When he began teaching US History Honors, Drew Coyne had never heard of National History Day.
After 7 years participating in National History Day, he is now Connecticut’s Patricia Behring Teacher of the Year.
Some may think of National History Day as a high school project covering a few weeks each year. But as part of the US History Honors curriculum, Coyne and his colleagues weave the competition into their full-year curriculum.
In the fall, students begin exploring various topics and interests that correspond with each year’s theme (this year students focus on “Debate & Diplomacy in History: Successes, Failures, Consequences”).
After topics are narrowed, students conduct in-depth primary and secondary research. By the spring, student projects are showcased on a variety of mediums: exhibits, essays, performances, documentaries and websites. Each project pushes students to synthesize and analyze information, while developing connections between the past and present.
It’s a challenging, intellectual process. And though Coyne is the teacher, he knows the greatest success comes because it’s a student-driven process.
Coyne’s students have found success by digging deeper into history, going beyond typical topics like “Washington at Valley Forge” or “Lincoln at Gettysburg.” He encourages them to explore under-covered chapters in American history, then find overlooked or under-researched figures and events.
That’s just the start. Students conduct extensive scholarly research, arrange interviews, follow leads, and adapt as they grapple with new ideas.
This year, 2 students were interested in the women’s rights movement that shaped the United States in the mid-20th century. Along the way, they learned about Phyllis Schlafly. They studied how she aligned traditional housewives with conservative politicians and evangelical Christians to stymy ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment. Students then explored Schlafly’s legacy, including how it has shaped contemporary female political figures, including Supreme Court Justice Amy Coney Barrett.
Coyne was thrilled by their work – but urged them to also engage with multiple perspectives on the topic to formulate their argument. Soon enough — after struggling to hear back from a number of leads — the girls proudly gave Coyne the news: Gloria Steinem’s office was on board for an interview.
Another group focused on Nancy Ward, a Cherokee leader who advocated for peaceful coexistence with European Americans, then later in life fought for retention of tribal lands. When the students learned a musical (“Nanyehi – The Story of Nancy Ward”) was being developed about her life, they connected with Becky Hobbs, the 5th-granddaughter of Nancy Ward. Hobbs told the NHD team about her work composing, playwriting, and directing the music — while also shedding a unique light onto Ward’s diplomatic legacy. In addition, the students connected with Nick Sweet, the co-director of the musical, who further advanced the students’ understanding of the topic.
A third group is exploring the development of the Salk and Sabin vaccines. Students uncovered the debate and scientific diplomacy that existed between American and Soviet scientists as they fought to eradicate polio, despite the Cold War raging at the time. Six decades later, relations between the two nations are again tense – and once again, a virus is on the loose. Coyne’s students are working to tie all those strands together.
Coyne and his colleagues have had many successes — even during a pandemic. Last year, 18 students took 13 out of 27 places at the Connecticut History Day state contest, including 3 first-place finishes. Zack Brody then placed 3rd at the national event, for his research into cigarette advertising and its long-term implications. Jeffrey Pogue earned a George Washington History Prize for his 10-minute performance on Thomas Paine. Sebastian Miller also won the award for Outstanding Entry Related to Communication in History.
This year there were 15 awards at the regional contest, including sweeps in 4 categories. The statewide event is April 30. Regional winners include:
Group Exhibit: 1st place, “Cold War Debate, Diplomacy and the Creation of the Polio Vaccine (Talia Varsano, Annika Reddy, Tessa Tobias); 2nd place, “Debate and Diplomacy of the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act” (Lucie Nivaud, Isabella Rivel, Kaya Law); 3rd place, “Dr. Ralph Bunche: Debate and Diplomacy in the Partition of Israel (Defne Merih Anya Nair).
Individual Exhibit: 1st place, “1939-41: Should the US Enter World War II?” (Dagny Dahl); 2nd place, “The Canadian Caper” (Benjamin Rimm); 3rd place, “Racism in America’s Abortion Debate” (Iva Radman).
Group Website: “The Panther 21” (Maia Freeman, Scarlett Gerber); 2nd place, “The US-Soviet Cultural Agreement of 1958” (Tessa Cassell, Jolie Gefen, Elise Eisenberger); 3rd place, “Why Abortion is a Never-Ending Debate” (Catherine Hassell, Adela Ardrey).
Individual Website: 1st place, “The Peaceful End of the Apartheid Era” (Samantha Sheldon); 2nd place, “Minamata’s Fight for Justice” (Lucia Wang); 3rd place, “The Cuban Missile Crisis” (Matthew Delman).
There were 2 winners in the Group Documentary category: 1st place, “Nixon’s Visit to China” (Maxim Piterbarg, Curtis Sullivan) and 3rd place, “James Brown: A Civil Rights Musical Diplomat” (Paige Miller, Emma Schorr, Carley McGarry — judges were very impressed that the students found and interviewed James Brown’s daughter.)
Coyne began his Westport teaching career at Coleytown and Bedford Middle Schools. He credits his colleagues, the Westport Public Schools, and of course his students, for helping him become Connecticut’s Patricia Behring Teacher of the Year.