Webb Society Sponsor's Handbook - "How To" Section

A Student's Guide to Historical Research and Writing
Oral Interview Guidelines
Planning Chapter Publicity
Planning the Annual Meeting Trip
Chapter Fundraising Projects

A Student's Guide to Historical Research and Writing

On the basis of common literary shortcomings in papers submitted for the writing contests, we have prepared the following suggestions for student writers and their sponsors. These are only suggestions, so feel free to employ the following ideas only as they apply to each student's needs.

First, it should contain some basic theme, idea, or thought; this gives unity and coherence to the student's effort.

Second, the first paragraph of the paper should contain a statement of the basic theme. This prepares the reader for what is to follow.

Third, the major portion of the paper develops the basic theme.

Fourth, each paper should end with a conclusion. Here the writer draws together--or summarizes--all the facts that support his proposition. He may also include an evaluation of the conclusion in the light of the facts he has presented.

Apply the "Sandwich Theory." Items two through four, represent the "sandwich theory" of literary composition. For example, a good research paper is like a good sandwich; it has a top, a bottom, and a middle, and while all three parts are essential, the middle gives the sandwich its identity.

A subject may be fascinating, but if the writer has failed to observe the foregoing principles, he probably has not produced good historical writing.

The following guidelines are designed to enable all persons engaged in historical research and writing, at all levels of achievement, to more effectively pursue their literary goals.

  1. Composing the Opening Paragraph. Probably the most difficult aspect of good writing is composing the opening paragraph. These first two or three sentences should define clearly the subject or theme of the composition, and cite its importance to the reader. Some good examples of opening paragraphs taken from Texas Historian articles follow.

    Example I. "In the fall of 1867, elements of the 6th cavalry moved into the Jacksboro area and established Fort Richardson. As the northern-most installation at that time, and thus the nearest fort to the Indian Territory, Fort Richardson was an important part of the frontier defense."

    Comment. Fort Richardson is obviously the subject of this article. The author has, with great literary economy, cited for the reader the subject of the article (Fort Richardson), its location (near Jacksboro), the date (1867), and the fort's significance, "an important part of the frontier defense."

    Example II. "Deep in the pine forests of East Texas, in southeastern Nacogdoches County, lie the remains of one of the first boom towns in Texas. The history of the use of the oil discovered there reaches back several centuries."

    Comment. While this introductory statement lacks the impact of Example I, the author has cited the subject of the article (history of Texas petroleum and its uses), and defined the geographic location ("the pine forests of East Texas").

    Example III. "Cradled deep in the Davis Mountains of West Texas is an encampment established and maintained for the primary purpose of providing a rich Christian atmosphere for all people who attend."

    Comment. That says it all in one sentence!

    Example IV, This is a less successful effort. "Calvin Ely Eaton was born in Coryell County, Texas, January 16, 1891. His father was a farmer and his mother a housewife. 'Cal,' as he was called, was not often lonely. He had eleven brothers and sisters--eight boys and three girls. Calvin was to become the only doctor in the Eaton Family. Of all his brothers and sisters, seven were teachers, two worked for the railroad, and the occupations of the remaining two are not known."

    Comment. The author has largely confused the reader. If the subject of the paper is Calvin Ely Eaton, why was he important? For a boy in the 1890s to become a doctor is a significant accomplishment; however, the occupations, of his eight brothers and three sisters are not pertinent, nor are the facts that he was "not often lonely" and "his mother [was] a housewife."

  2. Project the Topic in Broader Context. Unless a local subject is examined in a broad historical context, the student has failed to gain maximum learning benefit from his effort, and his composition will lack depth and perception. It is primarily the role of the supervising sponsor to aid the student in this phase of research and writing. The sponsor should raise the following questions of each research paper and aid the student author in finding the answer.

    1) Was this event unique, to that specific community, or was it typical of similar events occurring in other areas of the state and nation? For example, if a paper focuses on steamboat service to a community, the student should explain a) how widespread steamboating was at that time; b) why other types of transportation were not in use; c) what brought an end to steamboating to that community; and d) explain if steamboat service continued in other parts of the state and nation, and if so, why. Examining a topic in this broad context gives historical relevance to the student's work.

