Beginning to Close History Fair with the Question Formulation Technique

Wrapping up History Fair isn’t just a flurry of cutting and printing… it’s an important time to reflect and bring closure as we end a long, rigorous, and important process. Inquiry is the driving force of what NHD projects do, and we need to circle back and reflect how that skill has driven our work both implicitly and explicitly. This was also a convenient time to check and see how strong our understanding of the theme is.

We used the Question Formulation Technique (QFT) to begin closing out our History Fair unit. The QFT is an instructional strategy which encourages students to ask questions. More than that, students are taught what kinds of questions reflect comprehension and which return more information. This video is a long example but demonstrates the full strategy:

There are 7 steps in a QFT lesson:

  1. Establish the rules (3-5 min).
  2. Share the prompt (1 min).
  3. Ask questions as a group (5-8 min).
  4. Refine questions (3-5 min).
  5. Prioritize questions (3-5 min).
  6. Identify individual top 3 (1-3 min).
  7. Reflect (5 min).

Below is the prompt we used, and questions a few groups of generated:

Even better, here’s a sample of a group of students discussing the value of a question and whether it’s closed or open. It’s a nice example of the kind of questioning and collaboration this strategy encourages.

Students enjoyed the lesson and found it valuable:

“I thought that it was really helpful and was going to help Izzy and me work on our project because it gave me a new perspective on how to read our project.”

i really liked it and i feel like it helps give me a better understanding on how to ask certain questions just not on history fair but along with other topics”

It is a great lesson to teach people because it gives them something to think about their project and how to make it better.”

“I thought this lesson was fun and paid off and fun to do in groups with classmates/peers.”

It changed the way that I view the project and I now have a better understanding of what we need to have in the project about the stand and what makes sense.”


How can Parents Help students successfully finish History Fair projects?

Lin-Manuel Miranda’s “Hurricane” is a fairly accurate portrayal of 7th graders finishing their History Fair work. It’s also an incredibly lame attempt for me to encourage kids to “write their way out.” 

Entering the home stretch of History Fair is a flurry of activity. Unfortunately, the volume of work makes it impossible for me to give kids timely feedback at the rate they’d like. So, students are going to need the help of each other, their ELA teachers and How can parents help their students finish this project?

  1. First suggestion is to have your child read their labels out loud. This might sound silly but any repetition, errors with conventions, and language use should be apparent.
  2. Use a “peer evaluation form” to look for topic sentences, evidence, and analysis. A few other questions are on that doc to help, too.
  3. If you’re feeling brave (and have some time), you can try Mrs. Defors’ ratiocination exercise. This something our “expert” kids have begun helping new students learn, but is difficult for me to separate from class to engage with. Feel free to see this blog post to read, then guide your child through the process.
  4. Read an excellent example of what writing looks like to have an idea how to do this well. (Thanks Emma and Gillian!)

I will make every effort to give students additional feedback prior to History Fair. But students shouldn’t wait or make any excuses that I’m not available on an immediate and individual basis. Design of this project has facilitated student work in a pretty clear way. PLUS, this website contains TONS of resources to help students clarify any confusion. Continue using Reflections, email, and help time at school (AM, PM and study hall) with any concerns.

Finally, students can expect feedback on these specific dates:

  • 7th and 8th Periods: Tonight!
  • 5th and 6th Periods: Wednesday
  • 3rd and 4th Periods: Thursday

Ratiocination Exercise to Finalize History Fair Writing


noun ra·ti·o·ci·na·tion \-ˌō-sə-ˈnā-shən, -ˌä-\ :  the process of exact thinking :
Mrs. Defors works with our 3rd Period students in our Lab/Makerspace.

As students wrap up their writing, our fabulous Instructional Coach, Mrs. Defors, is working with students in small groups to improve their writing. Our class has been utilizing the wide-open makerspace in our former computer lab. Kids can build stage pieces and open up exhibits outside of my cramped classroom, but it’s also excellent for differentiated groups like Mrs. Defors is leading. Once they get the hang of it, students will be experts and ready to share their skills with peers next week. This isn’t just Mrs. Defors teaching today, but building a culture of collaboration for kids to continue growing through this process.

As Mrs. Defors explains it, ratiocination is a tedious process but really polishes students’ writing. We’re removing passive verbs, repetitive sentence starters, and using powerful transitions. For something so tedious, the students love it!

Anna: “I thought ratiocination was very hepful for revisiong our (history fair writing). It made me look at our writing in a differnt way… really took it to the next level.”

Bella: “Ratiocination was extremely helpful. At times, it was challenging but it was more helpful. I enjoyed making my project even better. It was the most helpful part of history fair so far.”

Katie: “Ratiocination was very helpful in taking our writing to the next level. The activity can be a little challenging but extremely helpful.”

Anna “ratiocinating” during 8th period.

Here are Mrs. Defors’ directions for this process:

And an example from class:

Writing the Ship

Historical writing has been a Challenge for seventh graders this year. While synthesizing information into a unique argument is always difficult, this year student historians have struggled to put that argument into words. As this is the most important component of History Fair, we’re spending lots of time righting the ship. Making slow but steady progress.

