As the co-advisor in Vernon schools, I have found the need to have a variety of tools at the ready to facilitate students’ topic shopping and turn this daunting step into a perfect time for your students to show them how broad their knowledge base really is.
Always start with an introduction to the annual theme. Before introducing the theme to your students, familiarize yourself with the tools offered by National History Day and Connecticut History Day. The theme book is key for educators to understand the nuances of the theme, and both entities offer webinars and other theme-related educator materials, many of which are classroom ready.
Sometimes students need broad topic categories to help them grasp the idea that everything has a history. You can pre-select topics (ie: science, inventions, entertainment, transportation, civil rights, etc.) or have students suggest them. Then break students into groups, assign each group a specific number of topics, and have them write related topics on chart paper. After 3-4 minutes them display their lists, and students travel the room to shop for topics. For instance, I have a broad category of FOOD; this leads to chefs, cooking methods, cereal, French, etc. I encourage the students to dig deeper for even more detailed ideas for each of these subtopics. If you need a more independent version of this activity, you can have students use my Topic Word Web, which has broad and more focused topics, still allowing students to be even more specific with their ideas. This activity has been helpful for our after school program in which we have students engaged at a variety of skill and starting points.
By this point in the brainstorming, we encourage the students to complete a skim search on the Internet for a few of their choices. Some are ready to run with one or two ideas, while others may still need additional exploratory time. For these students, direct them to the CHD list of local topics or other general searches using the theme words in their search. The CHD Student Handbook has a terrific form for the students use to organize these early searches, and providing them with a handful of useful sources once they’ve made a final topic selection.
Regardless of the format for your school’s History Day program, these activities will be effective!
Cyndee McManaman is the Mansfield/Storrs Regional Coordinator and a former middle school social studies teacher.