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Classic research work remains teacher's pet, but length stirs debate

Jonathan Bassett's students have to put their pens to paper and then some. After months of research, they have to turn in a paper up to 15 pages long.

This may sound like a task for college students, but it's a requirement for graduation at Newton North High School. In the last eight years, Bassett's students have delivered papers on the history of the Massachusetts Turnpike, Coolidge Corner, skyscrapers, the Salem Witch Trials, and the assassination of John F. Kennedy. So many students have picked the latter two subjects that Bassett has told students to find something more original.

''The single biggest thing I think everyone gets out of it is a tremendous sense of accomplishment and the realization this is doable," said Bassett, chairman of the school's history department. ''This is a genuine historian's task these kids are doing."

Bassett and educators around the nation believe putting students through this intense exercise is worth it. But they differ on the details: how to assign projects, how long papers should be, and whether they should be required for graduation. Many teachers say they don't have time to supervise the projects. Some worry that the term paper, which students can include in their college admissions packet, could become just another item on a checklist for college-bound students. They want the writing and research, rather than the pressure of getting into a good college, to be the emphasis.

Around the country, more high school students are tackling in-depth projects the size of typical college papers. Thousands are conducting long-term research through the growing International Baccalaureate Organization program, a supplemental diploma offered at about 525 American high schools.

Educators say it's beneficial to teach younger students how to research, compile, analyze, and cite primary sources. Most say students should write at least one in-depth paper during high school, but 62 percent of American high school history teachers said they don't assign papers longer than 3,000 words, according to a survey of 400 teachers commissioned by The Concord Review. The Sudbury-based academic journal publishes high school students' research. Time was the culprit, according to the 2002 survey: 95 percent of teachers said research papers are important, but 31 percent said they take time from other instruction and 27 percent said they take too long to grade.

Where term papers are assigned, requirements vary widely. The International Baccalaureate program -- most popular in Washington, D.C.-area, California, and Florida high schools -- requires a 4,000-word paper. Four schools in Massachusetts and one in Rhode Island offer the program.

Research papers are a graduation requirement for many Massachusetts high schools; Boston public schools require all seniors to write a literary paper, and Brookline High School also demands an in-depth English paper.

Boston schools do not set a required length, and papers are typically about eight pages long, said Jane Skelton, who oversees English and Language Arts for Boston Public Schools.

''You get students at different levels," Skelton said. Some six-page papers are deep, she added. ''It's better than getting a 10-page paper that's filler."

The key is to teach students how to construct a research paper, regardless of the length, Skelton said. Students need to learn about finding primary sources, note-taking, making an outline, and composing proper citations for the research. Skills should be taught, starting in the sixth grade, and culminating in the senior paper, she said.

Some schools, like Newton North, have word-length requirements for papers, based on a student's level: Advanced Placement students must write a minimum of 3,000 words, for example, while basic history students must write at least 1,500. All history papers must be thoroughly researched and cited, Bassett said.

Some students say the project is daunting. Others can't wait to dig in.

''I know some people who are stressed about it," said Ali Malins, 16, a student in one of Bassett's early morning junior history classes. But she's already planning her research on American serial killers and views the paper as a chance to delve deeper into something she's already curious about.

''The psychology of it . . . and just how some people believe serial killers are born serial killers," she said. ''I find it really interesting."

Will Fitzhugh, who founded The Concord Review in 1987, said research papers can kindle students' intellectual curiosity. Students can own their topics and pronounce, '' 'I know more about this than anyone else in the building.' You feel like a scholar. It's a wonderful feeling every kid should have before they leave high school," Fitzhugh said.

Fitzhugh, a strong advocate for long papers, also established the National Writing Board, which scores students' papers. The papers are often included with college applications.

Carol Jago, a high school English teacher at Santa Monica High School in California and author of books on writing education, began assigning papers to her 10th-graders 15 years ago, after a former student confided she didn't feel prepared for college.

But Jago said the length of papers and how many months students spend writing them is not the key. With more time, she said, ''the papers didn't get any better; they just put it off longer."

Jago said she has noticed a resurgence in term papers in the past few years.

''It's a learning experience that's very powerful. There's something to a longer paper that requires deeper thinking," she said.

At Newton North, parents have mixed feelings about the research papers that keep their children busy junior year.

Parent Mark Wadness, copresident of the Newton North High School Parent Teacher Student Organization, said he believes students benefit and the assignment is only stressful when students procrastinate and don't complete assigned steps.

But Laurie Mokriski, also a PTSO member, said she worries because the papers contribute significantly to students' already-heavy academic loads. Newton parents met earlier this month to discuss homework and agreed their children have too much, Mokriski said. They also need time for sports, theater, music, and academic teams, she said. ''They're trying to enjoy their high school years," she said.

Denise Clark Pope, author of ''Doing School: How We Are Creating a Generation of Stressed Out Materialistic and Miseducated Students," argues that today's high school students are overworked.

Learning research and writing skills in steps during high school is great, said Clark Pope, a Stanford University school of education lecturer. But she worries about adding another requirement to the growing list that college-bound students must complete: SATs, standardized tests, Advanced Placement exams, college applications.

''If it's just another hoop you have to jump through, that's a bad thing," she said. ''It's this other thing hanging over their head, causing stress."

But others say the more that students work on research skills, the more prepared they'll be for college.

Donna Cole, associate director of the Center of Academic Achievement at Lesley University in Cambridge, said students who enter college with these skills have an advantage.

Judith Goleman, director of freshman English at the University of Massachusetts at Boston, said it is encouraging to imagine younger students defining themselves as researchers.

In-depth papers help prepare students for college-level work, she said. ''It's difficult if students have been confined to the notion that five paragraphs can handle anything," Goleman said.

Still, even freshmen who have written some type of research paper are likely to face writing challenges at college, Goleman said.

''There's an enormous difference in what people call term papers. There's the term paper as extended summary report," she said. At the college level, more synthesis and analysis is required.

But like Clark Pope, Goleman worries that long term papers, such as those required by the International Baccalaureate program, will become just another enclosure in college admissions packets.

''This is currently a standard for entering graduate school," Goleman said. ''The bar is being raised higher and higher by the year."

But for some students, especially those headed for premier colleges, the joy of discovery is worth the pressure.

Jennifer Shingleton, 24, still remembers the thrill of researching Abigail Adams for her junior-year history class at Phillips Academy in Andover. Her paper was published in The Concord Review in 1998.

A Princeton graduate now studying at Harvard Law School, Shingleton tracked down microfiche copies of Adams's letters at the Boston Public Library. ''I could still see her handwriting and where coffee was spilled on the letters," she said. ''It was cool."

Michelle Mann, 19, wrote an essay on the Knights Templar, published in the Review last year.

The paper was one of many she wrote at Pioneer Valley Performing Arts Charter High School in Hadley, said Mann, now a Smith College history major. It took more than six months and lots of editing by her history teacher.

As a college freshman, she was able to help friends who never wrote research papers. She was grateful, Mann said, for what she knew.

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