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NHD 2016: Getting Started

December 15, 2016

My students are about eight weeks into the research process by the time you are reading this. I have spaced out our NHD lessons quite a bit. So far we have only had six lessons, so do not despair if you have not started yet. In fact, this is the only year I have ever started so early. In the last couple of years we started second semester and everything has worked out fine. That is one of the great things about this program? you?re the boss. Make it work for you, your classroom and your students.

So far, students have selected their topics, determined who they?d like to work with, done some preliminary research and created a working thesis. Topic selection with large groups can be shockingly difficult, especially with students wary about taking on a big project. A solid introduction helps. You might consider using this Google Slides/PowerPoint presentation from Amy Boehning, Theme and Process. This should help get some gears turning.

Everything hinges on student buy-in, so this must be a personal choice and it requires personal attention. A lot of students can look at the sample topic lists at and find something interesting, especially if you are working with high school students who have had at least one high school social studies class. Do not fall into the same trap I did though. I loop with my students for three years; I thought I knew them well enough that their varied interests would result in varied topic selection. Somehow, 10% of my students had convinced themselves that their best is Mohammed Ali defying the Vietnam draft. It?ll be ok. They?re willing to share resources and each group is taking a different approach.

However, were I to do it again, I?d take a different approach I learned from another NHD teacher. This is to find out what else students already are interested in in their day to day life. I asked students about their personal interests, but they knew ahead of time what I was up to since they already had the big list. Had I asked them to complete this first, I think I would have gotten more genuine responses in discussion. Then we could have used the lists to figure out what kind of crossover exists.

On a practical note, it is very helpful to have conferences with individuals and groups about the topic of choice to be sure that they didn?t just pick the topic willy nilly. I like to do this while students begin their preliminary research online. It?ll take at least two class periods, but it is time well invested. There?s little worse than finding out that students are stuck down the road because they picked a topic that doesn?t resonate with them.


As it turns out, we are further along now than I realized. It took me some time to get back to this after I had started it. Boy there is a lot to juggle when you?re a teacher? even more so when there is a mock election to piece together with students and a bicentennial celebration to plan! I decided to finish this entry as is even though it is out of date, just to preserve sequence. I hope to have another installation much sooner. You can check out my NHD blogs as well as others here.

Chelsea Sutton is communications coordinator at the Indiana Historical Society. She started drinking coffee at age 3 with her dad and always stays up too late reading.

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