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Do you have questions about the 2014 National History Day theme? We are here to answer them!


Welcome to the NHD Online Discussion about the 2014 NHD Theme - Rights and Responsibilities in History. Below you will find the questions and answers from our recent session.  If you have questions that have not been answered here, send an email with your question to info@nhd.org.

Please have a look at the NHD theme page, available by clicking the theme logo above! You may also want to review the NHD Rule Book, available on the Getting Started page in the "Contest" section, here.

The Q&A below will remain posted on our web site for you to view at your convenience.

Do projects need to address BOTH rights and responsibilities within a single topic?  Based on the sample topics list for this year, it looks to me like some topics just address rights OR responsibilities, not both.
There is no single interpretation of any of the NHD themes – the goal is to create a lens through which students can analyze their topics.  Realistically, many topics will touch on both rights and responsibilities, but that is NOT a requirement. A student might choose to study the case of Curt Flood, the baseball player who sued for the right to become a free agent, and argue how the right of free agency became a key right for professional athletes.  Another student might focus on the Pure Food and Drug Act, and how it created a government that became responsible for food safety.
Most students will find that while their topic may have a primary focus, the other half of the theme begins to creep in as they further their research.  For example, a student studying Alice Paul and the fight for the Equal Rights Amendment might find sources arguing as to whether the government has a legal responsibility to accord certain considerations to women under the law.

When considering a topic, here are some questions to consider:
-What is the struggle between those who have power and those who don’t?
-What are we required to give to the community?  What are we entitled to be given?
-How do we balance the rights of the individual with the rights of the group?  
-What responsibilities do we have to protect those who cannot protect themselves?
-What are the limits to rights?  Where should the lines be drawn?


Can the topic for a project be a recent one (previously students were encouraged to focus on events that happened over 10-25 years ago)?
The topic of your National History Day project should be historical, not a current event. (Don’t forget the “in History” part of the theme!) There is no official rule on exactly “how old” your topic must be, but enough time must have passed to allow historians to evaluate the impact and historical significance, and create secondary sources. Current events are still unfolding, and therefore you cannot yet see all causes and effects and what the long term outcome is.  These are all very important aspects to look at when conducting your research.  Remember – for a great NHD project you need to be able to analyze your sources and draw conclusions about your topic, not just report what happened.   If you are interested in a current event (like the conflict in Syria) look at other examples where a group of people tried to revolt against their government (in the Congo, in Yugoslavia, in the American Civil War) and tie the interest back that way.

Would it be considered OK to do some kind of project about a musical or play that relates to history and whether it’s historically accurate and why, and about the time period it's written about?
Literature, art, and music can be great sources for NHD topics, but the job here is not to analyze the authenticity of a particular type of media (play, movie, novel).  But I would use your area as an inspiration.  An interest in Arthur Miller’s The Crucible might lead to a topic about HUAC and the Red Scare, or the musical Oklahoma! might lead to a project on the rights of farmers and ranchers in the turn-of-the-century Oklahoma Territory.

When defining responsibility as part of this year’s theme, can the concept of responsibility be that an event forces the government to recognize it has certain responsibilities such as to the prisoners of war in the Civil War who needed certain basic requirements, or responsibility to provide basic safety for children?  Can it be a more ‘implied’ than written responsibility?
Yes.  Not all responsibilities are written explicitly.  

This year’s theme is a very hard one to get behind.  I am having trouble with kids coming up with what to do.  It really needs to be thought about.  Most of the participants that I have are 7th and 8th graders and it is very hard for them to think outside the box. Any suggestions?
I would start with a student’s interests and then link it to the theme.  For example, a student with an interest in military history might be interested in World War II.  As a teacher, I might encourage him/her to consider segregation in the military, the rights of POWs (on all sides of the conflict), the rights of female soldiers and sailors, the way that young men in Japanese internment camps were drafted into military service, the way that the government took responsibility for the veterans with the GI Bill...there are so many options.  I always suggest to start with an area of interest and work from there.

Can the selection of a topic for this year's theme of "Rights and Responsibilities" be an event that is relatively current?  For example, the Fukishima Daiichi Nuclear Disaster in Japan, which took place in March of 2011.
No, this would be much too current. It is not a historical topic. Please see the answer to the second question listed above.

