Using Playdoh to Teach Synthesis

file_000Synthesis is difficult… many students don’t understand how carefully they need to review, select, and assemble their research into something which is a unique argument to support their thesis. Yes, this is silly. Deliberately so. We’re writing – how BORING is that?! The kinesthetic act of blending playdoh is far more fun and meaningful than a powerpoint slide. The novelty is also a nice break from monotonous writing. file_008

We have three components of research analysis so far: RCFs, Mind Maps, and Argumentation Plans. Students often think they can just lift writing from one of them and drop it into a label. That’s like dumping playdoh from a container and calling it “your artwork.”

So we take three different colors to demonstrate the analytical tools we must access.

Simply stacked, they are meaningless. But after mixing them together, or synthesizing the colors, we’re able to create something unique. Something which is ours. If our analysis is “examining and understanding how something is important,” synthesis is blending those observations into an interpretation. That’s what we did with our playdoh colors. I guess you could infer the better you mix the colors, the better your analysis. That’s probably advanced for many History Fair students at this stage, but a goal we’ll approach over the next 32 days.

History Fair Checklists

Last week in class I shared some documents to guide students as they began designing and finalizing their arguments. While their writing and research are never really done, it’s also time to think beyond the research itself and start to imagine how they’ll tell their story. Each of these documents contains examples, rules, and ideas about each project type.

Website Checklist:

Documentary Checklist:

Exhibit Checklist:

Performance Checklist:

Paper Checklist:


All that Glitters is Not Gold: Genuinely Creative History Fair Projects

Creativity is a tricky concept for middle schoolers. Many think glitter will make a project creative. Or that Christmas lights around the border help. Those are decorations, not creative thinking. Creativity requires imagination or an original idea…something which helps tell your story; simply making your project “cute” does not make it a creative one. Interestingly, here is a REAL example from Sarah B (2014) creatively using Christmas lights. This use is simple and exemplifies using something with imagination and originality.

The 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago was the world’s first demonstration of electricity, pioneering Westinghouse & Tesla’s system to majestically illuminate the “White City.”

Mrs. Myers shared an incredible example of creativity, too. This second grader – with parental guidance and support – designed an incredible board to not only teach about Vermont, but utilized her technology interest, too.

Lakeview students are doing the same. STE(A)M is a driving force in that creative thinking. Students in our district have always had resources, but the training and support from our superb Art, Science, and STEM educators lead students to execute that creativity in a real way. We’re seeing students demonstrating the kind of thinking and multi-curricular thinking that a 21st-century classroom should encourage. It’s exciting to see students independently and enthusiastically think of ways to use their learning beyond the confines of a specific classroom. Here are some examples of History Fair projects showing genuinely creative thinking.

“For History Fair this year, I wanted to do something that stood out from the other projects. I am excited to be collaborating and experimenting with our STEM teacher to make a button to attach to my project made out of a 3D printed button. Since I am doing Martin Luther King and The Chicago Freedom Movement, I wanted to install a part of his speech inside the button to put on my exhibit. When people come up to my project they can press the button and listen to a part of MLK’s speech that he gave here in Chicago.” – Juliana 

“We are using some cool techniques that are incorporated with Stem, we are using our creative minds that help us with our project. We are going to make an elevator that we can use some of our stem techniques for and they will help improve our ideas because they are great things that we will need to know for the rest of our lives.” – Delaney, Hannah, and Amanda 

“Throughout our project, we have had interviews with two Secret Service Agents, and the information we got from them has been very helpful. We are trying to get a third interview with another Special Agent who took a bullet for President Reagan. We also are creating a little scene in front with Special Agents and presidential limos.” – Katie, Anna, and Bella

“My idea for the project is to create a game. I want people to be able to play the game if they don’t want to read about it. I was thinking it would be called along the lines of, “Where did the Eighth Go?” It would take you through the trial as one of the Chicago Seven and you would have to figure out what happened to Bobby Seale. It would also explain the trial with questions and speech bubbles.” – Ysabel