    2) What other factors--social, political, economic, and technological--can be related to the topic to give the paper greater significance? In the case of steamboating, the shallow-draft steamboat was temporarily successful on some Texas rivers especially during times of high water, but its importance declined with the improvement of wagon roads and railroad construction following the Civil War. Such related information may be found in encyclopedias and the New Handbook of Texas, plus other more in-depth sources.

  3. Say It with Fewer Words. Someone once wrote, "I am writing you a long letter because I don't have time to write a short one." This emphasizes another fault of student writers, as well as many professionals: it's far easier to write a long paper than a short one. The reason is simple: most students write in a conversational style, which is not readable, and fail to take the time to edit out the unessential verbiage. For example, at least thirty to forty percent of most con-test papers published in the Texas Historian are deleted, which results in a tighter, more meaningful, and easier-to-read article. The following examples, taken from excellent papers published in the Texas Historian, demonstrate that by deleting words, condensing ideas, and combining sentences, the style becomes more readable and conveys far greater impact.

    Manuscript Copy. "Mrs. Gray designed the style of the suit and began laying out plans for it."

    Edited Copy. Mrs. Gray designed the suit and began sketching plans for its assembly.

    Manuscript Copy. "This was taken care of by Carlton Dobbs, who took the time to make the leather shoes, which, incidentally were seven feet long."

    Edited Copy. The shoe making assignment went to Carlton Dobbs, who produced a pair of seven-feet-long leather shoes.

    Manuscript Copy. "Until the pipeline project could be completed, vast quantities of oil had to be stored. Because rivets were used in those days, rather than welds or bolts, the standard fifty thousand barrel tanks could not be produced quickly enough or in large enough numbers to meet the demand."

    Edited Copy. Time was of the essence, and with the limited technology of the 1920s, standard 50,000-barrel tanks could not be produced quickly enough to meet the demand.

    Manuscript Copy. "Amon G. Carter was born in Wise County, at Crafton, Texas. He was born in an unchinked log cabin on December 11, 1879."

    Edited Copy. Carter was born on December 11, 1879, at Crafton in Wise County, Texas, in an unchinked log cabin. Manuscript Copy. "Nevertheless, Carter soon found another job, one which was more to his liking. He became a salesman for a portrait firm."

    Edited Copy. He soon found another job, salesman for a portrait firm, which was more to his liking.

    Manuscript Copy. "Many changes had taken place within the thirty years, particularly in the years following the Civil War."

    Edited Copy. Many changes had occurred, especially in the years following the Civil War.

    Manuscript Copy. "In 1898, Mr. R. S. Rather, the administrator, sold the stock and business to the Eastham Brothers. The new owners extended the dry goods and the business became known as the New York Store."

    Edited Copy. In 1898, the Eastham Brothers acquired the Henry Store, expanded the inventory, and changed the name to the New York Store.

    Manuscript Copy. "The employers were then free to adjust the facilities to meet the needs of the employees."

    Edited Copy. The employers were then free to adjust the facilities to meet the employees' needs.

  4. Composing the Concluding Paragraph. Herein lies another pitfall for student authors-drawing the topic into sharper focus. The closing one or two paragraphs should contain a brief summation of what has been covered in the body of the paper, a restatement of the topic's importance, plus the author's concluding interpretive remarks. In essence, the student should provide a brief answer to the question, "Why have I gone to all this trouble?" Some good examples of concluding paragraphs follow.

    Example I. "The great train wreck served its purpose as Frank Barnes later commented, 'Well, the major purpose, of course, was publicity for the M.K.T. Railroad, and that purpose was achieved. Also as I told the newspaper reporters on my eighty-fourth birthday a year ago, it proved a lot of people will go a long way to see a train wreck."

    Example II. "The company that once was known as the world's largest saddlery and harness manufacturer has become, among other things, a distributor of Sony radios and televisions. Time changes things, but the building at Lamar and Jackson streets is a symbol of history past and history present."

    Example III. "Project Reunion is a restoration and renovation project which includes the Union Terminal, as well as the surrounding downtown area which went into decay with the closing of the terminal. ... The entire project, now underway, will cover a fifteen year period at an estimated cost of $210,000,000." "And as mass transportation becomes more essential to the city's growth, and even survival, perhaps the old terminal may live again as a major transportation center to propel Dallas into the future."

