By Georgina Wells, History
The culminating assignment of each year of middle school history is a research essay. This year, as the 7th grade approached theirs — on the Civil War — and it was clear a return to school was not happening, I worried about how the students would manage to write the essay without access to library resources, or to the same help from me and their classmates. So I gave them a choice: those who wanted to write an essay could, or they could come up with a research project either from a list of options, or of their own devising. The only requirements were that all projects must have written text thoroughly researched from a variety of sources, must be organized into sections, and must include citations, a primary quote, and a thesis statement. I wanted students to be able to embrace the independence that is baked right into distance learning, but also have the opportunity for a little bit of fun. Zoom school had sucked most of that out of class, and essays are not traditionally the assignment that elicit the most excitement.
A few students did choose the essay, for a variety of good reasons, and did a fantastic job. Most took on the task of creating something new. There was some initial anxiety about the lack of strict parameters from the kids (“How will I know where to put my thesis?”), and from me (will these projects demand the same rigor as an essay?) but those quickly vanished. The students embraced the independence of the project, and I, once I began to receive their work, no longer worried about its rigor.
One student filmed a TV news segment from the imagined frontlines of the New York City Draft Riots, appearing as a variety of people in different costumes. Another wrote a series of letters between famous spies and President Lincoln or Jefferson Davis. I received articles about Ulysses S. Grant’s achievements, written from the perspective of different time periods. Medical newspapers and magazines. Documentaries on Frederick Douglass, Gettysburg, and Lincoln’s views on slavery. A digitally designed children’s book on Harriet Tubman and a hand-written one complete with beautifully drawn illustrations on the Emancipation Proclamation. A podcast interview about the blockade and a podcast about Clara Barton with impressive voice acting from parents. A Civil War photo album. A model of the battle of Gettysburg with full captions and a rewritten Gettysburg Address.
We have been sharing the projects with one another in our Zoom classes, but I hoped the students’ work could be more widely recognized. I’m grateful to Mr. Nichols for his help in putting together this website as a showcase for their hard work, creativity, and initiative, and which the 7th graders were able to share with their friends and family.