A teacher's perspective

Feature story: A former social studies teacher shares how Alabama History Day changed the way she looked at her students — and at the world around her.

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How Alabama History Day has transformed my students — and me 

This article appears in the Summer 2021 issue of Mosaic, the magazine of the Alabama Humanities Alliance.  



By Dawn Q. Horn

When we decided to bring Alabama History Day to Holy Spirit Catholic School in 2019, we decided to require all students in grades 7-12 to participate. For the first year, we focused on one goal: helping students choose a research topic that genuinely intrigued them. We wanted all students, even those who said they didn’t like history, to enjoy learning something new.

One week before Holy Spirit’s first History Day competition, I remember talking with a student about her project. She had decided to focus on the Donner Party but couldn’t link it to the contest theme of breaking barriers in history. It was clear she had only done cursory research, so I asked her if she was truly interested in the topic. She said “no.”

We spent about an hour talking about her interests and how those things could relate to the History Day theme. Eventually, we settled on manga, Japanese comic books and graphic novels. She was really interested in one particular manga artist. I told her changing her topic with just a week left would be difficult. But she was so excited about her new topic she said she would get it done. She ended up taking third place in her category that year. Well before this year’s competition, I asked her if she’d started considering what she’d do. She already had an idea: grunge music and fashion. Not only that, she decided to step out of her creative comfort zone — instead of setting up an exhibit, she was going to make a website.

That’s what I love about History Day. Not only does it allow students to delve into subjects of personal interest, but it allows them to take something they are passionate about and see it from a different perspective. History Day encourages students to ask the big question: “Why?” Why do people care about a certain topic? Why did it make a difference?

History Day also guides students through the process of research and argumentation. It shows students how history affects the present and influences the future. History Day also reinforces skills students need to be college- or career-ready, such as time management, written and verbal communication skills, and the ability to work with others.

I left Holy Spirit at the end of March 2021 for a new position. I agreed to continue to serve as the faculty sponsor for students who qualified for Alabama History Day and National History Day. Part of the reason was because I felt I owed it to the students who had worked so hard on their projects, but I also stayed on because History Day didn’t just change the students — it changed me, too. It changed the way I looked at my students. It changed the way I looked at content I had taught for almost eight years. And, most importantly, History Day changed the way I looked at the world around me.

Dawn Horn taught at Holy Spirit Catholic School in Tuscaloosa for eight years, where she served as the school’s Social Studies Department chair and taught U.S. History, AP U.S. History, and technology courses. Her favorite history topics include World War II, the Vietnam conflict, and the 1980s. She’s now a program manager of teacher development and curriculum management for ACCESS at the University of Alabama.

Alabama History Day

Alabama History Day is the state affiliate contest of National History Day, a history competition that engages students (grades 6-12) in robust and creative historical research.

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