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January 4, 2012

Short, Sweet and To the Point: Thesis Statements

Filed under: Uncategorized — Jessica Ellison @ 12:34 pm

The time is nearing.

Topics have been chosen, research is in full swing, students are starting to ponder color schemes and costume choices. That can only mean that the time for one of the most difficult steps in the process is at hand: the writing of the thesis statement.

The thesis statement, best written when students are in the middle of their research so the statement is based on knowledge but still has a chance to be flexible, helps direct students through their argument and, later, judges and teachers through the project’s ultimate point. It is so important, and for a lot of students, so daunting.

There are no hard and fast rules for thesis-statement writing, but here are a couple of guidelines to ease students’ path.

  • Keep it short. Thesis statements should hover between 40-60 words. Too short, and there’s not enough information to explain the argument. Too long, and too many details have been included. Plus, if the students are creating an exhibit, and they only have 500 student-composed words to use, it doesn’t make sense to use up 100 of those words on just the thesis.
  • Include all five W’s. The thesis is the first thing the viewer reads, so we should know immediately the who-what-where-when, and also the why-is-this-important.
  • Include the theme words. Judges and teachers need to know how the topic relates to the theme, especially if the topic is obscure, extremely narrow, or isn’t immediately clear in its connection to the theme words.
  • Leave facts out, put arguments in. We don’t need to see every detail of the topic in the thesis. Leave those for the project itself. What we need to see in the thesis is the student’s argument, or the point he/she is trying to make.
  • Write, revise, research, revise. Students should not use the first draft of their thesis statement, but instead should revise based on feedback, go back to their research or conduct new research to make sure the thesis is accurate, and then revise once more.

If you can, show students good examples of thesis statements, as well as bad examples. Here is a good resource to get you started. While a good thesis statement doesn’t automatically ensure a good project, it certainly makes the project better and helps the student find a focus.

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December 28, 2011

Get Out and Get Some Help

Filed under: Uncategorized — Jessica Ellison @ 11:47 am

Most History Day students are now at some step in the research phase and may be starting to get that “deer in the headlights” look about them. Once the initial Google search and sweep of the school library are complete, it can be a challenge for some students in deciding where to turn next.

Enter the History Day Hullabaloos! Each year, the History Day staff partners with local libraries to offer research and project help sessions. Additionally, due to available Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund dollars, schools can apply for subsidized funding to pay for transportation to the library events, substitute fees, and teacher stipends (for evening or weekend work related to History Day research).

The Hullabaloos are a great way to expose students to more resources, connect them with librarians, allow them to meet with History Day staff to get project assistance, and renew their energy for their project. Two Hullabaloos took place in December, in Minneapolis and in Chaska, and each event welcomed more than 100 students.

The following Hullabaloos are scheduled for 2012:

  • Jan. 4, 4 to 8 p.m. Rochester Public Library, Rochester
  • Jan. 5, 2:30 to 5:30 p.m. Carver County Library, Chanhassen
  • Jan. 14, 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Rochester Public Library, Rochester
  • Jan. 14, 1 to 5 p.m. University of Minnesota Wilson Library, Minneapolis
  • Jan. 21, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Central Library, Minneapolis
  • Jan. 21, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., Duluth Public Library Main Branch, Duluth
  • Jan. 23, 4:30 to 7:30 p.m. Ridgedale Library, Minnetonka
  • Jan. 28, 8:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. St. Cloud State University Library, St. Cloud
  • Jan. 28, 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Cathedral High School, New Ulm
  • Feb. 4, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Central Library, Minneapolis
  • Feb. 11, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Central Library, St. Paul
  • Feb. 25, 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. University of Minnesota Duluth

For more information on Hullabaloos and applying for funding, visit the Librarian’s Toolbox on the History Day website.

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December 14, 2011

Translating Revolutions into History Day Topics

Filed under: Uncategorized — Jessica Ellison @ 2:25 pm

One difficulty with this year’s theme, “Revolution, Reaction, Reform in History,” is that some students will pull the first revolution that pops into their head and determine that is the topic they will tackle.

This is entirely logical, especially for younger students or students who do not have a lot of historical pre-knowledge. But it can also cause headaches if they envision their topic as the revolution in general and try to cover too much of the revolution within their project.

Thus, the importance of narrowing the History Day topic into something focused and manageable.

The revolution that many students will lean toward first is undoubtedly the American Revolution. Most of them know something about it, they learn about it at school, and recognize it from a variety of sources outside of school. But the Revolutionary period, if you start at the Sugar Act and end with constitutional ratification, spans 25 years. Students trying to package the “revolution” into a History Day project will run into a seemingly endless array of players, events and documents.