“Our History Fair project is on the 1919 Race Riot, so it was during the “Red Summer” of 1919. We are going to make paper cut-outs of people rioting. We will tape them to the bottom of our black tri-fold and spray paint with red over them. When the paint dries, we will take the paper cut-outs off of the tri-fold so that the black is showing. This will make a silhouette of a riot scene. Another idea we had in mind in addition to the silhouette was to take lights and put some red and orange tissue paper over the lights. We would cut the tissue paper in the shape of flames, making it look like there is a fire. For our large titleboard, we will take masking tape and “write” our title: “The Chicago Race Riot.” We will spray paint with red over the tape, peel off the tape when the paint dries, and our title will be visible in the negative space. We will put our subtitle, “In the Red Summer of 1919,” under the main title. We will incorporate the color red throughout our project, giving red borders around visuals, captions, and text. This shows the theme of the ‘Red Summer.'” – Katie & Ashley

“Me Gusta la Historia:” Building Classroom Culture through History Fair

This fall I became a certified Teacher Evaluator. Yay. The process was ridiculous but helped me reflect on my own practices. One of my takeaways was, while I was working incredibly hard, I was the one doing all the work. Level 4 classroom work isn’t about the teacher; reflection helped me realize I wasn’t showing, then supporting student-driven activity. Sure, there were great moments. But systematically I was doing all the work. The last month of History Fair has provided a nice opportunity to really develop that aspect of my classroom, specifically Doman 2 (classroom environment).

First is the “expert board.” This is a work in progress, but at its core is student-driven problem-solving. Students can offer help, find help themselves, and do something while waiting for me.


Surveys are also instrumental in providing specific feedback. How often are we helping each other?


The “sticker board” has also been a nice way to recognize each other, take ownership over your work, and find a classmate who needs support.


The next phase is getting students to actually praise each other. Middle school students don’t often do this, so we’re working hard to find reasons to seek out classmates to let them know we admire their work. The “Celebrations” board accomplishes the same goal.


As a result, we’re visiting more museums, I have more engaged students, and students are moving more efficiently through research. And kids actually like working hard because their research has value and meaning. Suffering Module 2 is a fair price to pay for more deeply engaged and enthusiastic students!

Master Plan Doc for History Fair

With a large portion of our research, organization, and argument planning done, we need to turn this into a project. All of those will continue as projects develop (as you see in the examples, we’re not there yet), and I have some instruction to do with analysis and synthesis. Regardless, we’re ready for our Master Plan doc, which will

  • synthesize all research, organization, analysis, and arguments into one plan
  • receive feedback and ask questions
  • review peer comments
  • organize titles, visuals, and text into a comprehensive doc
  • have access to annotated bibliography for quick access and updating
  • house thesis which students will continually revise as they research

The Master Plan doc is divided into three parts. One is simple organization with thesis, title, and annotated bib.


Second is the outline. This is key. It should also mimic the Mind Maps students completed earlier (these are two different projects, but you can see how students initially organized their work above, and how they structure an argument in this document below).


Last is the most important piece. Labels. The outline sections above directly correlate to the finished project. For example, Background A becomes Label 1. Background B becomes Label 2. As each label is a portion of their project, students are taking their arguments and extending them through this plan. Then, the plan becomes the project. Labels become components of websites, scenes of a documentary, or sections of a board. See Emma and Abby’s example from last year. the above photo has the Master Plan version of the text, with the bottom picture showing the finished product.


Follow along? Getting sooooo close to putting all this work into a product. Not quite there yet – but now the vision starts to come together!

Finding Photos for History Fair Exhibits, Documentaries, & Websites

The first and best place to find photos is within the sources you’ve already used. Those photos are likely relevant to building background, come from the event themselves, and may demonstrate the significance of the stand you’re illustrating.

Also, don’t just limit this to pictures. Photos could be of documents, newspapers, artifacts, or anything useful to tell the story of your stand.

Exhibits and Websites could use anywhere between 10-16 high-quality photos. How they’re used will be discussed later. It’s always better to have more, so shoot for 20-25 really good photos. Documentaries…  just start collecting. You need more than any of us can count.

Also, select high-quality photos without watermarks, that are large enough, are not pixelated, and aren’t distorted. Make sure you retain citation information and CITE the photo you’ll use. Save them in a document with the URL and citation info so you can access it later.

Here are a few examples of great sources you can use to find photos: