For many American students, the eighth grade is the first time they delve deeply into the details and controversies of American history. As such, it is a great time for eighth-graders to undertake a research project. Many students may even be able to use primary sources in this research, and numerous suitable topics are available for this age group.
American Revolution Topics
A basic research topic that will allow eighth-graders to present an argument, use primary sources and learn general American history involves assessing the events that led to the American Revolution. Students, for example, could explore a question such as "Which British policies most outraged the American colonists?" From there, they could use primary resources -- like newspaper snippets or Thomas Paine's "Common Sense" -- to clearly outline what issues were most important to the Patriots. In the process, they would learn further about issues like the Boston Tea Party -- No taxation without representation! -- and the Intolerable Acts.
Sectional Crisis and Civil War
A good way for eighth-graders to both understand primary source research and to learn the basics of the American Civil War is to research the differences between Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglass during the Lincoln-Douglas Debates. Teachers could ask for a clear outline of how the two figures differed in their views on slavery. This would entail learning about both politicians while also reading the primary arguments of the Lincoln-Douglas Debates. Teachers could provide some guidance on which debates were most useful, and they could help students understand antiquated language; however, students could read and learn about the two figures on their own.
The Great Depression
To study the Great Depression, teachers could give eighth-graders a research topic that allows them to explore how the economic downfall affected a particular region of the country. For example, each student in the class could be assigned a different region and could do research on how that area was impacted. The regions should not be so obscure as to make the research excessively detailed and complicated. A good example might be the Great Plains, which would give students a good chance to explore the Dust Bowl.
For contemporary U.S. history, eighth-graders have a wide range of options. A perfect case study might be the African-American civil rights movement. For this research project, teachers could assign different leaders in the movement -- from Martin Luther King to Rosa Parks to Malcolm X -- and then give a specific topic such as "Research this leader's views on nonviolence as a method of civil rights protest." Students could then, for example, find that Malcolm X was skeptical of the nonviolent approach, while Martin Luther King strongly supported it. Their research could use primary sources and should offer a more nuanced view of their leader's approach to nonviolence.