In the past, we helped students organized projects by: Background, Analysis (change), Importance. This year, what would you recommend?  We were thinking:  Background, Analysis (rights violated), Importance (changes which resulted-taking responsibility).
I think you have a good strategy over time. While there is no magic formula, every good NHD project should ask the question “so what?” and strive to show WHY this topic (person, event, etc.) matters in history.

Are primary source documents required to show that rights were violated?
Primary sources are required for the project, but all projects will vary with the type, number, and scope of sources available.

Would Enlightenment thinkers/philosophers and their writings suffice as defining "rights"?
They certainly had lots of good ideas and thoughts about rights, but I would suggest that you as a historian define the rights that you are going to argue.  They’re a good reference point, but not the ultimate authority.

What are some questions we should ask ourselves while researching to help our research be more effective for this year's theme?
-What is the struggle between those who have power and those who don’t?
-What are we required to give to the community?  What are we entitled to be given?
-How do we balance the rights of the individual with the rights of the group?  
-What responsibilities do we have to protect those who cannot protect themselves?
-What are the limits to rights?  Where should the lines be drawn?

How would a student write a thesis with the theme "Rights and Responsibilities in History"?
The answer to this question depends entirely on your topic and your analysis of your sources. The thesis statement should be your conclusion about your research. What are you trying to say/prove about your topic and its significance in history? What is it that you want viewers to understand about your topic?  Have a look at the “Conducting Research” page on our website for more tips on your thesis,
here

Is it preferable to choose topics dealing U.S. history, as opposed to individuals or issues from international history (British, European, Latin American, Russian, etc.)? Obviously, finding primary source material may be easier with "closer to home" topics. In addition, language is also a factor, and could affect research. But is there any particular weight or emphasis on U.S. based topics?
No.  NHD projects come from all topics and era of history.  The goal is to use primary sources as much as possible, but there is no set number.  Clearly some topics have more primary sources available than others.  However, I would argue it is not about the quantity of sources that you use – anyone can put lots of primary sources into a bibliography - it is about how WELL you use them to analyze your topic and draw conclusions.  Language can be a barrier, but for some students who have second-language skills, that can open even more documents to them. 

May a student research a topic that is related to the same topic they researched last year? They would not reuse any contest materials from the previous year.
This is more of a “Rules” question than a “Theme” question, but we feel it probably should be addressed here.  Students can choose a topic that is related to the same topic they chose in a previous contest year, however, they cannot re-use any of their materials and they must find new sources in their research. They should be sure to differentiate the two topics, their research, and their focus/ thesis so they are not simply re-writing their old project (which would be considered re-use of a previous project and is grounds for elimination).  

Do you think topics should have a single focus and a large impact or just a large focus?
There is no right answer here.   As a general rule, I tell students to choose a scope where they can be an expert (for example, it’s not feasible to become an expert in every aspect of the Seven Years’ War in the next few months.  However, one could become an expert in the treaty that ended the war or the actions of a particular leader during the conflict).  Often focused research produces better results.

Should there be a balance between rights and responsibilities or could we focus on one or the other?
Realistically, many topics will touch on both rights and responsibilities, but that is not a requirement.  Most students will find that while their topic may have a primary focus, the other half of the theme begins to creep in as they further their research.  For example, a student studying Alice Paul and the fight for the Equal Rights Amendment might find sources arguing as to whether the government has a legal responsibility to accord certain considerations to women under the law.

Is it best to put more emphasis on a right, or visa versa, or to show an even view?
You want to be careful that your project does not become a political statement.  You want to look at an issue in historical perspective.  An intelligent historian will show and acknowledge an opposite perspective of an argument, even while arguing an alternate interpretation.  What’s important is that your project have a point of view – that’s what separates a historical argument from a factual report.

Is it recommended for the project's time period to be at least 10 years old?
There is no official rule on exactly “how old” your topic must be, but enough time must have passed to allow historians to evaluate the impact and historical significance, and create secondary sources. Current events are still unfolding, and therefore you cannot yet see all causes and effects and what the long term outcome is.  These are all very important aspects to look at when conducting your research.  Remember – for a great NHD project you need to be able to analyze your sources and draw conclusions about your topic, not just report what happened.

Can the right/responsibility be two-or more fold?
Sure – just make sure that it doesn’t become so broad that you can’t be an expert in it.

If a project has its roots in military conflict, but most of the visible actions are political, can the project be properly classified as military?
Sure.  