  5. Taking Notes Effectively. To write successfully, the student must learn to take notes in a manner that will enable him or her to use his or her collected materials with minimum effort. Step one, throw away those spiral notebooks!

    The student must be able to organize and categorize his or her materials according to topic, event, location, person, and/or date. Notes taken in a note-book destroys this flexibility. Notes should be taken--either written or typed--on 4" x 6" lined note cards, or half sheets of typing paper, 5 1/2" x 8 1/2". A recommended form follows.

    The date of the event is recorded in the upper right-hand corner, the general topic appears in the upper left-hand corner, the content of the entry is in the headline, and the bibliographic source is entered at the bottom of the form. The quotation marks indicate this is a direct quote from a newspaper. A minimum amount of information, is entered on each card, which gives the student even greater flexibility in organizing his research data.

    When the student is ready to begin writing, the cards are stacked in tiles according to 1) date, 2) general topic, or 3) the content of the statement, whichever best develops the storyline. The various stacks of cards actually form the topic headings for the outline of the research paper. Keeping the research data on individual cards, the student can easily reorganize his data by simply rearranging the cards, an impossible feat with notes written in a notebook.

    This is one satisfactory method of taking notes for a research paper. The sponsor and chapter members are, of course, free to adapt this, or other methods to meet their specific needs.

  6. Use of Quotations. Quotations are the words of another author and should be used with discretion. Frequently a well chosen quote can add interest, color, and authority to a contest paper; however, when a student uses a direct quote, those words must be enclosed in quotation marks and must be followed by a footnote.

    Paraphrasing, is using information from another source and restating it in one's own words. Paraphrased material does not require quotation marks but must be followed by a footnote. A paper failing to meet the requirements for direct quotes and paraphrasing will be automatically disqualified.

  7. Use of Proper Names. When possible, a person's full name should be used when the name is first introduced in the paper. In subsequent references to the person, only the last name is necessary. (For example: Dr. Charles L. Smith, chamber of commerce president, will address the city council. Smith reported that the organization increased its membership fifty percent this year.)

  8. Documentation. A contest paper must include a list of sources when published material is used; therefore, papers entered in the writing contest should include a bibliography and footnotes. Documentation should be in accordance with the Style Guide adopted by the Texas State Historical Association for the Southwestern Historical Quarterly. Since all quotations and factual data are checked in The University of Texas Library, these citations are absolutely necessary.

  9. Working with Primary Sources. Students should be discouraged from being "rocking chair historians" who use only books and magazine articles written on their subject. The search for original materials at the local level is one of our primary commitments. Students can find these primary resources by referring to family correspondence, diaries, account ledges, business records, census reports, court-house and land office records, church records, tax records, old newspaper files, family picture albums, and interviews with "old timers."

  10. Publicize Your Needs. Let your college colleagues and peers know that you and your Webb Society students collect old documents, newspapers, letter, and diaries for use in projects. This great trove of largely unexplored historical sources will add new and fresh views of local history.

  11. Go to the Source. Those students who do not have access to primary materials should not, be discouraged from entering the writing contest. Many excellent papers are based on secondary sources (previously published works); however, we like to think of published works as being used to authenticate and to add variety to what primary research has revealed. The students who seek primary materials are truly the pioneers, the trail blazers, of the history fraternity; and in the process of doing original research, the student will discover history for himself.

  12. Pictures and Illustrations. Sponsors should encourage students to collect photographs, maps, and illustrations (black and white reproduces best) with their contest papers. These contribute greatly to the interest and usefulness of the paper, especially if it is considered for publication. Nothing is more disappointing than to receive an excellent paper which does not include photographs. Xerox copies are acceptable, providing the originals are available on request.

  13. Expertise. Many potentially good papers probably have not been written or entered in the contest because the students felt that they had to be an expert at research and writing. This is not the object of the writing contest, and a student will not be disqualified for slight technical or grammatical errors. The judges are more concerned with originality, historical accuracy, interest, clarity, unity, and picturesqueness of detail. Students should be reminded that they are not competing with experts, but with their fellow students.

  14. Topics. Although any topic on history--current or past--may be entered in the writing contest, students are urged to work on some subject that relates specifically to their community or its local history. It is not necessary for a paper to deal with a well-known person, place, or incident. The subject that a student is most familiar with, that has resource materials available, and which holds a genuine fascination for the student, is the perfect subject for the writing contest.

