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How to Choose a Good History Day Topic

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All History Day projects, whether they're papers, documentaries, exhibits, or performances, begin with a topic. Whether or not you have a good topic can greatly influence how much you learn, how much fun you'll have learning, and how well your project does in the contest.

To choose a topic, you should begin by thinking about the theme. What does the theme mean? What events, people, and ideas could fit within the theme? Does the theme only refer to recent history or could it apply to history from thousands of years ago?

Take a look at the sample list of topics. Try to use the list as a source of inspiration rather than a list of specific topics. You don't want to be competing against hundreds of students doing the same topic.

Write down several ideas that come to you. Discuss the theme and contest with your friends, family, and teachers. Do they have some topic ideas that interest you? Add them to your list.

Once you have a list of some ideas, check each one through the following questions:

1. Does your topic fit into the theme of History Day?
This question is a little more difficult than it first appears. The real question is not only does your topic fit within the theme, but will you be able to explain its tie to the theme within your project. Also, if you were asked by a judge to explain the correlation, would you be able to do so?

2. Can you analyze your topic?
Although every event and action that occurred in the past is now part of history, some events were simply part of history while others helped shape history. For example, on February 13, 1971, Vice President Spiro Agnew accidentally hit three spectators while golfing. This is an event in the past, yet it didn't help shape history. On the other hand, Adolf Hitler's invasion of Poland in 1939 was not just an event in the past, it caused the start of World War II, changing the political, geographical, and ideological borders of the world.

At History Day, the judges are looking for topics that helped shape history and they want you to tell them how and why they did this in your project. Can you do this with your topic?

3. Is your topic too small?
The answer to this question will almost entirely be based on the number of available resources. For instance, the topic of the Jewish badge during the Holocaust could be considered too small. Though it played a significant role in history, not many people have written about its history. If you chose this topic, you would spend a lot of time trying to find the very few articles available on this topic. Would you be able to find enough resources for your topic?

4. Is your topic too large?
This is a much more common problem. If your topic is too large then there are too many resources to read. Plus, you would spend all your time summarizing the event rather than analyzing why it was important. For example, the topic of World War II would be a huge topic to try to cover. A more precise topic like D-day or Native American code breakers would be more effective.

5. Are there primary sources available for your topic?
If you're not sure what primary sources are, be sure to read more about them. The better History Day projects use an abundance of primary sources. Some topics have numerous primary sources available while others have close to none. For instance, the Hindenburg disaster has many primary sources: Herb Morrison's radio broadcast (he continued reporting during the explosion), photographs (reporters were on the scene), and newspaper articles. On the other hand, there are not likely to be many primary sources for Michelangelo painting the Sistine Chapel.

6. If you are making an exhibit or documentary, will you be able to find enough photographs and images?
If your topic is before the mid-1800s, you will likely have a difficult time finding images to use.

7. Is your topic unique?
In general, the more unique your topic, the more likely it will do well at History Day. If judges have to look at project after project on Manifest Destiny, they will get (perhaps subconsciously) bored with the subject. Also, those projects would be competing directly against one another. Instead, if you are the only person at the contest with your topic, you will look original and interesting from the start.

8. Will you enjoy researching and learning about this topic?
History should be fun to learn. If you dislike your topic before you start, you're certainly not going to like it any more as you prepare for History Day. Choose a topic that makes you want to learn more.

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