National History Day: A Partnership Between the David & Lorraine Cheng Library and the Paterson Public Schools – A Tale of Three High Schools

National History Day: A Partnership between the David and Lorraine Cheng Library and the Paterson Public Schools—A Tale of Three High Schools

Neil Grimes and Vincent Giardina


National History Day (NHD) is an academic competition for middle school and high school students that is based on a different theme annually, for which students find, evaluate, and use primary and secondary sources to create and present documentaries, plays, papers, websites, and exhibits. Participation in the NHD competition is a unique opportunity to engage students in hands-on learning experiences about many different aspects of history and enables them to engage in research activities.  It allows for partnerships with academic libraries, local libraries, historical societies, and archival repositories. These organizations assist students with their NHD research.  The NHD competition provides the opportunity to foster information literacy and critical thinking skills among students while also developing skills in historical research. 

A partnership to support students’ NHD projects was established in 2020 between the Paterson Public Schools and the David and Lorraine Cheng Library at William Paterson University. The university is a Hispanic-serving Institution as designated by the U.S. Department of Education whose vision, mission, and values align to support the academic library outreach provided by the Cheng Library to support the faculty and students of the Paterson Public Schools, the 4th largest school system in New Jersey. The goal of this partnership was for the Paterson social studies teachers and students to have academic library support in the form of library instruction sessions from the David and Lorraine Cheng Library as well as access to primary and secondary resources, and project-based learning resources that would support the completion of student NHD projects. 


National History Day participation by higher education librarians, collaborating with their K‐12 counterparts, can be a powerful means for secondary students to learn historical content knowledge, historical analysis skills, and information literacy skills.  The partnership between the David and Lorraine Cheng Library and the Paterson Public Schools began during the 2019-2020 school year.  It allowed for collaboration between librarians from the Cheng Library and social studies teachers in the Paterson Public Schools, one of the largest and most diverse schools systems in New Jersey. 

Background on Paterson Public Schools 

The Paterson Public Schools, an urban school system, is the 4th largest school system in the state of New Jersey (Niche 2020). There are more than 40 languages spoken in its classrooms which makes the Paterson Public Schools is among the most diverse in the state. Close to 57 percent of all students in Paterson speak a primary language other than English” (Paterson Public Schools, District Profile 2020). The rich cultural and linguistic diversity in the district is an educational asset (Delpit, 2006; Nieto, 1992). It enables students to learn firsthand about other cultures and develop an appreciation for cultural similarities and differences as they prepare for success in a multicultural world.

New Jersey public schools are categorized based on District Factor Groupings (DFGs), a single measure of socioeconomic status (SES) for each district based on the percent of adult residents who failed to complete high school, along with income, unemployment, and the percentage of residents below the poverty level. From the lowest SES to the highest, the categories are A, B, CD, DE, FG, GH, I, and J. The Paterson Public School falls within the lowest SES category of eight groupings, grouping A (State of New Jersey – Department of Education 2019).  

Paterson Public Schools are home to 23,756 students, of which all students are eligible to receive free and reduced lunch and roughly 89% of students are minorities (16,760 students from Latino and Hispanic households, 5,209 Black students, 1,252 White students, and 1,448 Asian students). There are 5,814 students that are classified as having Limited English Proficiency, with Spanish, Arabic, and Bengali being the home languages most frequently spoken (Paterson Public Schools 2020).

Background on David and Lorraine Cheng Library 

“The David and Lorraine Cheng Library is the academic knowledge center of William Paterson University. The Library advances the University’s mission and core values of academic excellence, creation of knowledge, student success, diversity and citizenship” (William Paterson University – David and Lorraine Cheng Library – Mission, Vision, & Goals 2020). The Library serves more than 10,000 students who are enrolled in undergraduate and graduate degree programs. (William Paterson University, 2020). Academic libraries should engage in library outreach to increase their involvement in the implementation of collaborations and the establishment of partnerships in the greater region in which it serves (Salamon, 2016). Library outreach can take many forms in the region that an academic library serves. A partnership with the Paterson Public Schools in support of the teachers and students involved in the National History Day competition fulfills the university and library’s mission of providing community service to K-12 schools in the northern New Jersey region. This library partnership with Paterson Public Schools adds to the established relationship that was already in place between the College of Education and Paterson Public Schools. 

Historical Context of the National History Day Competition 

In 1974, History Day was established by David Van Tassel, a professor of history at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio.  The event quickly spread, first across Ohio, then across the nation as it developed into a national organization. Today, History Day is a very popular event with more than 500,000 students, Grades 6-12, along with 30,000 teachers, participating each year in the United States (National History Day, 2018). The competition is based on a different theme annually, for which students find, evaluate, and use primary and secondary sources to create and present documentaries, plays, papers, websites, and exhibits.  Students enter their projects into local and state History Day competitions, with the national contest held in June at the University of Maryland (National History Day, 2018). 


