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"Can't I Just Choose My Own Topic?"

Sarah Cooper

History teacher and curriculum administrator
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So many times as an English and history teacher, I've rushed students through the first step of the research process: choosing a topic. Then we can move on to the real work -- or so I've always thought.

Recently, however, students in my eighth grade history class started a project on American reformers in which the guiding question was: "What leads someone to step up and take action?" It seemed reasonable to ask students to think hard about who they wanted to study, given that they would be researching reformers with powerful opinions of their own.

So I tried an experiment. I asked students to spend two 43-minute periods in the library researching reformers before writing a pitch for their favorite ones.

This initial investment of time paid off in student engagement throughout the several weeks of the project. Along the way, it also addressed a number of Common Core standards, helping students to "answer a question . . . drawing on several sources" and "assess the credibility and accuracy" of databases and websites, without even realizing that they were learning these skills.

Step 1: Let’s "Talk Through" a List of Reformers

At the beginning of the first library period, I talked through a list of about 50 reformers, some still alive today, with a brief description of each one. Here’s an example:

Marian Wright Edelman (1939- ): An activist for children's rights, she is the president and founder of the Children's Defense Fund.

As I mentioned each person, usually for under 10 seconds to keep interest high, students marked those they wanted to learn more about. A few times, I built someone up by saying, "This person is really crazy!" Later, several kids asked, "Who are the people you said were craziest again?" Carrie Nation headed the list, with several others close behind for their unorthodox tactics.

Eighth graders agreed that Carrie Nation was the craziest reformer.

Step 2: Research Reformers in the Library Before the Project Even Starts

During the remainder of the first period and all of the second in the library -- about 70 minutes total -- students researched at least six reformers by writing down two facts about each person from two good sources. I was torn about whether they should do a bibliography at this stage, but I decided to keep the early fun factor high by waiting until they were doing more formal research later.

For quality control, students started with either a book from our library's collection or a source from our subscription databases, such as:

Step 3: Make Your Best Case

Once students finished finding facts, they started their homework: "Give the reasons, as short or as long as you want, for your top three reformers." (Next time, I would ask for the top four, because some of the reformers were so popular that a few students didn't get any of their top three choices.) In each class, the best argument for a particular person won.

I was heartened to see that it wasn't always the strongest students who made the most impassioned arguments. The mild competition inspired some formerly reluctant writers to spend a half-page or more on paragraphs explaining their ideas.

James Meredith exercising his constitutional rights at the University of Mississippi.

The Results: More Passion, More Identity

In the past when I've taught English, we did a project in which students chose a poet and imitated his or her style. I've teased students that, if they're stuck, I bet I can find a writer who matches their personality: Jane Kenyon for a studious girl pondering the meaning of life, or Wilfred Owen for a boy who can't ingest enough documentaries about warfare.

This history project took my "matchmaking" one better, in that students were able to shape their learning by finding their own best match.

And they did own their people. A quiet, thoughtful girl chose Catholic journalist Dorothy Day, and a self-described libertarian boy picked ACLU founder Roger Baldwin. Along with a final paper on the reformer's tactics, students also played a clip from a song that reminded them of the reformer, making the entire process more personal.

As they presented, I found myself wondering which reformer I would choose, and who would have interested me in eighth grade. Jane Jacobs revitalizing neighborhood life in New York City? James Meredith desegregating the University of Mississippi? Elizabeth Cady Stanton agitating for women's suffrage?

Given the time to think and choose, which reformer would you pick?

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Chris Davis's picture
Chris Davis
Teacher, Tech Innovation Project Coordinator

I like the dedication of time to building a base of inquiry, and understanding for the topic of study, and in this case an empathy for the perspectives and point of view of reformers. Short pitches along the way enabling students to talk through their reasoning and at the same time becoming more invested seems so logical, and human centered. These are the "project based elements" I am currently working with as well, critical brainstorming, group synthesis of ideas, and immersion prior to formal study.

My reformers would be John Dewey and his defense of the pragmatic "experience" in which each moment exists as a possible future, and Vygotsky's reform of Pavlovian Psychology where the "tool" enables the subject to manipulate the environment and in so doing manipulate him or herself.

I look forward to learning more from your work.

Sarah Cooper's picture
Sarah Cooper
History teacher and curriculum administrator


I really enjoy the language you use to talk about this process: "building a base of inquiry" as well as all the "project-based elements." The idea of immersing students in material before asking them to formally address it appeals to me because it's how we tend to learn naturally. We read an article, or hear something on the news, and we don't necessarily know everything about it. Then we dig into topics we want to know more about by talking with other people, watching videos, or reading still more. What do you teach?

