|Making an Argument|
One of the most important, and challenging, tasks that students will undertake in the History Fair is crafting a historical argument. Just like an attorney in a courtroom attempts to prove a case with strong evidence, a good History Fair project takes a clear stand and develops a case by presenting cogent claims and persuasive evidence drawn from primary and secondary sources. At the center of the historical argument is a thesis which will be developed through claims and evidence.
What is a thesis?
A thesis statement tells the reader/viewer in one to two sentences what the students’ project will attempt to explain or analyze and introduces the audience to what they will learn from the project. In a History Fair project, the thesis takes a stand on a historical issue: it may explain why or how something happened, express an interpretation related to the annual NHD theme, and suggest the larger significance of historical events or actions.
The thesis is also the lighthouse guiding the entire project, meaning that it helps the student make decisions about what to include, and what to exclude, in their final project. When they are making their argument, they need to decide if that photo, quote, or other primary source connects to the thesis—if not, it doesn’t belong in the final project.
See the "Thesis" category in the Making History section of the website for graphic organizers and worksheets to help students with their thesis statements.
Why is an argument important in History Fair?
Recent research in history education has confirmed what History Fair teachers have known for years: students demonstrate the deepest understanding of historical material when they engage in reading multiple sources and writing a historical argument with evidence – skills at the heart of the History Fair learning process.
But why? Writing a thesis and backing it up with evidence forces students to draw their own conclusions about the meaning of the historical material that they encounter in the course of research. A good History Fair project will be much more than a collection of interesting facts and details, it will be a window for students to develop, and share with the public, their own ideas about why events happened in the past and why they are important for us to understand today.
QUOTES FROM: James F. Voss and Jennifer Wiley, “A Case Study of Developing Historical Understanding via Instruction: The Importance of Integrating Text Components and Constructing Arguments,” in Knowing, Teaching, and Learning History: National and International Perspectives, ed. Peter N. Stearns, Peter Seixas, and Sam Wineburg (New York: New York University Press, 2000), 375-389.
What are claims and evidence?
A strong thesis is a great beginning to the History Fair project, but it means nothing if it is not developed with solid claims and persuasive evidence. The best History Fair projects usually break apart their argument into five main sections, or claims, that develop the ideas raised in the thesis.
For example, Sam Bouman’s History Fair paper, “Fed by Fear: The FBI’s Crusade against Fred Hampton and the Black Panthers,” argues that exaggerated fears about a black revolution led government officials to embark on a secret crusade against Fred Hampton and the Black Panthers. Bouman develops his argument with claims that:
1) Martin Luther King’s assassination contributed to criticism against nonviolent strategies to win civil rights and rising black nationalism;
2) The Black Panther Party’s unorthodox methods and revolutionary rhetoric prevented some people from seeing the positive impacts of the organization on the black community;
3) Some in government felt threatened by the BPP, stirring concerns about the rise of a “black messiah” and the development of secret government programs to observe and disrupt the activities of black nationalists;
4) Charismatic leader Fred Hampton became a special target of concern by organizing demonstrations, unifying blacks, revolutionary rhetoric, starting free basic social services;
5) FBI attempted to undermine Hampton’s efforts, eventually raiding his home and killing the civil rights leader – ultimately leading to concerns about a possible government cover-up, a galvanized black voting bloc, and changes in the tactics of BPP.
With these five claims, Bouman established historical context, the events and actions which developed, short-term impact, and long-term significance – four key elements in any History Fair project.
Just like in a courtroom, the case is only as strong as the evidence which supports it. In the History Fair, primary and secondary sources provide the evidence for the claims. Photographs, quotes, graphs, statistics, maps, and many other sources develop the ideas posed by the student.
In order to help students better understand the relationship between research and the final History Fair project, you may choose to have your students take apart a sample project to see how another student has used claims and evidence to support a thesis.
Using Sam Bouman’s paper, “Fed by Fear: The FBI’s Crusade against Fred Hampton and the Black Panthers” and the five claims listed above, have your students identify the types of evidence that Bouman uses to convince the reader of his claims.
You may want to break apart your class into five groups and assign each group a different claim, and paper excerpt, to investigate.
As a possible extension activity, you may consider bringing in the original sources Bouman cites and ask the students to compare the original text with how it is used by the student.
Recommended Resources for "Making an Argument"
College writing centers and historical institutions have many excellent ideas for teaching students to write a thesis and support an argument. The following links contain a few of our favorites:
“What’s Your Point?” --A more light-hearted approach to introducing thesis from “Mr. History,” the Minnesota National History Day State Coordinator, this YouTube video features a game show introduction of important elements in a NHD thesis.
“Reading, Writing, and Researching for History; A Guide for College Students by Patrick Rael, Bowdoin College” --The Rael writing manual offers many excellent, concrete teaching ideas that help students understand what makes a strong thesis in historical writing, and prompts to help students form a strong thesis and thesis paragraph.
“How to Write a Thesis Statement” by Indiana University Writing Tutorial Services --Offers ideas on how to generate a thesis if a topic is assigned, or open-ended, as well as concrete examples of strong and weak theses – NOT specific to historical writing.
“Thesis Statements” by The Writing Center, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill --Offers steps to form a thesis and questions to consider if your thesis is strong or not, examples provided.
“Thesis Statement” by The Write Place, St. Cloud State University --Contrasts examples of weak and strong theses statements by breaking down key characteristics (broad vs. narrow, vague vs. specific, etc.).
“Weighing The Evidence” -- Interactive exercise from the National Archives that asks students to weigh the strength of primary source evidence for two opposing theses on popular U.S. history topics (Freedman’s Bureau, General Douglas MacArthur, etc.). The activity--effective in any history classroom--brilliantly models what students must do for themselves in their History Fair projects.