I am doing Clara Barton as my topic this year for National History Day. For my theme, would it be acceptable for me to say the responsibilities of the American Red Cross to provide health care in the Spanish American War? Could I also say that the men who fought in these wars had the right to health care? Could I also expand my topic and say that Clara Barton influenced the rights of women to be nurses on the front lines on a battlefield?
Honestly, I think that you have three different potential approaches for a thesis statement.  I would conduct some research and see where your research leads you.

My topic for the NHD project is Homeland Security: The impact of fighting terrorism on our right to privacy.  I would like to know if it would be better to focus on the right to protect our privacy or the responsibility to protect our citizens from terrorism? Or research both?
From the sounds of your topic, I think you need to narrow down your time frame and the scope of your inquiry.  Are you going to look at the fear of German-Americans during World War I?  Japanese-Americans during World War II?  I think this is a perfect example of a topic where you can’t really understand the topic unless you consider BOTH the rights of the individual AND the responsibility of the government.

Are rights considered ‘humanitarian and legal rights’ and responsibilities  “opportunities where an individual or group is ‘able to respond’”?
That is certainly one way to break it down, but not the ONLY way.  I think of rights from an individual point of view, while responsibilities from more of a collective point of view.  One of our jobs as historians is to define the scope of our inquiry- to put it another way – you should define YOUR terms early in your project and weave these into your thesis, interpretation, and conclusion.

When picking a specific topic is it better to have a long period of time such as 1930-present and look at the rights and responsibilities as they occur, or is it better to focus on a specific treaty or act or some specific point in time?
You need to define your time period as it makes sense to the project.  Even if you decide to focus on a topic from 1930-1936, you can still look at how this idea is important today.  Remember to ask yourself “So what?  Why does this topic matter?” and explain how it connects to life today.

My theme question is: What are the lasting effects of the Chernobyl accident? OR should I say: What responsibilities do the Ukrainian people have to make sure is doesn't happen again?
I think this is where you need to develop and revise your question so that you are getting at the theme.  In terms of the content of the answers, that’s where your research comes in.  If you’re unsure, I would encourage you to research some more and see where your evidence takes you.

Question: With this theme, students can often become "preachy" in their projects. What is your advice on how to avoid this pitfall?
I would tell students that this is not a political science project.  Don’t forget about the “in history” part of the topic – you need to argue like a historian, not like a political pundit on a Sunday morning talk show.  I also like to tell students to “show me, don’t tell me” – let your evidence speak for itself and let it guide your interpretation.  

How would you recommend that teachers introduce the theme "Rights and Responsibilities" to students so that they understand the theme?
I would start with an example in class.  Take a topic that you have already covered this year, and rough it out as if it were an NHD topic (major topic, subtopic, research questions, connection to theme, thesis statement, etc).  You might also want to have students read the theme sheet or brainstorm ideas in small groups.  You could also take the front page of a newspaper and trace current events to a historical precedent.  There are lots of ways to get started.

Is this paper sort of opinion-based then? If there can be an 'implied' responsibility, what if I infer something that might not necessarily be true? (not on purpose, of course, but what if my interpretation of an unwritten responsibility might just be my own opinion and not actually what's accepted?) What if it's my opinion that blacks should have gotten the right to vote, and someone says otherwise? Is this paper opinion-based or fact-based? because rights and responsibilities seems to depend on opinions.
The paper (or any of the projects) require you to create a historical argument, where you develop a thesis statement to argue your point of view.  Your interpretation must be based on FACTS gathered from your research.  You can argue what you like, so long as the evidence (in primary and secondary sources) back you up.  Other people may very well argue against you – that’s what makes history interesting.  I would say that rights and responsibilities are open for interpretation (as opposed to a matter of opinion).  Good luck!

I have a student who would like her project to focus on the rights of all people to marry. I have suggested comparing previous court cases, Loving vs. Virginia for example, to current issues. Another teacher has offered that arguing a moral issue is not productive and therefore would not make a good topic choice. What do you think?
I would agree that you don’t want to pose a moral argument, but rather pose a historical one.  Your student is not arguing whether gay marriage should be legal or not – that’s a topic for political science.  In history, you want to trace the issue back and focus on legal and historical precedent, and then connect to current issues in the conclusion.  Where did this debate originate?  Are there previous examples of case law?  How about in other countries?  Remember, that we don’t know the short-term or long-term implications of ANY modern decision – we need to go back in time to be able to do that.

