Our Mission in Action

Students as Historians: Writing for Real Purposes

Middle School Humanities Teachers Suzanne Cohen and Elizabeth Simmons
Each year we work together, we try to improve our program by strengthening and deepening our curriculum. Seventh grade writing includes various genres, but the pinnacle of our curriculum in the first trimester is the research project that culminates in a research paper and museum exhibition. Seventh graders explore the group identities of the following peoples who were first present in the 17th century colonial Virginia region: Powhatan Indians, Kongolese, English settlers, and enslaved Africans. Two years ago, we expanded the research to include the Kongo Kingdom for two reasons. First, some of the first Africans in the Virginia colony were from what is now called Angola, which was a part of the Kongo Kingdom. Second, we wished to incorporate details of the rich cultural history of this kingdom in Africa, since the experiences of enslaved Africans in North America were primarily stripped of their culture, languages, politics, and religious practices. 
Working with the middle school librarian, Jennifer Hubert Swan, and learning specialist, Susannah Flicker, we began to compile resources on the Kongo Kingdom. We have found that there are few resources, and many of the ones available were either outdated, or written for adults. Because of this, we are continuing to research and add to the body of materials on the Kongo Kingdom each year. This year, in fact, we supplemented our study of the Kongolese peoples with a trip to the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Arts in Africa wing. The seventh grade was accompanied by the art teacher, Rohan Cassells, who later supported students in the creation of the Cultures in Contact museum in December, a capstone project where students’ knowledge of their topic was visually represented. This trip allowed students to study and analyze artifacts from the various ethnic groups within the Kongo Kingdom. 
With help from Jennifer and technology integrator, Clair Segal, we reviewed the principles of research and also the online note card writing program, Noodletools. Concurrent to the research process, students practiced identifying features of non-fiction texts while reading articles pertaining to their colonial research topic. They identified main ideas and annotated the texts using selected strategies such as highlighting, underlining, and writing in the margins to keep their research efficient. Students worked to consistently connect their research to our primary themes: gender, social class, ethnicity, and other perspectives that are often missing from the dominant narrative.
Before leaving for our week-long trip to Williamsburg, Virginia, in October, students reviewed the research they had already collected thus far to identify components of their study where they needed more information. One of our primary responsibilities was ensuring students were adequately studying the experiences of each ethnic group, and also social class and gender, through the lens of their topic. In this research process and throughout the year, we focus on refining students’ writing skills, such as developing a thesis statement, using relevant evidence, writing a thorough analysis, writing meaningful topic sentences, and correctly using selected grammar, spelling, and punctuation practices.
During our trip to Williamsburg, students continued their research. They researched their topics by interviewing tour guides and costumed interpreters, and by analyzing primary resources at various museums. Upon their return to school, they continued the process of research by writing thorough note cards using their interviews, books, primary sources, and online resources. After completing their research, each student drafted, revised, and edited a research paper. In these papers, they formulated and defended a thesis statement, constructed an introduction and conclusion, reviewed proper paragraph structure (with an emphasis on analysis of evidence), and wrote source pages. The resulting papers ranged in length from three to eight pages, depending on the student. 
As a culminating component of their research, students then presented their projects at our Cultures in Contact museum in December. Each group was given a gallery space to fill - a new feature of the museum. Under Rohan’s tutelage, they created handmade artifacts and backdrops representing their knowledge of the three cultures, with a special focus on ethnicity, social class, and gender. 

We were pleased with the students’ work this year and we will continue to work to enhance their research and writing process. We are delighted with the increased depth of their research and writing each year.
Little Red School House
and Elisabeth Irwin High School

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