But students can still get at the idea of the American Revolution with a focus on one small element of the bigger subject. Projects do not need to begin in 1764, list every possible pertinent event, and end in 1789. By choosing one piece, and including context and significance, students can demonstrate the revolutionary actions of the period without resorting to a bulleted-point list of facts.

For example, a student could choose a topic such as the Sons of Liberty, a group that used organized protest to fight back against Parliament’s taxes and laws, or the Northwest Ordinance, a Constitutional Convention plan for governing the western territories. Each topic addresses one small piece of the Revolutionary period. Although neither topic will address the entire complicated story of revolution, independence, war and a new nation, each snapshot highlights an action that helped to make the period revolutionary.

Guiding your students into finding narrow topics generally involves some background research to begin with, isolation of a few events or individuals associated with the topic, and of course, discovering that one piece of history that sparks students’ interest. Take them from “macro” to “micro,” and they will have a much better History Day experience.

For sources about the Revolutionary period, visit the Library of Congress or PBS.

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November 21, 2011

Hypothesis v. Thesis Statement

Filed under: Uncategorized — Jessica Ellison @ 11:33 am

From guest blogger Ali Kappes, Minnesota History Day.

hy•poth•e•sis/hīˈpäTHəsis/ Noun.

  1. A supposition or proposed explanation made on the basis of limited evidence as a starting point for further investigation.
  2. A proposition made as a basis for reasoning, without any assumption of its truth.

the•sis/ˈTHēsis/ Noun.

  1. A statement or theory that is put forward as a premise to be maintained or proved: “can you support your thesis?”.
  2. (in Hegelian philosophy) A proposition forming the first stage in the process of dialectical reasoning.

Too many times we see History Day students attempting to write a thesis statement too soon after choosing their topics. We’ve all done this at one time in some capacity. In college it was easy to cling to an idea of how you wanted to conclude your paper in an effort to either propose a new analysis on the topic or to solidify what others had already concluded.  It was a marvelous idea, until you soon realized that the resources didn’t exist to support your “new” analysis on the topic or you were referencing the same sources as those before you.

As a student who only participated in science fairs growing up, my view on research was skewed to look at a topic, create a statement/guess on why something happened, and then set out to prove it. And as I entered college I realized that though I had chosen to study history I was truly only trained in the scientific method. I lacked the skill of looking at a topic and creating a question to answer, rather than trying to prove a hypothesis.

It is vital for students to understand the differences between these two words. Too many times they become interchangeable. If a student is pushed to develop a thesis statement too soon they are much more likely to get frustrated during their research. Letting the research lead them to a thesis statement can be a fascinating process. When you see the light bulb go off, you know they made an important connection that will lead to a great thesis statement.

In science class students are usually expected to come to the same conclusion at the end of an experiment.  Whereas with historical research, two students, starting with the same topic, can develop two very different thesis statements and conclude with two very different ideas.

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November 16, 2011

All By Myself, Or Not?

Filed under: Uncategorized — Jessica Ellison @ 2:37 pm

One of the big decisions students must make at the very beginning of their History Day process is if they want to work as an individual or as part of a group. This decision, maybe even more so than their topic choice, will have the biggest impact on their History Day process and shouldn’t be taken lightly.

I have watched students in many classrooms, when first presented with the History Day project and the individual/group options, immediately start craning their necks to look around the room, seeking out their friends and beginning that silent communication of finger-pointing to indicate potential group members. Understandably, most students latch onto their best friends. But for a project as monumental as History Day, it is always best (for the student and the final product) that a little more thought goes into that decision.

Few things can create or destroy friendships quite like History Day. It is a long, in-depth, challenging project that requires much communication and collaboration, and inevitably, some group members don’t hold up their end of the bargain or group members begin to butt heads when it comes to decision-making.

This is not to say that all group History Day projects are a disaster. Some of the best projects and most enduring friendships come from History Day partners who master the art of group work. But those successes come from students who are adept at doing the following things well: efficiently dividing up the workload, solving problems maturely, making decisions fairly, and communicating well throughout the whole process.

As your students are deciding their group status, encourage them to think about it before beginning the finger-pointing across the classroom. Who can you work with for long periods of time? Will you all do your share of the work? Will any personality differences get in the way?