By requiring that student participants do in‐depth research using primary source materials, NHD encourages partnerships between social studies teachers and librarians.  The need for these resources have led academic librarians to offer research instruction with high school students (Manuel, 2005). The partnership between the David and Lorraine Cheng Library and the Paterson School District gave high school students access to the additional primary and secondary resources needed for the NHD competition. The Cheng Library also provided research instruction to support teachers and students participating in the NHD competition. The NHD competition highlighted commonalities between NHD learning goals, the National Standards for History: Historical Thinking Standards (Grades 5‐12); the American Association of School Libraries’ Information Literacy Standards for Student Learning; and the Association of College and Research Libraries’ Information Literacy Competency Standards for Higher Education

Thinking like a Historian – Rethinking History Instruction

History is an important discipline that encourages students to analyze historical evidence, evaluate it, and demonstrate their understanding of the evidence (Mandell & Malone, 2013).  Participation in the National History Day (NHD) competition allows students to engage in a project-based learning activity individually or in groups while undertaking in historical research and analysis as part of the historical literacy process which “incorporates the historical process (the disciplinary skills and procedures that historians use to study the past) and historical categories of inquiry (the conceptual patterns that historians use to make sense of the past)” (Mandell & Malone. 2013, p. 11).  Engaging students in historical literacy through the NHD competition allowed them to become historians as they explored a topic and specific research question relating directly to the annual theme.  By doing their own project-based research on a historical topic of their choice and making decisions about how best to formulate their own interpretations and present evidence, students benefit from a more active learning experience than reading about history from a textbook and being told by the historians and publishers what is most important to learn about any given topic or period in history. Participation in NHD gives students an authentic purpose for learning while providing opportunities for both collaboration and competition (Vandenberg-Daves, 2006).

Leadership and Communication

The author began working with the Paterson Public Schools in December of 2019 when Library Dean Edward Owusu-Ansah formalized a partnership with the Paterson Public Schools led by International High School Principal Rita Routé. Routé was able to connect the Cheng Library librarians with the Paterson Public Schools Social Studies Coordinator, Gloria Van Houten who helped to coordinate some of the efforts to support teachers and students involved in the National History Day competition at Eastside High School and J.F.K. High School.  Rita coordinated all visits made to International High School in support of the NHD competition.   

Beyond support for NHD, the author provided a professional development session on the topic of project-based learning for all of the social studies teachers.  Scheduling the outreach visits through Routé and Van Houten made the visits more manageable.  Teachers and students benefited from research instruction and support provided by the Cheng Library.  Librarians that provided instruction and support included author, [title] Librarian [Name], Outreach and Instruction Librarian Gary Marks, and Electronic Resources Librarian Richard Kearney. The sharing of instructional materials before and after our sessions via Google Drive with coordinators and teachers was an essential step in the collaborative process.  At the three individual high schools that competed in the NHD competition, the co-author Vinnie Giardina took on a large leadership role at International High School where he had one-hundred twenty-five 9th grade students, eighty 10th grade students, and five 10th grade students work on projects for a more schoolwide approach to the NHD competition.  

Collaboration/NHD Support within the Paterson School District International High School Collaboration

Acting IB Principal Routé arranged for select teachers from International High School to meet the Librarian and the Dean of the Cheng Library.  These would be the teachers who would be working the Librarian as a result of the academic library partnership. The initial in-person meeting at International High School took place on 12/6/19. This meeting led to the scheduling of three library instruction dates (1/7/20, 1/14/20, and 2/25/20) where the Librarian would provide research and NHD specific instruction in support of the students working on NHD projects. The school administration wanted as many students from the school to participate in the NHD competition as possible. In total, 210 students attempted NHD projects which resulted in 76 projects which were judged at International High School by teachers at International High School.  From those 76 projects, 10 projects (4 group exhibit boards, 1 individual exhibit board, and 5 group documentaries) competed at the Regional competition. Moving forward to the state competition were 10 students comprising 3 projects (2 group exhibit boards and 1 group documentary). Both the regional and state NHD competitions were held online as a result of the pandemic. This limited the students’ ability to interact with the NHD judges to explain how their projects specifically aligned with the theme of “Breaking Barriers in History” and why they included specific primary or secondary sources for their NHD projects. 

