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I Was There When High School Research Papers Came Alive!

Curriculum Center

Want an assignment that has students lining up at six in the morning -- by choice? Clearwater (Kansas) High School English teacher Ernie Beachey's 11th graders beat the clock to get first dibs on the year they will research to create an original work of American historical fiction. Education World writer Leslie Bulion talks with Beachey about how the creative research paper project got started and how it works. Included: Helpful research sites, excerpts from Clearwater High student papers, and thoughts from a writer of historical fiction!

On the Value of Writing Historical Fiction

"When I was a child, history classes were simply endless streams of men's names, assorted dates, and maps of places I'd never been -- all of which I remembered only until the next test," Kathleen Kudlinski told Education World. "It wasn't until I started to re-create the story part of his-story --and her-story too-- that I cared deeply.

"I'll remember all of the stories, and the historical facts imbedded in them, forever," said Kudlinski, whose most recent biography, Rosa Parks: Young Rebel, was published earlier this year by Simon and Schuster.

"Writing historical fiction gives the writer a sense of real, live people living in history," Kudlinski added.

"We were doing research projects with our students and getting these nearly plagiarized reports straight out of books," teacher Ernie Beachey told Education World. "They made for pretty dry and dull reading!"

So Beachey, an English teacher at Clearwater (Kansas) High School, and his former Clearwater colleague Amy Harris combined the research skills students need to learn with a unit on creative writing. The result is a project that has every 11th grader writing an original piece of historical fiction.

This year, Beachey's students worked in pairs. Each team selected a different year to research. Certain periods in history hold special appeal for students, which is the cause for the early morning lineup on assignment day. After thoroughly researching the year, students planned and wrote historical fiction that incorporated events, people, terms, and other facts they had learned in their research.

Read excerpts from the students' writings at the end of this article!

"I wanted to pick a year in the 1920s because of the interesting fashions, prohibition, and the cool dances," 11th grader Chrystal told Education World.

"1969 was so full of great history, like the landing on the moon and Woodstock," said Chrystal's classmate Jonathan. "The hippies had some great ideas about peace, but we seem to have forgotten them."

Unless a student is interested in a specific period, such as the Civil War, Beachey encourages students to choose a year after 1900. That way he can be sure Clearwater's library will have enough information. Students are required to choose a year before they were born.


After students select a year, Beachey and his classes discuss research methodology. Then they head to the library to begin their search for source material. According to Beachey, his students start out on the Internet with general search engines, including

"We require our students to use at least six sources of information," Beachey told Education World. "We want them to use at least three Internet sources and two or more hard-copy sources, including books, magazines, and newspapers. Often they get some really valuable background information on their particular year from older folks in our local retirement village."

Beachey gives his students an extensive checklist that helps them find specific details about the year they will write about. Those topics include

  • Form of government
  • Transportation
  • Cooking
  • House and furniture design
  • Cost of household necessities
  • Fashion
  • Hairstyles
  • Occupations and salaries
  • Entertainment: popular music, books, magazines, plays, movies
  • Social rules and customs
  • Contemporary slang and other language etiquette
  • Five people who lived and were famous for positive achievements during the research year
  • Three famous "firsts" of that year
  • Three major events

"On the History Channel's This Day in History, students can type in their year or even a decade and find lots of good information to choose from," Beachey added.

"I think the students gain a good understanding of research," Beachey told Education World. "They see it is sometimes easy to be misled. They will come up to me and say, 'Mr. Beachey, look at this! This source says right here that so and so died in 1953, but this source says he died in 1954. Which one is right?' I think learning about reliable sources may be more important to me right at that moment than it is to the student, but that's a valuable tool that will help them later on."


"We will have worked on creative writing the month before we start the research paper," Beachey explained. "That way students can develop the elements of their fiction, such as character, plot, and conflict, as they are doing the research."

As the students do their research, Beachey wanders from one student to another. He asks questions and talks with the students about how they are going to incorporate the information they are finding. "I might see a note card about the excesses of the 'roaring 20s and comment, 'Hey, your character could be even more interesting if you make her both fascinated and repelled by the extravagances of wealthy show-biz people' or, 'Gosh, wouldn't this street war make a great conflict for your character?'" Beachey said.

Beachey's students' papers take many creative forms, including a series of letters or journal entries or a fictionalized story. Students can be first-person narrators traveling back in time, or they can write stories set in their specific time period.

"The historical fiction project takes a month, and it's a lot of work, but it really is worth it," Beachey said. "Students come up to me and say, 'You know, this felt like fun, not like sitting down to do an assignment.' That makes me feel like we are on the right track!"

"I'll probably remember the events of my year longer than just plain facts that I learn in history class, because I'll always attach my original story to them," 11th grader Britni concurred.


  • I Read It On The Internet This Education World article helps teachers show students how to evaluate Web site reliability. Links to helpful teaching resource Web sites included.
  • Education World Lesson Planning Center Archives For History Education World has archives full of great lesson plans including its Celebrate the Century series for each decade in 1900's American History. Links to event and person-specific Web sites and a great game are included in each lesson.
  • Creative Writing for Teens In "Historical Fiction, What Does History Have to Do With Creative Writing," the guide gives a step-by-step process for writing historical fiction, including many helpful research and writing links.


Updated 5/1/2012