Understanding the annual theme is an important step to a successful National History Day project. Equally important is narrowing the focus to a topic within that theme that is workable and relevant. Consider the theme “Turning Points in History.” The Civil War is certainly a turning point in American History, but a student could not possibly research and present a project on the entire Civil War within the restrictions of the NHD rules. There is simply too much information. Rather, a student must find a smaller issue within the Civil War on which to focus. Researching and creating a project on the Battle of Gettysburg as a turning point in the war would be much more manageable. But narrowing even further can lead to greater success. Consider a project on how General Robert E. Lee’s own arrogance changed the face of the battle. This is a narrowly focused topic that can easily remain within the confines of the project allowances. This workshop will help students to begin to focus on a manageable topic.
A note about topic choice:
You, as the teacher or sponsor, have a hand in the topic choice of your students. Ultimately, they should choose their own topics, but you might give some boundaries for this choice. You might allow your students to choose any subject matter that interests them. For instance, a student who loves baseball might do a project on Jackie Robinson, or a student musician might explore how music was used on the Civil War Battlefield. While this gives great latitude to the students, they will need guidance in focusing their work. This works best in club or enrichment settings. If you are using NHD as part of a classroom curriculum, you can set some of your own guidelines. For instance, if you are teaching US History, you might limit the project scope to a certain time period (Industrial Revolution). Perhaps you want to limit your projects geographically (Colorado History). Or, you might want to tie the project to a general theme of the particular class you are teaching (Immigration for a Human Geography class). You can adapt NHD to fit the needs of your classroom as long as the projects adhere to the annual theme.
Review the word study assignment from last week to refresh the annual theme in your student’s minds. Using the definitions your students created, discuss viable topics for this theme. It would be wise to have a list of suitable topics prepared beforehand. NHD provides a list each year that can be found online. NHDC provides a list of suitable Colorado Topics. To begin, use broad ideas. With the students, narrow these ideas to a more focused point of view. A graphic organizer such as this will help your students find an interesting and manageable point of view:
If you are allowing students to choose their topic based on personal interest, use this model:
If you are setting parameters based on your course content, use this model:
Once you have demonstrated the use of the graphic organizer, have a discussion with your students about creating a working thesis statement. Point out that the thesis statement will change as they do their research. While the thesis statement will be covered in depth later, student should create a working thesis now. A very simple formula to accomplish this step is
The topic choice graphic organizer that is found here has a space for adding a working thesis statement at the bottom. It is s a good idea to explain to your students that they probably will not understand the "impact" yet...they will learn that as they research.
Provide several history compilation books for students to peruse for ideas. Works like We Were There, Too! Young People in American History by Phillip Hoose or That's Not in My American History Book: A Compilation of Little-Known Events and Forgotten Heroes by Thomas Ayres are an easy way for students to consider many events and people quickly.
Students will complete 3 topic choice organizers. (Link to a blank organizer ). Once they have narrowed three possible topics, have them do a Wikipedia search of their topics. The goal is to gain a basic understanding of the event/person and determine if there will be enough information available to complete the project. (Please see the note about Wikipedia below.) If students are considering working in groups, this could be done together. (Please see note about group projects in the introduction pages).
Writing a proposal: You might wish to have your students write a proposal to gain approval for their project topic. A sample proposal worksheet is available here.
A note about Wikipedia:
Wikipedia is generally not a good source for students to use for research for two reasons: first, because it can be edited by individuals, the information is not always accurate, although this is improving as time marches on. (For a demonstration of the fluidity of Wikipedia, visit this website or search “Listen to Wikipedia”.) Secondly, because it is a compilation website, it is considered a tertiary source. NHD research should focus on primary and secondary sources. This doesn’t mean Wikipedia isn’t valuable. It is a great starting point for ideas. In addition, entries often have sources listed on the page; this can help students learn where to look for primary and secondary sources. Students should never cite Wikipedia as a source in their bibliographies.