I am firmly in the education reform camp.

That said, there are some things about the movement that concern me. One is the tendency to oversimplify complicated ideas into quick phrases or cute acronyms. The teacher preparation and retention program is an acronym – ADEPT. I have no idea what it stands for but it is showing that our teachers are “adept” at teaching! I am not immune – see QWIQR Flipped LearningQWIQR Co-Op Mode. One of the cute phrases, in support of Blended Learning styles I think, is be a Guide on the Side not a Sage on the Stage. The message is that students should direct their own learning and that teachers should not stand up front and lecture.

Again, I think this is an oversimplification.

The letter below was written to the selection committee of the Dr. Ron Ingle Teacher Award as part of the South Carolina National History Day Competition for 2018. I was honored to be nominated by my students for this award (Dr. Ron Ingle Award Description) and was humbled to be selected as the Senior Division winner for 2018. I was asked to write a letter to the selection committee to explain how I increased student engagement with the National History Day project.

As I wrote this letter I found my way into a Lord of the Rings analogy. Gandolf the Gray was literally a Sage and he was literally the Fellowship’s guide. In the ‘guide on the side’ quip I feel like it devalues the knowledge of the teacher. It feels like it supports the old ‘those who can’t teach’ nonsense that devalues the teacher and their professionalism.

Anyways, here is my letter:

To the Dr. Ron Ingle S.C. History Day Teachers’ Award Selection Committee:
In my current position as an 11th grade United States History teacher, a class with a required summative high stakes test, my students often expect to be subjected to a drill-and-kill test prep curriculum. Overcoming this unfortunate expectation and creating more meaningful and engaging experiences for my students is the driving force behind my classroom. This is especially important with my student population. As an AVID based school we deliberately limit our student body to only students from the “middle quartile”. The students that attend my high school are selected from middle school applicants that are non-gifted and talented but do not have severe disciplinary issues or academic concerns. A common trait among the student population is that they are capable but lack academic motivation. For this reason a key goal in my classroom is to increase engagement and empowerment using gamification and other game inspired designs. Over the last few years I have found that including these game mechanics in the preparation for National History Day enhances interest and passion in projects.

As a competition, National History Day already contains a number of game elements. Students can earn rewards in the form of medals, earn prestige by walking across the stage, and level up to the next level of competition by winning regionals and states. They also have an opportunity to collaborate and compete, master new skills and content, and have some autonomy in their choice of topic. In my practice I have sought ways to integrate the preparation and creation of NHD projects into a systematic game inspired approach.

A major internal motivator in gamification philosophy is the student’s ability to make meaningful choices. In some schools, limitations are placed on the type of project or topic students can research. In contrast, my approach is to enhance the amount of autonomy students have in their selecting category, organizing groups or working individually, and the choice of their topic. As the formal project is introduced I spend time individually conferencing with students in order understand their passion and help them connect it to the NHD annual theme. Ideally, in this process students find a personal connection to their research topic. By finding these connections students are engaged through two key gamification elements – Purpose and Autonomy.

When students feel that they have a meaningful choice in what they will research and the product their work will take they feel empowered; this is Autonomy. By finding a personal connection with the material they are a establishing a Purpose for their effort. The work is not some random collection of facts but rather a story that they are telling about themselves and their family; it becomes a matter of identity. For example, this year I had a group of Hispanic students that were lukewarm about this project but were very passionate about the DACA debate. I learned this in our pre-conferencing sessions and we discussed ways that this passion could be used to research the history that led to the modern debate. Finding the students’ passion and interests as they enter the NHD preparation phase is one of the highlights of my school year.

