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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:
"How to Find Topic Ideas in Chicago History" is their "Rules of the Road."

Students need to start the research journey off right by finding a topic and developing a solid question that will hold their interest and focus and is historically significant. A successful History Fair experience for students begins with investing time in this initial step. No crystal ball, "Ouija" board, or lottery will help them: instead, they will need to wear their thinking caps and walking shoes for some footwork in libraries or historical societies, and have nimble fingers for computer work.

Help students define the issues are really important to them: do they have questions about racism, economic justice, social justice, civil liberties-and why and how their world got to be this way? Are they excited about innovations or the cultural arts and the way they are used to change society? Is their family or neighborhood history really important to them? All of these "burning questions" can be found and studied in history. With guidance students can study the past to help understand today and think about the future.

Basic Guidelines to Selecting a History Fair Topic
Approaches to Finding a Topic
       Topic Essays in Chicago History
Evaluating Topic for History Fair Readiness

Basic Guidelines To Selecting A History Fair Topic:

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.

Approaches to Finding Topics

Trolling for Topics: Teaching Students to Skim

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.

Approach 1: Explore the Chicago Historical Society and Chicago Public Library Websites

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:

Approach 2: Review Thematic Approaches to Chicago History:

Approach 3: Explore General Books on Chicago History

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

Approach 4: Check out CMHEC Materials

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

1919 CD-ROM

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

Approach 5: Visit Chicago History

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.

Approach 6: Start with a Current Topic

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.

Approach 7: Start with a Topic or Theme from a U.S. History Textbook

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 local connections.
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.

Evaluating Topic for History Fair Readiness

Click here for a printable version of this graphic.