Ultimately, students who feel nervous or uncomfortable about working in a group can choose to work individually. There are, of course, benefits and drawbacks to this decision as well, but it’s much harder to have a fight with yourself than with your History Day partner.

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November 7, 2011

Put Those Letters Down! Starting with Secondary Sources

Filed under: Uncategorized — Jessica Ellison @ 11:54 am

Primary sources are often the most exciting part of a History Day project. When I was a History Day kid, my transformative moment came in ninth grade, when I discovered Civil War letters written by a couple from my hometown. Holding those letters and recognizing that real people had lived and walked where I lived and walked was the trigger that turned history from a passing interest into a lifelong passion.

The real “stuff” of history is intriguing for students for so many reasons, and oftentimes, students are anxious to jump right into the primary source research because it is the most fascinating. Letters and diaries and newspapers are compelling in a way that textbooks and history books are not.

But skipping right to primary sources can be a real roadblock for students’ History Day research. Reading primary sources requires a certain amount of contextual knowledge and if students head right to the archives to paw through boxes of personal papers without doing some preliminary reading, they might emerge confused or frustrated. Imagine trying to read the Declaration of Independence without knowing anything about King George, the colonies, or the various Acts that led to severance with Great Britain.

The best place for students to start research is to find general reference materials, such as encyclopedias or textbooks. Such resources will give them a little background information to lay a foundation of knowledge. Next, they can move on to history books or academic journals to flesh out their context. And once they understand the context from sources like those, primary sources will start to make some sense.

If your students are chomping at the bit to jump onto Google Images and start downloading primary images for their documentary, or begin browsing through the Library of Congress online holdings, pull them back a little and direct them to a library. Secondary sources are the best friend of the early research, and there will be plenty of opportunities for primary sources later on.

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October 24, 2011

Helping the Three R’s Make Logical Appearances in a Topic

Filed under: Uncategorized — Jessica Ellison @ 2:20 pm

National History Day loves the multi-word theme. This year’s is “Revolution, Reaction, Reform.” There has also been “Exploration, Encounter, Exchange,” “Rights and Responsibilities,” “Triumph and Tragedy,” and “Conflict and Compromise.” A general rule of thumb with these multi-word themes is this: if there is an “and” in the theme, you need to include all words, but if there is no “and” you can choose one or all.

For “Revolution, Reaction, Reform,” then, students only need to focus on one of the three words. But as is the case with most themes, there are often connections to all three theme words within the context, main idea and impact of any topic they choose. Here are some tips to guide students as they consider topics and clear connections to the theme.

1. Know the definitions of the words. This may seem elementary, but understanding the definitions of “revolution, reaction, reform” will help as students identify how these pieces fit into the analysis of their topic.

2. Most topics will focus on one of the three, but the project as a whole may contain elements of the other two. If a student’s topic is Jane Addams and the social reform of Hull House, “reform” is the driving force. But Hull House grew out of a reaction and was a part of a social-welfare revolution at the turn of the 20th century.

3. Don’t attempt to shoehorn all three in if they do not fit. The Haitian Revolution, starring such characters as Toussaint L’Ouverture and Napoleon Bonaparte, certainly has the revolution part, and reaction, too. Reform is not as clear, and elements like a nation’s independence cannot necessarily be neatly passed off as reform.

4. History is full of cause and effect, and the three R’s are perfect examples. Reaction to Rosa Parks’ stand on the bus led to transportation reform. The early movements of the American Revolution led to reactions from Loyalists and Patriots. Desire for reform led to the social revolutions of the 1960s.

5. Always keep the three words in mind during research. When students are researching to find evidence of one of the R’s, they should keep a wary eye on evidence of the other two. If they pigeonhole their research into one R, they might miss some compelling resources that demonstrate the other two. Research into Hubert H. Humphrey’s role into the Civil Rights revolution would certainly lead to the 1948 Democratic National Convention speech, but would students pick up on the reform of the municipal fair employment law in Minneapolis?

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October 19, 2011

It Didn’t Happen Here, Right?

Filed under: Uncategorized — Jessica Ellison @ 11:22 am

A huge benefit of encouraging your students to study local history is the dispelling of that great history myth: Things like that haven’t happened here.

Many students have a perception about their community or state, based on the environment in which they grow up, and often have difficulty seeing beyond the borders of their own worlds, despite the fact that we live in a global society swirling with ever-constant media coverage. But the exploration of local historical events can often break down these perceptions and give students a new appreciation for the pervasiveness of history.