  15. Organizational Outline to Researching and Writing Local History.

    Step 1: Review the sources available for research. Note many of these may be available online. Be sure to analyze the validity of all sources.

    1) General Libraries
      a) books
      b) articles
      c) newspapers
    2) Special collections
      a) books
      b) manuscripts
      c) documents
      d) oral history
      e) newspapers
      f) photographs
    3) Museum
    4) Family records
    5) Older residents
    6) Courthouse records
    7) Business records
    8) Personal correspondence

    Step 2: Select a topic

    Step 3: Prepare a list of questions to be answered in the paper

    Step 4: Prepare a preliminary outline

    Step 5: Research the subject

    Step 6: Assemble the data

    Step 7: Construct a final outline

    Step 8: Write a rough draft

    Step 9: Proofread and correct the rough draft

    Step 10: Write the final, revised draft

These are our suggestions. Additional suggestions can be found in the Guidelines to Historical research found in the Resource Section. Use them as they apply to your specific needs. And good luck to you all.

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Oral Interview Guidelines

Oral interviews should be an important part of your students’ research. Interviews with those who have lived through past historical events and with those historians who have studied the past will enhance the Webb Society experience in many ways.

When students conduct interviews the sponsor should realize that the success of the oral interview depends largely on 1) the student's pre-planning of the interview; 2) his or her knowledge and use of the equipment; and 3) his or her manner of conducting the interview. The Texas State Historical Association is indebted to the Wayland Baptist University Webb Society chapter for the following "DO'S and DONT'S" of oral history.

Before the session


  1. some basic research on the person and his or her activities so that you can get him or her started talking
  2. become familiar with your recorder
    • practice starting and stopping it
    • practice changing tapes
    • check the recorder before use to be sure everything is working properly
  3. have extra tapes and batteries if recorder uses batteries
  4. use the best-quality polyester tape available
    • cassettes 60 minutes long
    • 90 minute tapes break too easily because of increase pressure on them

Beginning the session


  1. be cordial--let the interviewee know you appreciate his or her time
  2. place tape recorder on the floor or otherwise out of sight
  3. use A-C if at all possible and save batteries
  4. center microphone between interviewer and interviewee but facing neither
  5. face the interviewee and maintain eye contact--listen to him or her
  6. sit within 5 feet of the interviewee for best volume adjustment on tape
  7. state the following information at the beginning of the tape:
    a. your name
    b. where you are
    c. date
    d. begin the interview as follows:
    "This is (name) of (school/college) and I'm talking to (interviewee gives his or her own name). I am in _____'s home (or office or wherever) in_________, Texas (or wherever), and today is (date). Would you now identify yourself?
  8. identify anyone else whose voice appears on the tape


  1. place the mike near the recorder--it picks up the whirr of the machine
  2. move the mike or its support after the recorder is on--it puts noise into the machine
  3. place mike or recorder near air conditioner, furnace, or ticking clock--noise distorts voices on tape

During the Session


  1. ask one question at a time
  2. ask specific questions--who? what? where? when? why?
  3. listen, carefully--his or her answers will lead you to more questions
  4. make brief notes, to prompt yourself on questions you think of as you go along
  5. use appropriate form to note all proper names, places, companies, etc.
    a. check the spelling of these names with the interviewee before you leave
    b. keep this form with the tape through the transcribing state
  6. give the interviewee time to think and finish his or her answer--silence sometimes causes him or her to elaborate when he or she may be hesitant to do so otherwise
  7. save sensitive questions for last after you've established a rapport with the interviewee
  8. keep a list of unfinished and under-elaborated topics if you plan a second interview; if not, ask them now
  9. have interviewee sign legal agreement, tape disposal form, and supplemental agreement on restrictions, if any
  10. tell him or her about further requirements on his or her time, e.g., editing of the typescript for accuracy and correct spelling
    1. explain limits of editing he or she may do--for example, may not delete portions
    2. may, if he or she wishes, place restrictions on the use of the material
  11. tell him or her they will receive a final copy
  12. thank him or her


