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Activities to Introduce Thesis Writing

History Fair gives students an opportunity to think for themselves and make their own interpretations rather than reporting back on what others had to say.  Writing a thesis, then, is challenging work for students and they may need some introductory activities before they feel comfortable about doing it for themselves.


Identify strong/weak thesis statements

Using the worksheet created by Cheryl Hinchey, a History Fair teacher at Mead Jr. High in Elk Grove, discuss the criteria of a strong thesis statement and then ask students to do an activity in which they evaluate a number of theses.  Students should be able to identify the strengths and weaknesses of each, and be able to improve two sample theses.

How to Write a Thesis Statement

“Thesis Do’s and Don’ts 2010-2011” from Minnesota History Day

A thesis statement is a central thought that holds your entire National History Day (NHD) project together.  Early in the research process we like to call this a working thesis; as you gather your information, this thought can, and probably should, evolve.  By the time you present your NHD project, however, you need to have a concrete thesis that is supported by evidence.

Thesis = Topic + Theme + Impact.  In other words, you are not just introducing your topic, you are creating an argument that expresses your topic’s significance and demonstrates how the theme plays a central part.

Sample Statements: Do’s and Don’ts

  • Don’t: Martin Luther was born in 1483.  He started the Reformation.  (Fact)
  • Do: Beginning in 1517, Martin Luther sparked widespread debate against Roman Catholic religious practices, especially the sale of indulgences, corruption, and the emphasis on salvation through good works. When diplomacy with the Papacy failed, Luther’s arguments succeeded in igniting a religious movement, creating a new sect of faith, and later bringing change to the Roman Catholic Church.
  • Don’t: Indians fought over Alcatraz Island.  Why do you think they would do that? (Rhetorical)
  • Do: American Indians under the banner of “Indians of All Tribes” debated with government officials over political and social discrimination.  In protest, the group reclaimed Alcatraz Island in 1969 as Indian land.  Though the group’s primary goals failed to reach fruition through active diplomacy, protestors succeeded in spreading awareness to the American public and consequently ignited the modern American Indian Movement.
  • Don’t: Had the Continental Congress voted against the 3/5 Compromise, America could have avoided a Civil War.  (“What if?” history that cannot be supported with evidence)
  • Do: When members of the Constitutional Convention started laying the groundwork for a new American government in 1787 debate ensued over slaves and their place in a representative government based on population.  The resulting 3/5 Compromise succeeded in ending the initial conflict, allowing the 13 states to move forward as a unified nation, however, by failing to come to a definitive conclusion over the issue of slavery, Constitutional framers established the United States of America with an unstable base that would continue to cause discontent until it exploded into civil war.
  • Don’t: The 1960’s presidential debate was the first to be shown on television and was really important.  Want to know why?  Read more below. (Fact/Rhetorical/Incomplete)
  • Do: Senator John F. Kennedy’s ability to master television as a communication medium during the 1960 presidential debates helped secure him the presidency over Vice President Richard M. Nixon.  Access to live, visual information succeeded at shifting viewer’s attention from the issues to more superficial attributes such as poise, appearance, and style, undermining the importance and long-standing tradition of open debate.  Consequently, Kennedy’s victory marked a new era of political campaigning and changed the way voters understand and receive their candidates.
  • Don’t: Adolph Hitler was an evil man that killed a lot of Jews. (Opinion)
  • Do: Following the “Great War,” Adolph Hitler blamed Germany’s downfalls on the country’s Jewish population causing discrimination, violent action, and a mass exodus of European Jewry.  Various parties with social, political, and economic interests, including U. S. Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes, initiated debate over immigration to the Alaskan Territory in 1938.  The failure to reach a diplomatic compromise resulted in an end to negotiations; closing an opportunity for population growth in Alaska and leading to the death of many, such as the Jews of Neustadt, Germany who believed the United States’ last open frontier to be their only remaining hope for refuge.

Thesis Generator

If you are having trouble getting started on your thesis, it can help to envision your project as a conversation with your reader or viewer. Here are a few writing prompts to help you put on paper those aspects of your project that are most important to communicate. We have started the process by including a sample about the Chicago Stockyards. Adapted from Patrick Rael’s Reading, Writing, and Researching for History, Bowdoin College.



A thesis statement makes specific argument that must be backed-up by evidence from primary and secondary sources.

Introduce students to the relationship between thesis statements, primary sources, and evidence.
This activity, created by Kathryn Wegner, a history teacher at Kelly High School, calls for students to find and analyze primary sources which will support a thesis statement and then write an essay based on their findings. The primary sources are from the on-line digital archive on the Chicago fire so students also gain experience in exploring content-rich websites. It can be adapted for other topics with primary source-based websites or with primary source packets if students do not have access to the Internet.

Supporting A Thesis Activity

Strengthen the introductions on History Fair exhibits by integrating the thesis statement into the body of the text.

The introduction sets the stage by telling the viewer what to expect from the project. The thesis statement should be readily apparent, but should be anchored to the larger picture the historian is trying to create rather than hanging alone. In the introduction to an exhibit on the riot of 1919, below, notice the following elements at work:

  • shows cause and effect; change over time
  • claims significance or impact
  • situates in context
  • makes a specific argument (the thesis)

Circle and label each element you find.

The race riot of 1919 was a cataclysmic event in Chicago. After five days of rioting, 38 white and black citizens were killed and 537 were injured. The riot itself was the product of nearly two decades of conflict between whites and blacks over housing, jobs, and political representation. Before the riot, the black community was pressed into separate areas of the city by informal and extralegal means. After the riot the means of enforcing segregation became more accepted, more formal, often more violent, and completely legal. In this way the riot of 1919 was a turning point for the city Martin Luther King, Jr. called the "most segregated in the nation."


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