they thought was going to win just wasn’t going to compete at this level. Lesson learned. But they interviewed well and came away with some great feedback that paid dividends in other class projects. At States, our remaining two came away with even more recognition than we could have hoped for. Despite not advancing to the national competition, our historical paper entry received honorable mention, and our group documentary was recognized for a local history award. And even I was fortunate to walk away with a “new teacher to NHD” award that came with the trip to the national conference.

    Before I knew it, June was here, and we were off. For many of our kids, this would be their first trip away from their parents and in a few cases their first “sleepover” of any sort. So naturally we had some reservations about that potentially could play out that far away from our school. But the trip turned out to be everything we could have asked for.

    We arrived in DC on Monday afternoon and did not stop moving until Thursday afternoon. Our kids got to see portions of the Berlin Wall at the Newseum, meet a sitting Congressman (Congressman Seth Moulton), and take in a portion of the Air Force Band’s opening concert on the Capitol steps. We took solemn steps past the Vietnam Memorial next to which stood a veteran who took time to teach us about a few of the names on the wall and the service they gave. One of our students had an uncle whose name sat on that wall. Needless to say, these were powerful emotional moments that we can’t replicate in our classroom alone. During our tour at Gettysburg, our guide got us up and out of the bus and walking through the path the Confederates had taken up to the Little Round Top and back toward Devil’s Den. And that’s why we did this trip; we want to offer our kids the opportunity to experience the learning they’ve read about.

The time had come for me to part ways with my students. Because I was going to NHD the following week, I was going to miss their recognition breakfast and graduation. For some who would PCS (permanent change of station) before I returned, I likely wouldn’t see them again. We said our goodbyes, but before I walked off the bus to the car rental agency, one student whom I taught for two years and had cheered on at NHD districts and states, stood up and thanked me for all that I did for her and told me that she thinks I’m a great teacher. All the time and effort that went into the trip and NHD paid off in that singular moment. And with the energy from that moment, I headed off to College Park, MD.

At NHD’s National Conference (courtesy of the MA History Day organization), I took in all that I could. I signed up for the full-day workshops they offer the first two days, centering on what resources can be used in preparing for NHD as well as how to improve my own practice in executing it with my kids. I’ve reached out to organizations that might be helpful, and I’ve started planning out how this will play out in my school next year given the new topic and my better understanding of the deadlines. Best of all, I’m networking with teachers not only in my state of Massachusetts but across the country. I roomed with the local high school teacher near my base who will end up teaching my outgoing 8th graders. I connected with fellow iCivics Educator Network member Nate McCallister of Kansas, who seems to always have students here due to their hard work and his great support. This experience was for me what I think last week’s trip to DC and Gettysburg was for my students--an enriching social learning experience that keeps me excited to connect with others and improve my craft.

 

Jay Peledge is a grade 7 and 8 teacher at Hanscom Middle School on Hanscom Air Force Base, MA. He serves as an NHD teacher there, but also a liaison to the Bentley University mentoring programs and a team leader for the upcoming school year. A veteran teacher of seventeen years, he has worked in small and large districts, charter and traditional public schools, and taught at some point students in grades 4-12. He holds a MAT in history and a MA English, both from Salem State University. He is married to his wife Lynne and is the father of two sons. In free time he coaches his sons’ youth hockey and baseball teams and walks his two year old German Shepherd.

 

 

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