  1. answer any question for the interviewee
  2. interrupt unless the interviewee is wandering far off topic
  3. make personal remarks about yourself--a good interviewer doesn't shine on his or her tapes; his or her interviews do
  4. "hustle" the interviewee unless he or she is repeating him or herself or tied up in a long, unrelated genealogy
  5. neglect to ask about things with which you are personally acquainted--everybody doesn't know
  6. talk while changing the tape--you may miss a lot
  7. start and stop the recorder once you've begun
    a. let the interviewee have the time he or she needs to think, you probably aren't wasting that much tape
    b. use pause button if the recorder has one
  8. extend the entire visit beyond 1 1/2 hours--your interviewee may say he or she isn't tired, but you are
  9. challenge him or her
    a. seldom is deliberate lying going on
    b. give room for restatement
    c. try negative approach Example: "I understand the mayor was a difficult man to work for."
    1. Interviewee who liked the mayor can spring to his or her defense.
    2. Interviewee who didn't like him or her can elaborate.
  10. place more than one interview on a tape

Additional resources and guidance can be found in the Fundamentals of Oral History publication from the Texas Historical Commission in the Resource Section.

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Planning Chapter Publicity

Publicity is the life's blood of an active chapter. Not only does a well-planned publicity program draw attention to chapter plans, objectives, and achievements, but it also helps enlist community cooperation and support for the organization. The public is not inclined to support anything about which it knows little; therefore, one of the sponsor's first objectives should be to plan a publicity program.

The key to success is a carefully selected publicity committee. This committee should be staffed with the chapter's best writers, as the news media is responsive to a well-written publicity release.

The committee directs its publicity flow through the following news and information channels: 1) school and local newspapers; 2) radio; 3) television; 4) posters; 5) school public address system; 6) announcements at civic club meetings; and 7) direct mail. Each information channel has been used successfully in promoting chapter activities.

It is essential that the publicity committee understands thoroughly the technique of writing a good news release. First, a good news story is not the same as the minutes of a chapter meeting. For example, an experienced reporter begins a story with a strong, concise lead sentence, which is actually the highlight of the story. After catching the reader's--or listener's--attention with a brief summary of the whole story, "it's downhill the rest of the way." The details or features are narrated in the order of importance, NOT in chronological order. The traditional formula newspaper reporters use in composing lead paragraphs is to ask the following question: Who? What? When? Why? and How? Accurate answers to these questions give editors the information they want.

Typed copy. double-spaced, on only one side of the paper, is a good style to follow in preparing news releases. The following information should appear on the first page: 1) name of the chapter and school in the upper left corner; 2) under this, give the name and telephone number of the individual who wrote the story; and 3) in the top right-hand corner, enter the release date, the date on which the announcement should appear. If the story is to be used as soon as it is received by the media, indicate "For Immediate Release."

The heading of a news release should appear as follows:

Central College,
Central, Texas Jane Doe, Publicity Chairman, 555-1234

In writing chapter news releases it is wise to follow the time-honored policy that names make news. These are names that local readers, viewers, or listeners will recognize. People are interested in learning what people they know are doing.

Radio and television offer excellent opportunities for publicizing chapter activities, as many stations have public service programs which focus on community events. It is essential, however, that radio-television copy be tightly written since this media does not cover a story in the same detail as do newspapers. In this type of news writing, include only the important facts regarding chapter activities.

Posters prepared by chapter members can also be useful in publicizing chapter activities. Bake sales, dances, and contests lend themselves readily to this type of publicity.

Posters are especially useful in store windows, in shopping centers, and on school bulletin boards.

Several chapters have produced movies and slide shows depicting their various activities. These productions, if done well, may be shown to service clubs to acquaint the adult community with the chapter's activities, as well as to students in other schools to recruit new chapter members. Since the chapter is, in a very real way, competing for members with other worthwhile school organizations, the alert sponsor must employ every avenue of information to apprise everyone--students, teachers, administrators, and the general public--of the value of chapter membership.

Movies, newspapers, tape recordings, slides, photographs, radio, and television are all channels of information that can be used to inform the community about what and how well the chapter is doing. Use them all.

When chapter news and information is disseminated, do not forget the Texas State Historical Association. The editorial staff is always seeking news items and photographs for Association publications.

