A year’s worth of words for English and history


Neeva Patel, Staff Writer

Junior research paper

“I can’t imagine spending so much time on my JRP if I don’t like the topic, so I am very glad I chose a topic that I was genuinely interested in,” Amelia Resnick (11) said. “One of the goals of this paper is to look into a topic you are interested in and find out what it’s like to write an actual research paper that you are proud of.”

According to the Program of Studies, every English 11 student writes a Junior Research Paper (JRP) that synthesizes the skills of “close reading, building from evidence to argument, comparative analysis, and independent critical thinking.” The paper follows different formats and timelines depending on the class and teacher, ranging from comparative literary-critical analysis to individual author studies, to New Yorker-style profile pieces.

The JRP is the perfect paper to write in eleventh grade because students are working at their highest caliber, Upper Division (UD) English teacher Dr. Andrew Fippinger said. “The point of the JRP is to introduce research to students so that they are better equipped in college for it,” he said. “Seniors are distracted by the college process, so eleventh grade is the time when students are best able to handle this type of project.”

For her JRP in UD English teacher Dr. Jonathan Kotchian’s class, Resnick analyzed the gender barriers in fashion by researching the public response to Harry Styles wearing a dress on his Vogue cover, she said. Resnick chose this topic because it was controversial and not clear-cut, she said. She evaluated many unconventional and opinionated sources about the cover, many of which she had to take with a grain of salt, she said. “It’s not all very scholarly research, but I still think it was worth it in the end since I am deeply interested in the topic.”

Similar to Resnick’s class, Fippinger gave his class more creative freedom, he said. Students could write about whatever artwork or cultural object they wanted but with an added constraint, he said. “In the past, when students wrote contemporary JRPs, they had to rely a lot on reviews and journalism, but it was hard for students to do meaningful research on the topic because there hasn’t been scholarly research on it yet,” he said. Because of this challenge, Fippinger now requires that his students write about something prior to 2005, he said.

Unlike Kotchian and Fippinger, students in UD English teacher Dr. Wendy Steiner’s class all wrote New Yorker-style profiles, Maya Westra (11) said. She found it difficult to pick a person who had a hook, or something interesting to talk about, and eventually decided on a family friend who worked in the Peace Corps, she said. “We are used to writing five-page papers about a book in a week’s time at school, and this was very different — you could basically write about anyone.”

Throughout the process, Steiner acted as a soundboard and gave students suggestions, Steiner said. “The person can be someone students know well or someone they are interested in learning more about, but regardless, everyone has a story that would work well in a profile.” One challenge students face when writing these New Yorker-Style profiles is finding a balance between their own take on the person and their interviewee’s quotes, she said. When grading the JRPs, Steiner looks for a lively and focused narrative, she said. “The paper is a worthwhile project because it invites students to write a longer narrative, so they can build a story over a number of pages,” she said.

Having a set style for the JRP allowed Westra to avoid heavy research, she said. Since Westra wrote a history year-long paper alongside the JRP, she appreciated that her final paper was due earlier than most, in mid-April, she said. “I spent a lot of my weekends on the first draft which was due in February, and the second draft I did over Spring Break,” she said. “During one Sunday, I spent from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. just finalizing my whole paper.”

In hindsight, spending time over break on the paper was very helpful, Westra said. “I could have written the paper without thinking of it over spring break, but I am happy that I saved myself time over the year.”

While some students like Westra have already handed in their JRPs, others have just been introduced to it — like Maddie Yoon (11), a student in UD English teacher Dr Adam Casdin’s class, whose first assignment for the paper was due this Wednesday, she said. “Due to the fact that we [started] the project this late into the year, I’m assuming it won’t go as in-depth as other classes have,” she said. At first, her class was not planning to write the JRP, which at first disappointed Yoon, she said. “We always write essays in English class, but this paper is more heavily based on research and it’s kind of a junior tradition.” 

In contrast, Kotchian’s approach to the paper was more spread out throughout the year. “We had to hand in an idea proposal, an annotated bibliography, and a few drafts to get feedback on, but it was definitely still a very long assignment,” Resnick said. Because she had so many deadlines before the final draft, Resnick consistently worked on her paper instead of procrastinating, she said. “However, I definitely found that at the last minute there were a few minor details that I hadn’t even thought about, so I had to go back and add those.” 

Kotchian expected the paper to be between 2,000 and 4,000 words, Resnick said. With this wide range, it was difficult to not lose herself in the length and complexity of the paper, she said. “My teacher was very genuine in saying that longer does not necessarily mean better, so I wasn’t super focused on the length but more so on the actual content.” Resnick’s final draft, due last Friday, was 12 pages or 3,500 words, she said.

