By Sarah Leonard (Reporter ‘23)
As the academic year draws to a close, many are thinking more about summer plans than schoolwork. However, for the eleventh graders, junior-year history papers have been taking up most of their time and mind space. Though the past year has led to many cancellations or adjustments to the curriculum, this essay has remained an important part of the eleventh-grade American History course.
The 10-page paper provides students with an opportunity to explore a topic that is especially interesting or meaningful to them and to examine what different news sources have had to say about the said topic. Julia Beyer (‘22), who is writing about the Harlem Renaissance, said, “I wanted to incorporate my love of reading and literature, and I wanted to learn more about its history.” While the focus of the paper is on events in the past, many of the topics chosen by students are still greatly prevalent today: “In looking for a topic, I considered the death penalty because it has been highly debated not only in recent years but throughout the whole of the 20th century in the U.S. as well. Throughout my research, I think that I realized how important it is to understand the history of the death penalty
through the lens of race, especially to learn how biases and discrimination have roles in our justice system today,” explains Carolyn Walsh, whose primary sources come from The Atlanta Daily World, a paper that “held a unique opinion from other black newspapers at the time.” While many of these subjects can easily be researched online or in books, studying them through primary sources (e.g. newspapers and first-hand accounts) allows students to distinguish between fact and opinion and to learn to identify biases. Mr. Fogel, both a teacher and an FCS alum who wrote about conscription during the Civil War in his history paper, explained, “The Union Army allowed for people to buy their way out of the draft, causing riots by the working-class and Irish immigrants. It was interesting to see how different publications discussed the same events, showing support or disgust towards the rioters.” The many assumptions brought from different sources can help students understand their judgment of the topic or events.
The shifts between virtual and in-person classes have brought challenges to both students and teachers, as they have made communication much harder. “Finding my topic and developing it at home without ‘easy access’ to Mr. Fogel felt a little scary,” said Julia. “I wasn't sure if I was doing it ‘right’ or exactly how he wanted.” Writing a fairly significant essay during junior year is difficult enough, but doing it without a teacher there during class is even more challenging. Guiding students through the process both on Zoom and in class has been taxing as well: “With students splitting their time in-person and virtually, it has been a new element to juggle when trying to be equitable with my feedback,” explained Mr. Fogel. Unconventional learning situations have also brought positive changes, though: “I feel like online learning benefited student collaboration,” Carolyn informed me. “For example, in my class, we had the opportunity to evaluate each other's presentations digitally, which gave us time to write more meaningful feedback to one another.” Virtual learning has also caused the essay process to be entirely paperless this year, which “has reduced the printing of several hundred pages (just for my section) and is certainly something that I would like to continue doing in the future,” Mr. Fogel added.
Though the process is often arduous, looking back at the final product and all of the work put into these papers is certainly rewarding: “I think anyone you ask will say it's not an entirely ‘fun’ experience but it definitely is fulfilling. It feels great to look at your rough draft and realize that you built this paper from the ground up” Julia stated, before continuing: “Since you work on it for months before even getting down to writing, it can feel pretty nebulous for a while. You just need to ‘trust the process,’ for lack of a better phrase, and keep up with each deadline. The more effort you put in the planning phases, the easier the later stages are.” The paper also provides a chance to improve organizational skills and efficiency, making larger projects like this less stressful. “If I could give any advice for writing the essay, I would highlight the importance of time management. I think that it is easy to become overwhelmed during this process; however, if one completes their work consistently and in small increments, the paper can seem more manageable,” Carolyn recommended.
Finally, for current and rising juniors, Mr. Fogel offered one more suggestion: “Picking a topic is fun, and getting to read and write the final draft is an incredible experience. While the process can be tough, the steps along the way are designed to help students be successful. My best advice is to approach each milestone assignment with integrity and always feel free to check in with your teacher. They are here to help guide you.” This year has been a learning experience for everyone, including teachers, but we have also been able to learn so much from these changes.