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Planning the Annual Meeting Trip

Planning is the key to a successful annual meeting trip. Some suggestions follow

The initial step in planning the annual meeting trip is gaining administration approval. Therefore, in requesting permission to attend the annual meeting, submit a well-thought-out plan to the school administration, citing educational advantages, as well as the cost and anticipated time out of school. A carefully detailed proposal demonstrates to the school officials that the projected trip merits the time and thought the sponsors have invested in its planning. One of the best ways to overcome administration objections is to anticipate those objections and have answers and solutions prepared in advance.

The administration should be apprised not only of the educational advantages the forthcoming meeting affords (show previous programs or the tentative program outline in the Telegraph & Texas Register), but also of the historic sites and related learning experiences that may be incorporated in the travel itinerary. Passing up points that have a learning, potential reflects poor trip planning. For information on historic sites along the routes to and from the annual meeting cities, write:

     For a free highway map and Texas Travel Guide visit http://traveltex.com.

For a listing of all historic sites along your route you can use the Texas Historic Sites Atlas at http://atlas.thc.state.tx.us.

Sponsors should emphasize the importance of the trip early in the planning stages, stressing that only with each person's cooperation, interest, and support, can the chapter gain maximum benefit from the annual meeting trip. A person is more inclined to support a project in which he has a role in the planning. Sponsors should, therefore, take every opportunity to gain student input in annual meeting planning.

Apprising students of every detail of the trip well in advance of the departure date is essential. A communication from the sponsor to each student should include the following information:

  1. Location of the annual meeting
  2. Purpose
  3. Description of the annual meeting program
  4. Hotel or motel where reservations are held
  5. Transportation plans (chartered bus, school bus, or private cars)
  6. Chaperones
  7. Total cost (registration, food, lodging, plus additional cash estimates)
  8. Side tours to be taken
  9. Detailed schedule of events
  10. List of things to bring: camera, film, flashbulbs, annual meeting schedule, tour guides, road map, pencil, and notebook
  11. Departure and return times
  12. Emergency telephone numbers at the hotel and meeting location
  13. Necessary Forms

Travel plans will, of necessity, be adjusted according to individual chapter needs; however, pre-planning is essential for a successful annual meeting trip. Careful consideration of the aforementioned items will resolve many problems before they arise.

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Chapter Fundraising Projects

Fundraising is a priority topic with most Junior Historian chapters. Money for travel, scholarships, trophies, and gifts to school libraries has been raised in various ways. Some of the more successful projects--many history and community oriented--follow:

Recipe Collections
Traditional family recipe collections are proven money makers for many chapters. One example was Eat Ethnic, a compilation of "recipes from around the world." Twenty-three ethnic and national groups were represented in the booklet that was sold. The basic printing costs for such cookbooks is fairly low, making them a fairly profitable effort.

Used Book Sale
Used books and magazine sales can attract wide public interest. Both faculty and students contribute a wide range of titles; some are duplicates from private library collections, while others are professors' complimentary desk copies distributed by textbook publishers. Bake goods are also offered during the three day sale held in the college student center.

Calendar Sales
A number of calendar designs are available for fundraising campaigns. The Community Birthday Calendar contains the purchaser's birth dates (five per family) and the wedding anniversary. Additional income is derived from ads purchased by local businesses. The chapter's picture may also appear on the calendar.

Candle Dipping and Sales
Candle dipping is a great holiday fundraising idea. The following materials are available at most hobby shops: plain wax, coloring, scent, hardener, and wicks. Students do the actual dipping on weekends and evenings. Available at $2.00 a pair (red or green), most sales are to students, teachers, and parents.

A list of traditional fundraising activities used by various school organizations follows:

  1. Scrap and paper drives
  2. Bake sales
  3. Candy sales
  4. Sale of light bulbs
  5. Sale of plastic coated book covers bearing school name and colors
  6. Rummage sales
  7. Concession stands at sports or special events
  8. Cookie or dessert sales during school lunch break
  9. Sale of school supplies showing school name and colors
  10. Dances
  11. Sell work contracts. A chapter member contracts to do so many hours of baby sitting, car washing, lawn raking or mowing, etc., for people in the community.
  12. Magazine subscription sale
  13. Sponsor antique and hobby shows, amateur or talent shows, plays, pageants, or carnivals
  14. Sponsor public suppers: pot luck, spaghetti, ham, soul food, Mexican food, oriental food, German food, etc.

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