A prime example is racism, especially the early 20th-century variety. Students who have a passing familiarity with the Civil Rights Movement, Jim Crow and lynching sometimes assume that such division of white and black was not an issue in a northern state like Minnesota. They might say that lynching is something that only happens in the South, and segregation has not had a place in the North Star State.

Both assumptions are wrong. On June 15, 1920, in Duluth, Minnesota, three black men were accused of raping a white girl, dragged from their prison cells, and hung. In the early decades of the century, certain neighborhoods in the Twin Cities employed restrictive housing covenants that forbade blacks, and people of other ethnicities, from moving in.

Minnesota has also seen its share of Communism, eugenics, unjust treatment of American Indians, Civil Rights activity, great inventions, anti-German sentiment, and environmentalism, to name a few. The shock value of students finding connections to these national and international issues in their home state or home town can be the spark that ignites a long-lasting interest in a History Day topic.

If you have students who are interested in something big, and are skeptical about connections to home, challenge them to go out and find a link. They just might be surprised that “it did happen here.”

Visit “History Topics” at the Minnesota Historical Society for ideas.

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October 10, 2011

Columbus Day: A Teachable Moment

Filed under: Uncategorized — Jessica Ellison @ 2:28 pm

It is Columbus Day, a national holiday that has been long surrounded by controversy. For many Italian-Americans, it is a day to celebrate an important historical figure of Italian heritage. For many American Indians, it is a public reminder of the destruction of native people and culture by Europeans. For others, it means nothing at all except that some banks are closed.

Columbus Day and Christopher Columbus himself offer a unique educational opportunity. The controversies of history are best tackled out in the open, with discussions and multiple perspectives, not glossed over or skipped completely. In talking about the people and events in history that might make us a little uncomfortable, we can give students the facts and allow them to mull over what they mean, thereby teaching them to look carefully at historic events from all angles.

Columbus, like George Custer and Thomas Jefferson, is a historic figure whose legacy was long shrouded in a cloud of brilliance, without much attention paid to the more unsavory aspects of his life. Making a full swing to focus on all the ugly elements of these men and others doesn’t necessarily help students, either. To ensure that students are moving forward with complete educations in history, encourage them to look at all sides of the story, no matter how controversial.

When students choose to do a History Day project on someone like Adolf Hitler, about whom it is difficult to find something positive, it is still an important step in the process for them to understand how someone with his beliefs rose to such a height of power and was so wildly successful for a time. Part of being an objective historian is allowing your subject to show all sides.

With this year’s theme, a great many students may latch onto topics that are controversial. If they are having trouble looking at multiple perspectives, bring up Columbus: was he a heroic mariner who made an important discovery, or was he a self-important murderer who enslaved Indians? The answer depends on the resources you read and the perspectives you consider.

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October 5, 2011

Transforming Current Events into History Day Topics

Filed under: Uncategorized — Jessica Ellison @ 3:59 pm

Inspiration for History Day topics sometimes comes from the events of future history. Students see events on the news, hear talk of current goings-on at home, and see posts on Facebook, and often latch onto subjects that they recognize.

The onslaught of information from all directions makes current events accessible and apparently teeming with resources, but in general, current events do not make for good History Day topics. It is hard to look at current events with an historical eye. How can we analyze the impact of an event that happened last month or last year?And what kinds of resources are actually available?

But if students are particularly attached to a current event, there is good news (kind0f): History repeats itself. Encourage students to look to the roots of a topic that is currently making headlines, or seek out something similar in history that will allow for more significance and a greater variety of resources. Here are some ideas:

  • Economic recession. American history is filled with market peaks and valleys to research, but few provide so many angles as the Great Depression. Particularly interesting are the reactions and reforms of both Herbert Hoover and Franklin Roosevelt; if students dig, they will find that Hoover was not all about looking the other way, and Roosevelt was not entirely a savior of a downed economy.
  • Upcoming presidential election. There are so many to choose from! Local son Hubert Humphrey reformed his own 1968 campaign, in regards to his Vietnam policies, and lost to Richard Nixon. The contested election of 1876 essentially ended the revolutionary policies of Reconstruction. In the 1828 election, Andrew Jackson reacted to his 1824 loss with a reformed campaign strategy and party system.
  • Afghan war. A variety of issues relating to the current war have been a part of past wars, too, including mixed reactions to the war, the involvement of groups other than white, heterosexual men, and the lasting effects on veterans. Reactions to Vietnam in the form of the hawks and doves, the revolutionary establishment of the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps during World War II, and delayed reforms to treatment of soldiers with shell shock.
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