The JRP was a rewarding assignment for Resnick, she said. “Even though my topic was something I thought I knew a lot about, I was able to find more aspects of it which surprised me,” she said. “I improved my skills as a writer and researcher, and I know these skills will come in handy in my life.”


History year-long research paper 

“A lot of history writing at our school revolves around the fact that you are given sources by your teachers, you are given a specific prompt to answer, and that you exist in a bubble,” Justin Gurvitch (12) said. His year-long paper taught him how to develop an argument and evaluate sources that were not simply handed to him, he said.

According to the Program of Studies, every 400-level history elective requires students to write a year-long research paper on a topic related to their course. While most students assume year-longs are only a part of 400-level course curriculums, 300-level classes like the Global Cold War and Contemporary U.S. History also assigned year-long papers this year.

History Department Chair Dr. Daniel Link assigns a year-long to his 300-level class because it helps students build on skills they acquired in ninth and tenth grade, he said. “Students can learn far more about a topic through a research paper than they would from reading a few pages in a textbook.”

Similarly, History Teacher Dr. Elisa Milkes said the paper allows students to go beyond the course materials. “We can only touch on a certain number of themes or periods and most students are actually writing about topics we haven’t yet covered,” she said. Milkes has often observed that students will write about topics they have had a longtime interest in, she said.

Because Gabriela Peralta (12) wrote a year-long paper last year, she knew what to expect for this year’s writing process, she said. She takes Comparative Race and Ethnicity taught by history teacher Dr. Emily Straus, and her paper explores how enslaved and indigenous people were converted to Catholicism during the Brazilian colonial period, she said. She wanted to choose a topic that relates to her identity as someone who is both Latina and Catholic, she said. “The religion is one that was violently forced onto Indigenous people and Black enslaved people, but my family continues to practice it, so this paper is a good way to investigate why that is.”

For his paper, Gurvitch immediately knew that he wanted to write about shifts in Chinese policy over generations of leadership, since he never had the opportunity to research it in-depth, he said. He wanted to write about the city of Shenzhen as a whole over the past 40 years, but because it was too broad of a topic, Link helped him narrow his focus to the philosophical change of the city of Shenzhen reflected in the evolving city, he said. “There are a lot of students who don’t have a super clear idea of what they want to write about going into the assignment, but your teacher works with you to refine your idea.” 

The History Department prepares students for the research paper through various assessments in the ninth and tenth grade, Link said. “We don’t just throw students in when they are assigned the paper. We work closely with the library and do skills building in class to help prepare them.”

At the beginning of the year, Link noticed how juniors found the paper intimidating because they had never written an essay longer than five pages, he said. “By the end of the year, they have aced it, so the paper also teaches them how to have confidence in themselves as researchers and writers.” Having assigned both semester-long papers and year-long papers, Link said year-longs give students the advantage to develop their ideas more, over the course of a year.

Compared to underclassmen, older students are more suited for lengthy research papers, Milkes said. “Upperclassmen know they can write a paper, but the difference is having the confidence in doing research where you don’t know what the end result will be until months later.”

Gurvitch likes how his teacher creates assignments throughout the year to make the year-long paper more manageable, he said. He turned in a draft thesis, an annotated bibliography, and more recently, the first ten pages of the paper. “This is not work you can do in one night and the class has been very thoughtfully structured around that.”

Matthew Peeler (12), who is taking two 300-level history classes this year, did not know he would have to write two year-long papers when signing up for the courses, he said. “I didn’t hear my teacher announce that, but I don’t mind writing two papers since they are on completely different topics,” he said. “I do research when I have time, I write when I have time, and everything eventually gets done.” 

The first draft of Peralta’s paper was nine pages long, so she estimates that her final essay will be around 12 pages, she said. Peralta did not feel pressure to lengthen her paper just because people in her class had longer ones, she said.“Hopefully, other people are writing really long papers because they really want to or feel that it is necessary, but I am not going to force myself to make mine longer because it’s not going to do me any good.”

Out of all the history assignments Gurvitch has had during his time at the school, the year-long paper is most in line with real academic work because students go into it without knowing the answer, Gurvitch said. “I had my question, I collected evidence on my own, which was very hard to do because it was censored by the government or in a different language, but these are things you have to deal with then you research.”

Link finds the process of writing a year-long paper liberating for students because they are not confined to certain sources or specific prompts, he said. “It’s exciting for teachers to see students engaged with a topic that really fascinates them or connects to a family history they have.”

Gurvitch is excited to share his research with others, he said. “My friends and I will frequently exchange papers because they are excited about their topic and I’m not immune to that [excitement].”