There's a fantastic recent book that explores Vygotsky's gradual release of responsibility in one of the best ways I've seen, Doug Fisher and Nancy Frey's "Better Learning Through Structured Teaching," 2nd ed. Here's a review I wrote for MiddleWeb:

Thanks for your interest!

Steve Smith's picture

You don't happen to have the list of the 50 reformers you introduce during the first period that you could share, do you?

Sarah Cooper's picture
Sarah Cooper
History teacher and curriculum administrator


Here you go! I preface the list by saying that many of the reformers may seem liberal, but that's because the nature of reform is to change society rather than keep it the way it is.

Thanks for your interest, and please let me know if you have more questions. Also, if you try the project, let me know which elements work well for you!

Jane Addams (1860-1935). Social worker, founded Hull House in Chicago, won Nobel Peace Prize in 1931. Fought for poor and immigrant rights.
Saul Alinsky (1909-1972). Considered to be the founder of modern community organizing, starting with neighborhoods in Chicago in the 1950s.
Roger Baldwin (1884-1981). Founder of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), which works to preserve Constitutional freedoms, often through court trials.
Louis Brandeis (1856-1941). Supreme Court justice who gave impassioned defenses for freedom of speech and the right to privacy. First Jewish justice.
David Brower (1912-2000). Mountaineer and founder of the Sierra Club and other environmental organizations.
John Brown (1800-1859). Wild abolitionist who attacked on the federal armory at Harper's Ferry, Virginia, in 1859 and also fought against pro-slavery forces in "Bleeding Kansas."
Rachel Carson (1907-1964). Marine biologist, conservationist, and author of Silent Spring, a book many believed sparked the environmental movement in the U.S.
Carrie Chapman Catt (1859-1947). Woman suffrage leader who campaigned for the 19th Amendment, which gave women the right to vote. Also founded the League of Women Voters.
Cesar Chavez (1927-1993). Helped make the struggle of farm workers a national cause through his persistent but nonviolent efforts. Co-founded the United Farm Works union.
Dorothy Day (1897-1980). Founded the Catholic Worker Movement, an organization that aided poor and homeless people while advocating for them politically with nonviolent direct action.
Eugene Debs (1855-1926). One of the best-known Socialist leader ever in the United States. Helped found Industrial Workers of the World and ran for president several times.
Dorothea Dix (1802-1887). Lobbied for the mentally ill and created the first mental asylums in the U.S. Also served as Superintendent of Army Nurses during the Civil War.
Frederick Douglass (1818-1895). An African-American leader of the abolitionist movement, known for his compelling speeches and a powerful memoir about his time in slavery.
W.E.B. DuBois (1868-1963): An activist in every way, he was the first African-American to earn a doctorate from Harvard. Founded the NAACP and wrote The Souls of Black Folk.
Marian Wright Edelman (1939- ). An activist for children's rights, she is the president and founder of the Children's Defense Fund.
Barbara Ehrenreich (1941- ). A political activist and author. She is perhaps most famous for Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting by in America, in which she lived on the minimum wage for three months.
Medgar Evers (1925-1963). A civil rights activist who found in World War II and was involved in overturning segregation at the University of Mississippi.
William Lloyd Garrison (1805-1879). An abolitionist and journalist who published The Liberator, which he published in Massachusetts from 1831 until slavery was abolished after the Civil War.
"Greensboro Four." These four college students started a nonviolent sit-in at a Woolworth department store in Greensboro, North Carolina, in 1960.
Angelina and Sarah Grimke (1792-1873 and 1805-1879). Quakers, educators and writers who argued for women's rights and abolition of slavery.
Dolores Huerta (1930- ). A labor leader and civil rights activist who co-founded the United Farm Workers union along with Cesar Chavez.
Gordon Hirabayashi (1918-2012). A Japanese-American, he refused to accept being put in an internment camp during WWII and petitioned the Supreme Court in Hirabayashi v. United States (1943).
Jane Jacobs (1916-2006). A journalist and activist who fought to preserve the character of New York neighborhoods (especially Greenwich Village) against excessive development and highway building.
Helen Keller (1880-1968). The first deaf and blind person in the United States to earn a college degree, she campaigned for many liberal causes including women's suffrage, labor rights, and socialism.
Florence Kelley (1859-1932). She fought to change working conditions in sweatshops by arguing for the minimum wage, eight-hour workdays, and children's rights. Also helped found the NAACP.
