This is the second lesson in my series for teachers and students. I often find that students forget to develop context before researching, especially middle schoolers who may not have taken coursework that would provide such context yet. Here’s the lesson I use to encourage my own students to think about vertical (the time period) and horizontal (before and after) context.
Discussion questions: What does the phrase historical context mean? Why is it important in History Day?
When starting research, a lot of students quickly learn many details on their specific topic, be it a person or an event. While this is a necessary first step in research, you’ll also need some context so you can properly frame your thesis. Historical Context refers to the wider picture and circumstances that frame an event or person. Context helps your research make sense.
You want to argue that your topic is a significant conflict/compromise. To do this, you need to show how it was a change from the norm!
Remember, you are researching one coat on a rack. How is YOUR coat different, special, and unique? If it’s the only orange coat with a zipper, that’s a big deal! But we won’t know this unless you describe the other coats.
When considering historical context, think about before, during, after “your” topic.
Lastly, make sure you include dates when discussing events that fit your topics historical context. Dates firmly anchor events into a timeline and help establish trends or cause-effect. You might not be used to using dates in the Informational or Argument writing you do in ELA class, but in History Day dates are important.
Jenn McMunn is a social studies and ELA enrichment teacher at Mansfield Middle School. She has had students participate in History Day for 16 years and currently serves as the Mansfield Regional Coordinator.
By this time of the year, students should be hard at work doing research on their topic for History Day. This might come easier to some students than others though. Not every student has a knack for going to the library or relying on more than just the internet. A student will not be able to google their way through a History Day project. For some students, History Day may even be their first time doing historical research. Here are some other places students can go to conduct research—Connecticut History Day student approved!
If your students are looking to visit an archive, many Connecticut History Day students use the Special Collections and Archives at UConn when looking for information. The UConn archive “actively engages with students and teachers” to aid in History Day research. Students can use the digital repository for sources available online or can contact firstname.lastname@example.org for more information and help. The Connecticut State Library is another great archive to go to research. Many archives are happy to schedule school visits, but they must be pre-booked and can usually accommodate a limited number of students. Along with local archives, students have found success using the online collection at the Library of Congress for everything from written records and diaries to maps and more. Another extremely helpful online resource is the Chronicling America: Historic Newspapers site.
For some students, museums and historical societies may be very useful for their research. Visiting a site that is related to a student’s project can be a very meaningful and educational experience. Oftentimes, talking to a tour guide can help students get extra information on a topic that may not be readily available online or from a book. Staff is there to answer your questions and want to help you! It may be appropriate for the student to interview a member of the staff. Interviews should be pre-scheduled.
Keep in mind that museums and historical societies often have archives and collections. Many even offer discounted or free admission to students who are doing research. Students should remember that primary sources are more than just paper documents, but can include objects, photographs and paintings. If your students want to visit a historical society, they can call ahead and a staff member can pull items for them that may be beneficial before they arrive. Just make sure to check their website for rules and possible fees.
Students, of course, have the opportunity to use and visit different sources for research. If you have a student looking for more research ideas, check out the topic selection guide for this year! Inside you can find topics, for those who haven’t decided on one yet, and possible research locations for more information! Students can also consult the Connecticut History Day Student Guide as well for more help with research.
 Collections, UConn Archives and Special. Archives and Special Collections Services. n.d. http://archives.lib.uconn.edu/Services#History (accessed 12 4, 2017).
Samantha Gorski participated in Connecticut History Day 2009-2012. She graduated from Hartford's Classical Magnet School in 2012 to then attend the University of New Hampshire where she studied English Teaching and worked as a social media manager. While at UNH, she got to work for Snapchat covering the 2016 election and attending the 2016 Democratic Debate. Samantha graduated from University of New Hampshire in 2016and currently works as a Museum Educator at Connecticut's Old State House.
History Day research is a long process. Starting with a plan is key for not getting lost in a vast sea of information! As a researcher, there are lots of different categories of sources you will use as you learn about your topic and construct your thesis. In general, most students start with the broad, general sources at the bottom of the pyramid. This gives you a solid foundation of knowledge so that when you read or view a specific, historic primary source you are better able to extract your own unique inferences.
So let’s look at the...
PYRAMID OF RESEARCH
When in the research process might you use sources in each category? What are the pros and cons of each category of sources?
My students helped me come up with the following list of pros and cons. There are many more- think about what YOU’D add!
