This article was originally published in the spring 2013 Harker Quarterly.
With information literacy and research skills becoming increasingly important to college-bound high school students, the history and library departments have spent the last several years developing a comprehensive research and writing program to give Harker students an edge in creating scholarly works at the college level.
A work in progress since it began as a collaboration between Susan Smith, library director, and Donna Gilbert, history department chair, in 2006, the program has since grown into a cornerstone of Harker’s history instruction. “It’s become a normative part of every history course at The Harker School, and we’ve carefully scaffolded it and planned it so that the skills build over time, and kids are constantly reinforcing and practicing and mastering and then moving on,” Gilbert said.
The initiative was spurred in part by a feeling that too much emphasis was being placed on multimedia presentations and not enough on strong writing skills – “that PowerPoints and iMovies had started to replace traditional writing,” Gilbert said.
“The reality is that our kids need to go to college and they all need to write really well,” said Smith. History proved to be a great place to begin building this foundation because of its emphasis on studying primary sources, critical thinking and developing thesis-based arguments.
“We try to get them excited about primary sources and looking at the photos of people or artifacts of an era,” said Smith. “But then understanding how to analyze, evaluate and put together a cohesive, thesis-driven argument about something is what’s more important.”
History teachers work with the library department to come up with topics each year that the students at each grade level can choose for their research papers. Key criteria include the types of research required, the amount of researchable information that is readily available and whether the topics have been covered in class.
In grade 9, world history students are assigned a compare-and-contrast research paper on an ancient history topic. During this process, students learn the basics of using databases, creating note cards, paraphrasing sources and writing a thesis. Sophomores deepen their knowledge of databases and begin analyzing more scholarly works, as well as learn to reinforce their theses and create more detailed note cards. “That’s an argumentative, thesis-driven essay where they’re defending one side or the other of an issue, and we give them a choice of lots of issues to pick from,” Smith said.
Grade 11 United States history students may find themselves creating different types of research papers, depending on if they are in an Advanced Placement or regular class. AP students will analyze a Supreme Court case, while regular U.S. history students choose a topic from the Civil War.
This year students were asked to analyze a Civil War-era photograph from the Library of Congress’ American Memories project and create a biography of a person about whom little was known. Doing so required deep research of the world around the person and thinking critically about how he or she would have lived at the time the photograph was taken.
“One of, I think, the most captivating things about the U.S. history project was that they couldn’t possibly have known anything about these obscure people that we found these photographs of,” Smith remarked. “They aren’t in history books. They don’t have Wikipedia articles.”
AP students are given a wide range Supreme Court cases to choose from for their papers. They each then develop a thesis on whether the decision made on the case came from a partisan or neutral interpretation of the U.S. Constitution.
Although teachers and librarians decide which topics are open to students to research, offering a wide variety of topics to choose from is an important part of the curriculum. “We always try to add choice,” Smith said. “That is something we’ve protected and the teachers are great about that.”
For instance, grade 9 World History students may be given a list of five questions to choose from, such as comparing burial rituals from two cultures. They will then be presented with a list of cultures that they can choose to compare. AP U.S. History students are given a list of 120 Supreme Court cases as options to analyze.
Once they have completed three years of historical research and analysis, seniors have the option of applying for a grant to embark on a yearlong independent research project via the John Near Endowment or The Mitra Family Endowment for the Humanities. For this endeavor, students can choose whatever topics they like. “They can move in a direction that really appeals to them intellectually. And we get complete buy-in, because they’ve now not just chosen to apply but they are sent off, really, with very few restrictions and just guidance,” Gilbert said.
Students typically begin the process by arriving with well-developed proposals. “Somewhere in their studies, they’ve decided that they really want to explore the gender identity issues of Frida Kahlo, or they really are interested in educational reform,” Smith said.
Mexican poet Frida Kahlo was a subject of particular fascination for 2012-13 Mitra Family Scholar Shivani Mitra, grade 12 (and daughter of the scholarship’s founders). She began her research by reading books about Kahlo’s life and works. She then got as close to the source as she could. “I took a monthlong trip to Mexico City during the summer, where I was able to use primary source material – letters, diary pages – for my research,” she said.
“I visited her house in Coyoacán multiple times, met her grandnephew and niece, interviewed the curator of her museum, and visited countless museums in the city that had her works. By the end of the summer, I had gathered enough material from which I could start formulating my thesis.”
Mitra found that undertaking this project allowed her to foster her intellectual curiosity, and that learning so much about a person she respects and admires was the most satisfying part. “I enjoyed traveling to Mexico City and discovering Frida for myself, the most. She is a fascinating person, and the more I got to know her, the more I respected her,” she said. “Pursuing an academic passion of mine outside of a classroom, in a different country, by myself, was an amazing experience that I will never forget.”
Ashvin Swaminathan, grade 12, a recipient of a 2012-13 Near Scholar grant, combined his love of music and history for his project. “History is not just a collection of facts, and the patterns and connections between events and people are what make history fascinating to me. I also love classical music, and I play the violin for the San Francisco Symphony Youth Orchestra,” he said. Swaminathan chose to focus on the development of American classical music, with a special focus on the works of Aaron Copland and Leonard Bernstein. “I researched the lives and contributions of these two composers by reading several books from the Harker and local public libraries. I also studied numerous scholarly journal articles about these composers from the Harker library databases,” he said.
Swaminathan found that the two composers left their impressions on one another in several ways, and each had used the plight of Hispanic people as a theme in a major work. “Copland wrote his ‘El Salon Mexico,’ a piece that celebrates Mexico, in 1936 at about the time when the Mexican Repatriation was going on,” he observed. “Interestingly, Bernstein wrote his ‘West Side Story,’ a musical about the Puerto Rican gang wars in New York City, in 1957 when the Puerto Rican immigration to mainland U.S. was at its peak.”
Though Bernstein was candid about his politics, finding information about Copland’s political views proved difficult, so Swaminathan contacted several music scholars, including San Francisco Symphony musicologist Susan Key and the University of Houston’s Howard Pollack, a noted expert on Copland.
Both students found that their research practices have helped them develop skills beyond those required for historical analysis. “The ability to perform thorough analysis and uncover hidden patterns was the most valuable skill I have developed through this research,” said Swaminathan, who added that he also developed the skill “to analyze historical events and thereby extract plausible reasons behind them as well as connections between them. This abstract ability to analyze events and arguments manifests itself in every subject from English to mathematics.”
Similarly, Mitra discovered that her newfound research skills have helped her in writing papers for other classes. “For example, this semester I have a psychology and an English research paper. Finding the right sources comes much easier to me now,” she said.
The program continues to develop thanks to constant collaboration and feedback from teachers who frequently meet to discuss methodology and share their ideas, something that has been an important part of the program since its inception.
“It’s been a five- or six-year journey,” said Gilbert. “We used department meetings for two or three years, with the librarians always there in a kind of collaborative discussion about what’s working and what’s not working.”
This practice continues today, with teachers still learning from one another in brainstorming sessions at department meetings. “We get the best of everybody’s ideas. And they don’t even get that what they’re doing is brilliant,” Smith said. Over time, this sharing of ideas has resulted in a series of best practices that teachers can draw on. “And that’s the nature of teaching,” Smith said. “You go in there, you close the door, you do brilliant things every day and most of the time, nobody knows.”