I am researching African Americans and the civil rights in Missouri. I am also describing how the Civil Right Movement impacted the future of United States. Would it be best to represent the African American's view point and/or the White people's view point?
Ideally you would look at both perspectives – it is hard to make an argument without understanding both perspectives.  I’m sure you can find some local examples, case studies, or court cases to research!

Would it be alright if I split up the theme "Rights and Responsibilities" into sections to explain the rights of the people and the responsibilities of the government for my topic which is
The Great Railroad Strike of 1877?
Sure.  While there is no “formula” this sounds like a logical form of organization for your work.

For this year's theme which form of presentation would you mostly want to see? Exhibit or Paper?
We want to see all five types of projects – papers, exhibits, documentaries, websites, and performances!   Remember, the project is the vehicle to showcase your research  - choose the one that best suits your talents, or choose a new category to develop new skills!
 
My question is: How do you think you should manage your time researching and finding information so it is manageable and not just all overwhelming?
Great question!  You need to set yourself a schedule and set target dates (ie, focus on secondary research for two weeks, then shift to primary research).  I would also suggest working on your annotated bibliography as you go – don’t wait until the end – enter sources as you find them.  Don’t forget to give yourself time to read.  Figure out when your deadline is for your regional contest, and then work backwards and make a calendar from there.  I would also say that working on the project in stages (a hour, twice a week) is much easier than pulling an all-nighter as deadlines loom.

Would the revealing of the Gunatanamo Bay handbooks or the Julius Bar investment records by wikileaks be too recent for proper examination? (2007-8)
These are tough topics because:  1. There are very few secondary sources available (enough time hasn’t passed for historians to synthesize their impacts) and  2. We don’t know the final impact of these (ie, will Guantanamo Bay be shut down or continue to operate?  How will the prisoners be tried?).  We simply don’t know the full story on these events.  If you’re interested in intelligence or the media, there are lots of topics where you can contrast the people’s right to know with the government’s desire to maintain secrecy….start digging in that direction.

Do the rights need to come from a law standard? If so, should it be a current standard or one used at the time of the event?
Not necessarily.  They might tie to an actual law, but societies offer rights that aren’t always codified.  In using an older law, I would think that you would discuss the standards or expectations of time period and discuss how it applies today.

What does the theme Rights and Responsibilities mean? Does it mean the right and the responsibility to your country or does it mean one person's duty and their right and responsibility to help out others?
I would suggest reading the theme sheet to give you a good idea

I am thinking about doing a topic about WWI. I want to focus on the American soldiers. They had to take up the responsibility to serve their country and they had the right to fight in the war. Could I relate the theme by talking about the soldiers right and responsibility to their country?
Definitely.

I would like to know if my theme fit the topic for this year.  My topic is the Trail of Tears. Do you think this fits the theme?  If not can you give me some pointers?
I think you just have to figure out the angle that allows you to address the issue of rights and responsibilities.  Use the prompt questions (listed under the first question on this page) to help you frame your analysis.

My theme is the rights and responsibilities of forensics scientists. The way I want to write my paper is through a fictional court trial in which a forensic scientist violates his responsibilities by manipulating and fabricating evidence to save a friend who is the real murderer. (The rights portion will be portrayed through the court trail it self, as rights will inevitably come up.) May I do this?
Yes…just carefully read the rules for papers – you may use a creative piece of writing, but you will still need to document and cite your sources.
 
One of my students is having trouble coming up with a topic that is not political.  Any suggestions?  
Rights and responsibilities often connect to governments, but not always.  I would suggest that you figure out what you’re interested in, and then connect to the theme.  I would check out the sample topics list to get started – maybe one of these will connect to an interest of yours or spark an idea in your head.

One of my students asked if the "Arab Spring" might be a good topic.  I believe it's important to look at something that occurred at least 20 years ago, but does NHD require the topic to be "older?"
The topic of your National History Day project should be historical, not a current event. (Don’t forget the “in History” part of the theme!) There is no official rule on exactly “how old” your topic must be, but enough time must have passed to allow historians to evaluate the impact and historical significance, and create secondary sources. Current events are still unfolding, and therefore you cannot yet see all causes and effects and what the long term outcome is.  These are all very important aspects to look at when conducting your research.  Remember – for a great NHD project you need to be able to analyze your sources and draw conclusions about your topic, not just report what happened.  If you are interested in a current event (like the Arab Spring) consider other revolutionary movements in history (in France, the American Revolution or Civil War, Russia, Mexico, Latin American independence movements) and tie the interest back that way.