Fred Korematsu (1919-2005). A Japanese-American, he refused to accept being put in an internment camp during WWII and petitioned the Supreme Court in Korematsu v. United States (1944).
Malcolm X (1925-1965). A human rights activist who fought strongly for the right of African-Americans. His tactics were controversial.
Thurgood Marshall (1908-1993). A lawyer who argued the Brown v. Board of Education case before the Supreme Court, he became the Court's first African-American justice in 1967.
James Meredith (1933- ). The first African-American student admitted to the University of Mississippi, where he applied to try to convince the Kennedy administration of the importance of civil rights.
Michael Moore (1954- ). A social activist and filmmaker whose very liberal films have included Fahrenheit 9/11 and Bowling for Columbine.
Harvey Milk (1930-1978). The first openly gay person to be elected to public office in California, he served for 11 months before being assassinated by a former supervisor who wanted his job back.
Lucretia Mott (1793-1880). An abolitionist, Quaker, and women's rights activist who co-wrote the Declaration of Sentiments in 1848 with Elizabeth Cady Stanton.
Ralph Nader (1934- ). An outspoken political activist who is especially interested in consumers' rights and environmentalism. His most famous book Is Unsafe at Any Speed, a 1965 book about auto safety.
Alice Paul (1885-1977). A militant women's rights activist who went on a hunger strike after being arrested for obstructing traffic during a protest. She helped win passage of the 19th Amendment.
Frances Perkins (1933-1945). As Secretary of Labor under Franklin Delano Roosevelt, she was the first woman in the U.S. Cabinet. She helped pass many pieces of New Deal legislation.
A. Philip Randolph (1889-1979). He organized the first mostly black labor union, convinced FDR to outlaw discrimination in the defense industries, and headed the 1963 March on Washington
Margaret Sanger (1879-1966). A nurse who opened the first birth control clinic in the United States and founded groups that later evolved into Planned Parenthood.
Phyllis Schlafly (1924- ). A conservative activist who opposed modern feminism and fought against passage of the Equal Rights Amendment.
Pete Seeger (1919-2014). A singer and civil rights activist best known for helping popularize "We Shall Overcome," the anthem of the 1960s civil rights movement.
Cindy Sheehan (1957- ). An antiwar activist whose son was killed during the Iraq War, she protested outside President Bush's Texas ranch in 2005.
Eunice Shriver (1921-2009). The founder of Camp Shiver, which eventually became the Special Olympics in 1968. She was also John F. Kennedy's sister.
Fred Shuttlesworth (1922-2011). This minister cofounded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in the 1960s and worked closely with Martin Luther King, Jr.
Upton Sinclair (1878-1968). He was an investigative journalist who wrote The Jungle (1906), which exposed disgusted conditions in the meat-packing industry and led to national food and drug laws.
Elizabeth Cady Stanton (1815-1902). Along with Lucretia Mott, she organized the Seneca Falls Convention of 1848 and wrote the Declaration of Sentiments. She also fought for other women's rights.
Gloria Steinem (1934- ). Founder of Ms. Magazine, she was a leader of the women's liberation movement of the 1960s and 70s. Most recently, she founded the Women's Media Center in 2005.
Sojourner Truth (c. 1797- 1883). A noted women's rights activist and abolitionist, she delivered the famous "Ain't I A Woman" speech in 1851 and later helped gather black troops for the Union Army.
Earl Warren (1891-1974). One of the most famous Chief Justices of the Supreme Court, his tenure from 1953-1969 included Brown v. Board (1954) and Miranda v. Arizona (1966), on 5th Amendment rights.
Ida Wells-Barnett (1862-1931). An African-American journalist, she helped lead the early civil rights movement with her articles about lynchings. She was also active in women's suffrage.

MissT's picture

I am currently debating with myself on whether or not I should allow my students to pick their own topics for their upcoming compare/contrast essays or if they should write on topics I have picked for them. This blog post was a nice reminder that the power of choice aids in student learning and engagement! Thank you! It also occurred to me that meaningful instruction (such as allowing students to choose what they are researching/writing about) leads to better classroom management as well.

Sarah Cooper's picture
Sarah Cooper
History teacher and curriculum administrator

I'm glad to hear that you are thinking about giving a choice for the essays. What is the topic?

Your point about classroom management is so true, and one I hadn't connected with choice until you said it. Even now, we're doing a "dictators project" in 8th grade history in which I gave some time to choose, but not as much as I described for the reformers project. It does seem that the students who invested more time in choosing their people are more engaged during class research time.

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