Today’s lesson was designed to have students evaluate their own work. Some students used highlighters others used their devices; whatever the method, students took a critical eye to their own work to identify gaps in the argument. We used the familiar topic sentence-evidence-analysis structure to tighten their arguments. Students should come home today with packets that looks like this: 

  • Topic sentences (blue) should state the claim and introduce the purpose of the paragraph/label.
  • Evidence (yellow) should be factual information related to that claim. Strong evidence includes quotes, statistics, accomplishments and specific actions.  
  • Analysis (pink) is your interpretation of that evidence.

The purpose of highlighting is to point out what exactly is missing. (Note that Jason/Thomas noted missing analysis after this exercise.) If you’re looking to guide students on writing, this should help. 

Taking Advantage of a 4-Day Weekend

President General Washington would be glad if you spent some time studying history this weekend! I suggest you spend some time building your project with the extra time his legacy has given you this weekend.

Some things to consider before you build anything:

  1. Review your checklists. These include the rules, examples, and advice.
  2. Make nothing permanent. The week of 2/27 is one which you can present and get feedback from myself and your classmates. You don’t want permanently glued items which will either damage your project to move, or dissuade you from making any improvements.
  3. Labels will still undergo revisions. Do not assume what you have now is perfect. It is not.
  4. Be genuinely creative!
  5. Plan. Plan. Plan. Swimming regionals are coming up. The musical starts to practice next week. Spring sports will ramp up soon. “Failure to Prepare is Preparing to Fail.”

Projects are DUE March 3rd (Thursday), but may be turned in early and presented for Extra Credit anytime the week of 2/27 (in class).

Need more sources? Try this:

What else can you do this weekend?

  • Begin printing photos for your project.
  • Begin tinkering with the sizing of your text (and use different texts, too).
  • Improve your annotated bibliography.
  • Complete an entry for ongoing reflections.
  • Read the two superb examples of Master Plans posted on classroom.
  • history-fair-timeline-february-1


Peer Editing: Collaborating to Revise & Improve Historical Writing


7th Period students clarifying comments, leaving feedback, and making revisions. 


Some students are under the impression that completion of their Master Plan signals the end of writing. No… Remember, Master Plans (with the labels which compose it) become the actual History Fair project. It will take 3 or 4 iterations to get these plans right. This is a process mindset than many 7th graders simply haven’t developed yet. As a result, there are some false assumptions about being “done.” Every plan will undergo revisions and changes.
Peer Feedback is a crucial component of improving our writing skills. Our ELA teachers are working on this with students at the same time, and we’ve begun to see writing improve. We use the rubric below to identify three central skills right now:
  1. Topic Sentence to establish purpose/claim in each label.
  2. Evidence which coherently supports that claim.
  3. Analysis to explain WHY this information matters.
Our ELA teachers created the rubric, and I added a few open-ended questions to allow students to create dialogue. This has been incredibly beneficial for students starting conversations about their writing. Kids are tracking down their evaluators (often from other classes) and getting explanations about what they saw. Beyond being effective, peer revisions have students excited to write. Many kids seek additional feedback when they realize what they’ve gotten isn’t enough. Others look to read and leave feedback when they have time. Despite some ugly first drafts, their enthusiasm to improve their writing skills has been impressive.
Most students have received feedback from me, 3-4 peers, and are currently making revisions. I will read and leave feedback for all 70 projects over the weekend. All students should now be at 10-12 labels. Very few exceptions to that rule.
Many of our parents are helping walk your students through this process. I appreciate that! Writing and synthesizing all of this is a difficult process for students, and their guidance is incredibly valuable. No student can do this alone; some support, encouragement, or clarification might be necessary on what amounts to a 3-page essay.

Spartan Historians Hit the Road!

This is Michael. He was so locked into his research he didn’t notice me walk into the Special Collections room and take a seat next to him. Michael spent 3 hours pouring through boxes.

61 Student Historians. 4 Museums. 3 Buses. 2 Road trips in the books.

file_003These trips are tremendous opportunities for students to get their hands on primary sources, dig into special collections, get feedback from expert coaches, and do academic work at incredible academic locations. For many of our students, this is a highlight of History fair. Process over product… enjoying the work is as important as the product which comes from their effort. Getting to spend five hours in a university or metropolitan library is an excellent precursor to the hours they’ll spend preparing for work in whatever they’ll do as our next generation of citizens. Glad they had fun doing hard work!

In addition to our 61 students who traveled downtown with us, dozens of other students have visited museums and libraries this winter. I’m especially grateful for strong parent support to make these trips happen, too. Rachel, Rebecca, Frank and Lisa run a great program through the Chicago History Fair and organize these Coach-a-Paloozas efficiently. Most importantly, the patient archivists and librarians of the Pritzker Military Museum & Library, Chicago History Museum, UIC Daley Library, and the Harold Washington Library allowed our students to experience century old documents in a way Chromebooks cannot.