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From the World War I Centennial News Podcast

WWI Education This Week: Cathy Gorn

CN PodcastLogo Final gray lowerOn January 25th's edition of the WWI Centennial News Podcast, Episode 107, National History Day Executive Director Dr. Cathy Gorn spoke with host Theo Mayer about her organization, how it engages students on the subject of WWI, and the importance of history education generally. The following is a transcript of the interview, edited for clarity: 


Theo Mayer: For our segment on World War I education this week, we're joined by Dr. Cathy Gorn, the Executive Director of National History Day, and an Adjunct Professor of History at the University of Maryland at College Park. Cathy, for our listeners, would you give us a quick background on National History Day?nathistorydaylogo

Cathy Gorn: Sure. National History Day is an academic program for students in sixth through twelfth grade, so that's middle and high school. And the program invites students to choose a topic in history, and it can be anything as long as the student is interested in it. And then it asks the student to go out and conduct real research like historians would. Conducting research into primary as well as secondary information and drawing conclusions about why a particular topic is important, what was its significance in history, why should we be aware of it. Students can enter a competition by creating a project, and that can be a paper, or they can do a table top exhibit, they can do a 10 minute documentary, or a 10 minute dramatic performance, or a website. So, it gives them a creative outlook as well as the intellectual heart of the program. And winners move on the first history day contest, which would be sort of a regional competition, maybe a couple of counties in your area, and then winners go on to states. And then, winners come to our big finals in College Park in June each year. So, it's a very rigorous program, it takes a lot on the part of students and teachers. Teachers guide the kids in this work, and it's really several months of work for them, but the pay off is really incredible.

Theo Mayer: Well, the program has a stellar reputation for not only what it inspires, but for what the students do. Let me ask you something: last year National History Day became part of the World War One education consortium. How did that happen, what does it mean, and what have you been doing since then?

Cathy Gorn: We actually started doing some things even before that for World War I. We developed a teacher source book, so it had lesson plans, and essays and things. And then, we heard from Libby O'Connell, who is one of the Commissioners, and Libby and I go way back, she told me what was going on with the Commission and asked if we might have some ideas. And we came up with several, and I think the Commission really liked what we suggested and gave us the go ahead. So, we've just completed our webinar series, and that was conducted by professional historians on particular topics related to World War One. And then also, the last 15 minutes of each of these one hour webinars, then was, how do you translate this now into a middle school or high school classroom. So, it was a really nice blend of intellectual information and teaching ideas.

Theo Mayer: I've seen a map of where the participants were, and you covered the nation very well.

kathyg2Dr. Cathy Gorn, pictured here with former President Obama, is the Executive Director of National History Day
Cathy Gorn: Absolutely, and not only the nation, but we're in programs internationally. We're really growing in different areas around the world, so we're really excited about that aspect. We're reaching a lot more teachers and kids that way.

Theo Mayer: Well, you have another program that you're doing, where you invited teachers to submit applications for something that you're calling. Memorializing the Fallen. Tell me about that program a little bit, because I have an interview with one of the teachers that's one of the actual participants that we're going to be running as well.

Cathy Gorn: Well, that program is designed to not only engage teachers in a really in depth study of World War One, but to turn these teachers into teacher ambassadors so that they can also conduct teacher workshops for us in their areas. We have 334 applications for just 18 slots, so it tells you how popular this is, and how enthusiastic   teachers are to learn about World War One, so they can teach it more effectively. So, in addition to all the reading and everything else, they have to choose what we call a silent hero. Someone who went to war but didn't come home. And that's designed to make history personal. So in studying a silent hero from their own back yard, their own community hopefully, or at least their own state, this makes it personal. And so, in the process of all this, teachers also create a website to honor that individual and it goes up on our website, silentheroes.org. We're really creating an opportunity here for teachers to learn more so that they can then more effectively teach the history of World War I to their students, and also honor a silent hero who gave that ultimate sacrifice for their country.

Theo Mayer: Now, this all culminates in a big event in June, what's that?

Cathy Gorn: It does indeed. So, after we've done all this reading and research, we go to Europe. So, we'll start the program in Belgium in Flanders American Cemetery, and then we go into France and we'll go to Oise Aisne Cemetery and Meuse-Argonne, et cetera. And while we're there in the cemeteries, we will go to the graves of the silent heroes that were studied, and the teachers present eulogies that they've written for their silent hero. And it is profound. Not only does this make it more personal, but it has an impact unlike, really, anything I've seen before. This is modeled after a program we did in Normandy, and it's life changing for everyone involved. The power of place is extremely important. An opportunity to actually stand where history took place, is a very powerful thing. It brings it home in a huge way.NHD ww1 projectAn example of a WWI-focused NHD project

Theo Mayer: Cathy, let me go into one more direction, and this really falls out of the conversation that I had with one of the selected teachers, Michael Sandstrom. We started talking about history education at large in the United States- it's kind of in trouble, isn't it?

Cathy Gorn: It is indeed. We've had all this emphasis on science, technology, engineering and math- the STEM subjects- and those subject areas are very, very important. The problem is, it's come at the expense of the humanities. Schools have reduced the time and the attention placed on history and the humanities, and that's a serious, serious problem. History helps young people find their heroes, find their role models, it also helps them understand cause and effect, change over time, and that there are consequences to actions. It helps them understand today better, and when they become voters, they'll understand how to place current issues into historical perspective, to really get a grasp on meaning and make better decisions for the future. So, ultimately, history education is about creating good citizens for the future of democracy. So, we've got a crisis right now, because we are not teaching this enough to young people so that they really can come out with thoughtful notion about what it means to be citizen in a democracy.

Theo Mayer: Okay. So, thank you for National History Day and the work that you all are doing. It's really important, and you're keeping the flame alive.

Cathy Gorn: That's our mission, and I think those of us who work for and with National History Day do understand it as a cause. It's not really a job, it's a cause.
Theo Mayer: Cathy Gorn is the Executive Director of National History Day. Learn more about the organization and it's programs by the link in the podcast notes. 




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