Junior thesis teaches research process

The Newtonite

by Naomi Cherenson

Zachary Pertman, Nellie Robinson and Micaela Walsh are just some of the names engraved on the plaque hanging on the wall in 359. These students are previous winners of the Kennedy Prize which is given to a student in each curriculum level, for his outstanding work on his junior thesis, which is a major research paper as well as a graduation requirement.

Today, many juniors handed in their rough drafts, a major step in the thesis process.

For the junior thesis, students may write on any topic in American history, but teachers can create their own parameters, such as the topic has to be at least 50 years old. The junior thesis must take a historical approach.

For example, junior Shelly Altman said she is writing about the 1925 Scopes Monkey trial as well as the 1920s in general.

Students choose a topic and then must write a thesis statement. Any good junior thesis is built around a thesis statement that is interpretive, not just narrative said history department head Jonathan Bassett.

Bassett said that just telling a story and not addressing essential questions is not enough. “Looking beyond the basic facts and actually making a statement or thesis about your topic is key,” Bassett said.

Once students write a topic and thesis statement, one of the hardest parts is over. The research is something students are already used to. It takes time, but it is one of the easier steps of writing the paper, said Bassett.

Bassett said one of the hardest parts of writing a research paper is finding a topic and shaping a question. While Altman said one of the hardest parts of the junior thesis so far was, “sitting down and researching.”

History teacher Leah Morelli said, “One of the hardest parts for students while writing their junior thesis is maintaining a strong argument.” With her students, she breaks down the process of writing into six steps and focuses on each step individually. This makes the process more manageable, she said.

Bassett said each junior thesis is different and takes its own approach but they all follow the same process. All papers must have a good thesis statement and all students must do sufficient research.

The length requirements differ for each curriculum level. Papers are graded based on word count not page count. The Advanced Placement requirement is 3000-4500 words, the curriculum one requirement is 2500-3500 words and the curriculum two requirement is 2500-3500 words.

The length requirement for each curriculum level is strictly enforced when deciding the winners of the Kennedy Prize, according to Bassett. Students may write papers longer than the required word count, but those papers will not be eligible to win the Kennedy Prize.

As a part of the summer history course, students have the opportunity to write their junior thesis, finishing it before the beginning of junior year. Bassett said, “Students have to get permission from me, and writing your paper during the summer history course does not prepare you to do research for a college level the way that the full year course does.”

Morelli said that juniors will have to write papers just like the thesis in college, and all of the things students learn while writing the junior thesis will be very useful.

Bassett said, “Raw effort and work make a great research paper. When students consult more sources it shows they usually have done more work. The level of insight and ability to put together a set of ideas in a new way makes a great junior thesis.”

Once all juniors hand in their theses, history teachers read them and nominate the best papers in their class. The papers from each class are then submitted to Beals House for the Kennedy Prize. Beals House administrative assistant Cheryl Stover  then replaces each of the paper’s titles with a number, which is referred to by the panel of judges, who are all history teachers. Once this process is over, the panel meets to determine the winners of the Kennedy Prize. Bassett said this meeting usually lasts three hours.

After the panel discusses the papers, the judges choose a winner and runner up from each curriculum level.

“The junior thesis represents the culmination of all that we’re teaching,” Bassett said. “Students must find information, organize information and think analytically. These are skills they need. These skills are very important for success in college and also in life.”