By Samantha Wesner

Samantha Wesner is the managing editor of The Concord Review, which publishes high school students’ research papers.

As a junior in high school taking American history, my class had two options for the final project: a PowerPoint presentation or an extended research essay. To many it was a no-brainer; the PowerPoint was definitely going to involve more pictures, fewer hours of work, and less solitude. But some of us went for the research paper, whether because we were naturally drawn to writing, seeking a new challenge, or presentation-averse (as I was). 

The daunting task loomed. The essay length: fifteen to twenty pages. The topic I had chosen: The Spanish-American War of 1898. I was a slow writer, and the longest paper I had written before was a five-page English paper on Kurt Vonnegut. The English department had seen to it that I had plenty of practice writing shorter papers. But this new assignment was a leap forward rather than a step. I might have been better off with Will Fitzhugh’s “Page Per Year” plan: With each year, I would have written a paper to correspond with my grade—one page for first grade, nine pages for ninth grade, and so on.

I scoured the textbook for the few paragraphs it offered on the subject. And then what? I would have stopped there if I hadn’t known that other students had done it. Those of us writing a paper were given examples, plus guidance on paragraph structure, quoting, balancing primary and secondary sources, and footnoting. We toured the library and some online resources to get us started. With this essential how-to knowledge in hand, the assignment inched toward the realm of the possible in my mind.

Stacks of library books, reams of notes, and a twenty-page paper later, I had written what I now consider to be the capstone of my high school education. Years later, I remember 1898 better than the great majority of what I learned in high school. To this day, I really do “remember the Maine”; I have a lasting understanding of turn-of-the-century American imperialism, the power and danger of a jingoist press, the histories of complex relationships between the U.S. and the Philippines and Cuba, and Teddy Roosevelt’s unusual path to national prominence. My initial, vague interest blossomed into a fascination that I did not expect when I first set out. I felt a sense of pride as I tucked the stack of paper neatly into a binder to be handed in. Happy to be done, but even happier to have done it, I felt as if I had summited a peak that had seemed ineffably large from below. And I had certainly needed a big push.


Wreck of the U.S.S. Maine by William Henry Jackson.
Wreck of the U.S.S. Maine by William Henry Jackson.

Perusing class syllabi my first semester in college, I came upon a description of a final assignment in a history class that looked interesting: a fifteen- to twenty-page research paper. “I can do that,” I thought, “I’ve done it before.”

I didn’t know how lucky I was to be in the small minority of college freshmen who had learned how to write a research paper in high school. Most American high school students graduate without ever being encouraged to explore a topic in such depth, and yet this is exactly the kind of work they will encounter in college, especially in the humanities. In an era in which the president is invested in making college an opportunity all can afford, it’s only fitting that all should be afforded the proper preparation.

We do a disservice to students when we don’t ask them to do challenging work that will hold them in good stead in college and beyond. True, hard-working teachers, some of whom have over 150 students to teach, often simply do not have the time to grade this kind of assignment. In a perfect world, there would be time and resources to spare for extensive feedback to every student. But a research paper that receives even a little feedback is better than no research paper at all. The former still immeasurably deepens a student’s knowledge, skill set, self-discipline, and confidence.

I have my high school history teacher to thank for the confidence with which I approached my first college research paper. I ended up majoring in history and was comfortable writing a senior thesis of more than one hundred pages. Now, with The Concord Review, I have the wonderful task of recognizing student achievement. And yet, I’m painfully aware that The Concord Review’s young authors are the exceptions—those high schoolers who have written extensive history research papers. Those published go on to great things; many attend top colleges and four have been named Rhodes Scholars. Without a doubt, these are bright students. But how many bright students in the public school system have brilliant papers within them? If they aren’t afforded that first push, we may never find out.

3 comments on “Want to Build Knowledge, Skills, and Grit? Assign History Research Papers”

  1. 1
    Will Fitzhugh on January 28, 2015

    Thanks for including this. Samantha Wesner is a recent honors graduate in History from Harvard College, whose thesis on Masonic organizations in 18th century France won the Hoopes Prize at the college. Great to have her as Managing Editor of The Concord Review!!

    Will Fitzhugh
    [email protected]

  2. 2
    EB on January 30, 2015

    My high school did this as well; we had some practice in our earlier History classes to set us up for this task. What I seriously appreciated was that we did not have to create and defend a thesis; instead we could attempt a synthesis of the materials available on our topics, which encouraged us to range widely in search of those materials (mostly school and local libraries in those days)but including the Hartford Public Library. It was formative, for me, to concentrate on assembling the most complete picture that I could of (as it happens) labor law in the US from 1917 to 1945. Any thesis I could have come up with at that point would have been the product of a raw and inexperienced mind. Later, as a History major in college, I had the opportunity many times to take the thesis/argument route.

  3. 3
    momof4 on February 1, 2015

    I went to a small-town 1-12 school, in the 50s-60s and we had spelling, grammar and composition every year, including sentence diagramming in 7-8. By HS, those of us on the college-prep track did regular in-class and homework essays in English. (college-prep writing was mostly lit-based, the commercial and general was less so but everyone was expected to write correct prose). We did a college-standard research paper in US History and one each semester of junior and senior English. My brother taught history in a larger HS and assigned such papers each semester, in the honors sections – before college prep and honors were forbidden by state law. Then it was full-inclusion all the time and never mind that the kids going to college didn’t have solid writing experience. Let no child get ahead.

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