Are you planning to participate in National History Day this year, but you just can’t decide what to study? Here is the advice that my class of NHD students, many of whom have been participating for years, has for you:
“Start by picking general topics that fit the theme, and then choose the one that interests you the most. Once you’ve decided on a broader topic, it’s easy to focus on an aspect of that era/point in history that best relates to the theme.” – Rachel Riedel, Grade 12
“Narrow it down! Instead of choosing a broad topic, find a specific person or event within that topic to focus on. Also — don’t discard a topic just because you think it sounds boring. Often when you start doing research, you’ll find that there’s a lot more to history than people know.” –Carrie Pritt, Grade 12
“I don’t have that much experience, but I would definitely say that you need to choose a topic that you are REALLY interested in because you will be doing a lot of research and you can’t stop halfway through and choose a new topic if the one you have gets boring.” – Kelly McGovern, Grade 8
“Make sure it’s something you are really excited to learn about! If your topic doesn’t get you excited, the project isn’t interesting to you, and therefore won’t be interesting to the judges. Not fun! Also, be sure it relates clearly to the theme. You can have the greatest topic in the world and be as excited about it as you want, but if it doesn’t relate to the NHD theme, it will not get too far on competition day.” – Rachel Keifer, Grade 12
“I would say that you shouldn’t interpret the theme narrowly. Many topics can fit the theme. For example, the theme ‘Rights and Responsibilities’ doesn’t require you to do something on the Civil Rights Movement, and ‘Exploration, Encounter, Exchange’ doesn’t mean you need to do a project on Lewis and Clark. Think broadly.” – Joseph Harvey, Grade 11
Our class starts each year with a trip to the National Archives. We go to the Learning Center and students sit around tables browsing through hundreds of documents, seeing what interests them and talking about how each one fits the theme. You could do the same thing by skimming through a history textbook. What catches your interest? How do you see exploration, encounter, exchange in it?
Think about the time period you want to focus on. If you are doing a project involving visuals (documentary, website, or exhibit), you don’t want something too far back or you will have trouble finding sources. For a documentary, look into topics recent enough to have primary video clips. You do have to choose something that happened at least 25 years ago.
Think about local topics. For example, if you know you are interested in the Civil Rights Movement, look into how it played out in your area. You could go to your local historical society and look through documents. You might be able to interview people who were involved firsthand!
When you have an idea, do a quick search to see what primary sources are available. If your topic is too obscure, you might have trouble finding information.
If you are doing a group project, keep brainstorming until you come up with something everyone is excited about. Our groups make a Google doc and they all list ideas on it until they hit on one that appeals to everyone.
My last piece of advice is to set a deadline for choosing a topic. There comes a point where you just need to say, “This is it.” Otherwise, you could go on wandering for months.
So, choose a great topic and have fun researching. Maybe we’ll see you in May!
Have you selected a topic for History Day yet? Let us know what it is in the comments!