Conferencing and allowing autonomy are important goals in the build-up to National History Day but I have found that these components need to be placed within a larger framework of engagement and feedback loops. The initial preparations for NHD occur long before the projects are introduced. As part of my gamified philosophy I begin the school year with an “onboarding” phase that introduces the goals of the course and an overall fictional class narrative. This year our narrative was the “History Underground”. My students become fictional “Collectors” for an underground group of historians that are battling a totalitarian government in a dystopian future. As Collectors they locate and record information from the past and create public history projects to teach others what they have learned. The quote is likely apocryphal but as Khrushchev said, “Historians are dangerous people. They are capable of upsetting everything.” In the onboarding phase of the narrative students are taught the basics of history; differentiating primary and secondary sources, analyzing those sources and the authors, developing basic arguments and supports. They learn these skills within the context  of the gamified world but these are the tools needed to successfully complete a National History Day project. After a few weeks of learning the rules and physics of this fictional world the NHD project is introduced as their first major test in what can be described as their “Hero’s Journey”. In this perspective I am their version ofGandalf the Grey and they all a personal versions of Frodo Baggins.

As their guide and mentor I work closely with each student and group during the conference meetings to determine their strengths and weaknesses in order to provide structures and scaffolds to support their research and project creation. While these meetings are taking place students are examining past examples of successful NHD projects and completing related mini-challenges. In this way the students see how great their projects can be and can make informed choices about the product they will create. To stretch the Lord of the Rings metaphor, the students spend the next 3-4 weeks on their quest to reach Mount Doom; in this case a public history display of their NHD project at my school’s Family Night. This first version of their project is displayed for their friends and families to examine. Since we have spent a great deal of time finding a personalized topic many students are both excited and nervous to demonstrate their work. This is a non-competitive environment; there are no medals awarded and no places announced. Even without a formal competition the students have a clear sense of Purpose and Relatedness which drives their motivation. As I monitored the Family Night display and talked with our guests both the parents and students were elated to see the work. One father told me this was the first time he didn’t have to threaten his son to get a major project done. Another talked to me about how proud they were of their daughter’s project on the Black Panthers. Every year I see parents embracing their children’s interests in topics as far ranging as the Orangeburg Massacre to the LGBTQ related Stonewall Rights to the Tet Offensive. The non-competitive display of these meaningful choices and personal connections is a fantastic strategy to inspire passion in the students. It creates an authentic audience and a clear benchmark in a process of formal feedback loops.

The Family Night displays were important in the students’ journey but like all good quests this was just the first step in their road of trials. Before the actual regional competition students were able to revise their projects several more times based on a variety of feedback. The first step in feedback was the rapid feedback loop of the conferencing and designing. Then after the Family Night displays were submitted I used a rubric modeled on the NHD evaluation form to give specific project feedback to students. This rubric was borrowed from a participating teacher in another state and a version is now available on nhd.org. The rubric was effective because it allowed formal feedback while indicating that revisions were possible; that the grade did not indicate the end of the project. Students were able to take this formal written feedback and submit a 2nd version to improve their grade. This updated version again received feedback. After another month of revision the 3rd version of the projects were again displayed; this time in the school. For this version veteran NHD judges were asked to provide written feedback. Through this process the projects’ strengths and weaknesses were communicated to and addressed by the students in a continuous process of revision.

The strategies and practices described here deal specifically with inspiring and preparing students for the National History Day Project; however for these strategies to be successful they must be implemented within a larger framework. The other game mechanics and structures that are the foundation of my classroom benefit the NHD project indirectly by fostering a deeper engagement with the historic skills and related content. My use of XP Grading, class narrative, various puzzle games, voice and choice activities, and powercard items help foster an environment that is conducive to the risk taking, creativity, and critical thinking. All traits that are necessary to competing in NHD. Most importantly my gamified classroom moves me, the teacher, away from the front of the classroom as a whole group lecturer and to my new role as mentor and coach. I am no longer Sauron demanding the attention of the room and complete obedience but rather the wise mentor Gandalf helping to guide my Fellowship through their quest. In this new role I can develop relationships that can assist the students find their passions and in return they can see my passion for History and for them.

It is an honor to know that my students have nominated me for the Dr. Ron Ingle S.C. History Day Teachers’ Award. The National History Day program has helped transform my educational practice towards a more student centered learning model. That my students have recognized my passion for them and their history education is already a blessing and I am already looking forward to introducing the 2019 NHD project!


Adam Powley