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How to Find Topic Ideas in Chicago History
History Fair Projects Put Student Historians in the Driver's Seat
of their Education:
|Don't Choose a Topic that is:||INSTEAD||Choose a Topic that is:|
|Obscure, Vague, Too Broad||Clear and focused.|
|Too well known||New and interesting for the student and the audience. A well-known topic needs a new angle or interpretation-which means a student must know what's been written about the topic already in order to figure out a different approach.|
|Historically insignificant||Made an impact on society, has meaning, and shows how change happens.|
|With few sources available||Offers a variety of primary and secondary sources to find, analyze and use.|
|Current events topic||Rooted in the past. A topic may relate to a current event but either focuses on how current event can be understood in its historical context or on a similar event or issue from the past.|
Students may use the graphic organizer below to evaluate the topic-being able to answer each point confidently lets the student know that she/he is ready to begin deeper research. Students want to avoid before becoming too committed to a topic, only to find themselves stuck when it is too late to change.
A National History Day coordinator offers his lesson plan for helping students develop a topic using available sources. History Fair teachers may find it a useful exercise which can be used in conjunction with CMHEC approaches listed below. The article is available in the 2005 National History Day Curriculum Book (distributed by CMHEC to teachers only while quantities last) or as a PDF at the NHD website. See pages 41-43.
Chicago Historical Society holds hundreds of bibliographies on excellent History Fair topics. These bibliographies open up the wide world of Chicago history and can help students find an interesting topic that has a specific focus. Some topics, though not all, will also help students integrate the National History Day theme. CHS bibliographies may not be used as students' bibliographies-nor do they reflect all the sources available or expected from History Fair projects.
Many sources listed in the CHS bibliographies also may be found at the Chicago Public Library: Students should go to the CPL libraries and other collections for primary and secondary sources related to their topic before going to CHS.
The Chicago Public Library website can also help students find topics of interest. They can explore the pages within the "Learn Chicago" section: the Chicago Timeline and "Deaths, Disturbances and Disasters" both provide many topic ideas but students will need to be make sure the topic is really significant for a History Fair project.
If researchers go to the CPL internal search engine and enter "History Fair" they will find many digital projects, bibliographies, and previous topics to inspire them. Students may want to check out the material available in Special Collections-the availability of primary sources could lead to ideas for topics.
The Encyclopedia of Chicago is now available on-line. Students may find the thematic articles and timeline especially helpful in selecting their topics:
Scan the table of contents and index of books on Chicago history to find out what other historians of the city have thought is significant. They also serve as the first level of research about a topic and their bibliographies can give students an idea of the availability of sources as well as lead them to collections of primary sources and focused secondary sources. These books are available at the Chicago Public Library and many school libraries.
Encyclopedia of Chicago
Chicago Historical Society materials (also available at the Chicago Public Library)
A Wild Kind of Boldness (collection of CH articles)
Annotated Bibliography of Chicago History (arranged by subject; different from on-line sources)
Chicago History magazines (and the yearly or compiled indices)
Duis, Challenging Chicago
Pacyga and Skerret, City of Neighborhoods
Pierce, History of Chicago (3 volumes)
St. Clair Drake & Cayton, Black Metropolis
Holli & D'A Jones, Ethnic Chicago
Cronon, Nature's Metropolis
Mayer and Wade, Growth of a Metropolis
Schultz, Women Building Chicago 1790-1990
Travis, Autobiography of Black Chicago & Autobiography of Black Politics
Cromie, A Short History of Chicago
Skinner, Chicago Portraits
Spinney, City of Big Shoulders
CMHEC has produced a variety of curricula on specific topics in Chicago history. These educational materials can provide ideas for historical questions are packed with primary sources to help a student get started. Your school may have these sources already or they may be obtained from CMHEC:
Mexican Community History
Puerto Rican Community History
Reason to Read: Contemporary Issues in History
Swamp to City: Chicago History from the Portage Site to Metropolis
Pioneers in the Struggle: African American in the Struggle for Civil Rights
Documents from the State Archives: Pre-Fire, Post-Fire, I&M Canal, Great Depression, World War Two
As a classroom field trip or weekend field trip visit the Chicago Historical Society or other historical collections in the Chicago area. The exhibits may generate many topic ideas and also demonstrate how a museum narrows a topic, selects primary sources, and uses minimal text to communicate a story. In smaller museums and historical societies, students may have the opportunity to meet with the archivists and librarians-they have knowledge of the strengths of their collection and may have a "wish list" of topics they'd like researchers to pursue (an appointment may be necessary). Check out the CMHEC Resource Directory in History Helpers for more information about the scores of community institutions that could be visited.
Students may look through newspapers, news and other current event
magazines for topics and issues that are of immediate concern or interest to
them. Then, they must "localize" and "historicize" the topic; that is, find the
Chicago angle and the history of that issue or a similar situation from the
past. Nearly 90% of the project should be based in history rather than the
current topic. Students may need to refer to the books and websites listed
above to find the local and historical connections.
For example, a student interested in the current AIDS crisis might want turn to the Flu Pandemic of 1918, which was both a global issues and has a particular history in Chicago. Or, a student interested in anti-war struggles might look at earlier episodes such as the world wars and Vietnam.
Students may review their U.S. History textbooks for ideas that
will need to be localized. From broad themes of industrialization, immigration,
wars, or the civil rights movements specific Chicago history topics can emerge.
Students may need to refer to the books and websites listed above to find the
For example, a student interested in the Civil War could develop a project on the prisoner of war camp for Confederate soldiers that existed in Chicago, or the conflict in the city among Union and Confederate sympathizers, or the Chicagoans mobilized locally to support the Union cause, or the black and white soldiers who enlisted and fought in the Union army.
Click here for a printable version of this graphic.