What they are: Articles in general research publications. Example: Wikipedia article
Pro: easy to find, provides context, may have bibliography that can lead you to other sources
Con: very general, does not contain unusual or unique knowledge.
Consider using common knowledge sources to investigate potential topics. These sources are not considered “academic” and shouldn’t be included in your annotated bibliography!
What they are: sources about a time period, movement, or place. Example: Women’s History in Global Perspective by Bonnie G. Smith.
Pro: easy to find, provide context, usually vetted by multiple authors, can give you ideas of where to investigate further
Con: lack of specificity, often don’t contain quotes/primary sources yet
It is important to get a sense of how your topic fits in with its time period and what events preceded and followed it. General secondary sources can provide this necessary context.
What they are: sources focused on your actual topic Example: Chancellorsville 1863: The Souls of the Brave by Ernest B. Furgurson. The book is about a specific Civil War battle.
Pro: Contain specific details, often contain primary source excerpts in terms of quotes or photographs, may summarize multiple perspectives on your topic.
Con: Could have unnecessary details (think of biographical details about a person that aren’t relevant to the History Day theme!), author bias (biographers sometimes overemphasize the importance of their subjects!)
What they are: Eyewitness accounts. Can be documents, autobiographies, newspaper articles, photographs Example: Transcript of the speech by Theodore Roosevelt, delivered in 1883, called “Duties of American Citizenship.”
Pro: lens to the past, can draw your OWN conclusions and inferences. The historian’s craft centers around drawing your own conclusions from primary sources. They are the beating heart of your research!
Con: can be biased or difficult to interpret, do not provide context, have ONE point of view
Overall, make sure you use a wide variety of sources that showcase different viewpoints on your topic. There’s more than one version of any story! Remember that certain viewpoints are often left out of the more general, common source types. You want to develop a full and complete picture of the past so that you can best prove that your topic represents a significant conflict and/or compromise.
Participating in Connecticut History Day is one of the most rewarding experiences a student can have in middle and high school. Both my husband and I saw this firsthand with our son, Timothy, who was a proud member of the Connecticut History Day family from seventh to eleventh grade. As parents it was a joy to see our son develop such a deep passion for his work and a sense of fulfillment in learning. The skills he gained through the Connecticut History Daily are lifelong skills that he continues to use as a political science and history double major at the University of Michigan. And as a parent, you can be an important part of your child’s experience.
It can be tempting at times to try and offer help to your child. Most of the time, that is not the right thing to do. As a parent, you can offer up your opinions if your child asks and assist them in tasks like cutting or assembling. But be careful to not go too far and make their projects for them. This would undermine the benefits of having them do a project on their own.
As a parent, it was a joy to see my son learn valuable skills through the Connecticut History Day. He learned how to research, write, interview and present. But more importantly, he found his academic calling in history. One day during his freshman year he visited his favorite professor during her office hours and mentioned that he was successful in the History Day program. This particular professor has numerous accolades, including tenure in the history department and the law school, multiple books published under her name, and a prestigious MacArthur Genius Award. And when he told her that he was a successful History Day alum, she smiled and said assured him that because of it, he was well prepared for college.
Connecticut History Day Mom
A Note from Connecticut History Day:
We love that our Connecticut History Day parents get excited and are eager to help their students with their projects, but parents do have some rules to follow too. While help is allowed, you are only allowed to help your student when it is reasonable. For more information about reasonable help, Rule 5 - which defines reasonable help from a parent or teacher - from the NHD Rule Book is below:
Rule 5 | Construction of Entry
You are responsible for the research, design, and creation of your entry. You may receive help and advice from teachers and parents on the mechanical aspects of creating your entry, such as typing your paper and other written materials. You may seek guidance from your teachers as you research and analyze your material, but your conclusions must be your own. You may have reasonable help preparing your project.
Examples of reasonable help include:
• a teacher instructs you in how to use an editing software program
• a parent uses a cutting tool to cut the exhibit board or performance prop that you designed
• a teacher offers editing suggestions on your historical paper
• a parent assists in sewing costumes that you have designed
• a teacher shows you or your group how to build an NHD website
• you have photographs commercially developed
NOTE: Objects created by others specifically for use in your entry violate this rule. Examples include a parent editing a documentary or an artist drawing the backdrop for your exhibit or performance. You may receive reasonable help in carrying and placing props and exhibits.