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

Monday, October 24th, 2011

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?

It Didn’t Happen Here, Right?

Wednesday, October 19th, 2011

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.

Columbus Day: A Teachable Moment

Monday, October 10th, 2011

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.

Transforming Current Events into History Day Topics

Wednesday, October 5th, 2011

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.