Through the course of the library instruction sessions, student feedback was positive and students felt empowered as they began to build confidence in their historical research, MLA citation, and historical annotation skills. As the NHD Advisor at International High School, arrangements were made to have all library instruction sessions in the seminar room where as many as 50 students were able to attend at one time. Beginning in October of 2019 IB Social Studies Teachers Matthew Caruso and Christopher Wirkmaa along with Social Studies Teacher William Towns introduced the Freshman and Sophomore Students to National History Day (NHD). International High School (IHS) had competed in NHD many times in previous years. In 2017, IHS had a team compete at the National Competition. In 2019, the school by way of IB Principal Catherine Forfia-Dion and Acting IB Principal Rita Routé wanted the freshmen and sophomores to learn different research techniques with assistance from William Paterson University. IHS is an International Baccalaureate (IB) School. The IB program is the single most rigorous college preparatory program where the students have to complete multiple research-based essays. Their hope was that with the introduction of school-wide NHD Competition that the freshmen and sophomores would learn the skills needed to complete these assignments.  

By November 1, the students competing in the School Competition had created their groups and narrowed in a topic to research. Many of the students chose to research topics like; The first African-American Women in Space, Jackie Robinson, President Barack Obama, the civil rights sit-ins, the 21st Amendment, In vitro fertilization the Transcontinental Railroad, and others.  

During the week of January 20, teachers set up a NHD base camp in the Seminar Room for the students to complete their Exhibit Boards, Websites, Documentaries, and Skits for the competition that was being held the next week. Teachers housed all of his classes in the Seminar Room and volunteered his prep time and lunch to ensure that the students would have a place to complete their projects. The school wide competition took place between January 27 and January 30at International High School. There were a total of five internal teacher judges for the in-house competition.

For this school year, teachers and students in the Paterson Public Schools are engaged in teaching and learning in the virtual environment through Google Classroom.  This presents challenges and opportunities for teachers and students. It may be difficult to get as many teachers and students at International High School to participate in the NHD competition as last year. Library instruction sessions will be limited to providing support to one teacher and one class at a time. Leading the coordination of these efforts this year will be IB Principal Catherine Forfia-Dion. Despite the challenges of scheduling and limited class sessions, having the partnership with William Paterson University will lead to successful outcomes for the teachers and students involved in the NHD competition at International High School. 

JFK High School Collaboration

At JFK High School, one in-person visit was made in support of the two NHD advisors who had fifteen students that planned on competing in the NHD competition.  This visit allowed the presentation to focus on how to find primary and secondary sources, how to evaluate sources, how to take research notes, and how to engage in historical analysis.

Eastside High School Collaboration

At Eastside High School, Social Studies coordinator, Gloria Van Houten arranged for every Social Studies class to attend an in-person introduction to NHD and NHD resources in the school library led by librarians, Neil Grimes and Richard Kearney.  An NHD Library Guide was created and updated to reflect collections of digital resources available for student use.  The resources on the NHD Library Guide were highlighted.  Students were also engaged in database searching and advanced search strategies were shared with all of the student researchers. Students were engaged in researching their historical topic that related directly to the NHD annual theme.


Through the partnership between the Paterson Public Schools and William Paterson University’s Cheng Library, students that competed in the NHD competition were able to engage in historical research, learned historical analysis, and how to format their NHD project to fit the requirements of their selected NHD competition category. Through feedback shared from the Social Studies teachers in the Paterson Public Schools, it was found that students had a greater interest in history and increased their ability to conduct research, as well as historical analysis, through the work completed during the NHD competition. At International High School, the co-author became the new NHD advisor during the 2019-2020 school year and had every social studies class participate.  In the previous school year, one group participated at the regional level and in the 2019-2020 school year ten groups participated at the regional level with 3 groups moving onto the statewide competition.

As a result of this partnership, students learned how to formulate a research question, and unique search terms that related to their topics, and learned the difference between primary and secondary resources. This partnership helped students to learn how to conduct, annotate, and use their historical research in composing their individual and group projects for the New Jersey National History Day competition.

Future Directions

Given the current COVID-19 pandemic, virtual library instruction and support will be provided to the teachers and students in the Paterson Public Schools that are engaged in the 2021 National History Day competition.  This will be provided through Google Meets which allows for presenters to share their screen and record sessions for students to re-watch. There are limitations to providing this type of support as class sessions are limited to 30 minutes.  A virtual professional development session on NHD was held in October 2020 for all of the social studies teachers in the Paterson School District to be conducted by the author and Electronic Resources librarian Richard Kearney. The scheduled visits will be emailed to each school building’s principals throughout the 2020-2021 school year within the Paterson School District. 


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Mandell, N., & Malone, B. (2013). Thinking like a historian: Rethinking history instruction. Wisconsin Historical Society. 

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National History Day (2018, January 1) David Van Tassel & the origins of National History Day. National History Day.  

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Nieto, S. (1992). Affirming diversity: The sociopolitical context of multicultural education

Paterson Public Schools (2020). District profile. Paterson Public Schools. 

Paterson Public Schools (2020). Promising Tomorrows: Annual Report July 2018 – September 2020 (pp. 1-2, Rep.). Paterson, NJ: Paterson Public Schools. 

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