Two years ago, Portland High School student Lucy Howe decided to research women’s history for her Advanced Placement U.S. history class.
She was surprised at what she learned.
One of her papers was on Elizabeth Cady Stanton, a leader of the U.S. women’s rights movement during the latter half of the 1800s. Howe learned that while Cady Stanton fought for suffrage for women and Blacks, she was also a racist.
“All of these women that we think of ‘they helped get women the vote,’ they weren’t always great people,” Howe said.
Learning the backstory of figures like Stanton, Howe said, is one of the benefits of doing research beyond what is taught in standard high school history classes. Women’s history is often undercovered in many high school history textbooks, she said, and there are women who were “fighting the whole time (throughout history) and no one really learns about them.”
Howe is now one of three seniors, along with Hannah Prue and Zoe Bertsch, who recently founded The Nor’ Easter High School Historical Journal. The journal will provide a place for Maine high school students to publish their historical research, and was inspired by two historical conferences where the students presented their own papers in 2019.
At both conferences, Howe, Prue, and Betsch were the only high school students, and the experience highlighted the lack of scholarly journals that exist to publish high school students’ work.
“A lot of people (at the conference) were wondering where is this published? Where can I read more?” Bertsch said last week. “… And that kind of inspired us to be like, hey, maybe we can fix the way high school research is shared.”
Bertsch, Howe, and Prue recently sent out a call to high school principals throughout Cumberland County for research-based history papers to include in the first digital edition of their journal next spring.
The three co-founders and editors intend to publish 30 papers in the journal, and its first submission deadline is Feb. 28, 2021. Papers can cover any topic in any discipline of history, and the project will also serve as the students’ capstone.
Howe, Bertsch, and Prue have worked with Portland High School history teacher Gavin Glider to write papers based on their historical research for the past two years.
Glider, a Civil War historian who is completing his Ph.D. in American history from the University of Maine, said the effort started when Howe, Prue, and Bertsch submitted “exceptional” papers in the first semester of their sophomore year.
The work exceeded the writing level that is usually evident from high school sophomores, he said, and led to the three of them to present their research at the Maine Bicentennial History Conference, which was held at the University of Maine in spring 2019. A similar opportunity followed the next summer, when they presented at the New England Historical Association’s bi-annual conference at Roger Williams University in Rhode Island.
They each presented a different paper at the two conferences, which included Howe’s paper on Stanton. All of them found out enlightening things about famous historical figures they had never known before.
Bertsch found some unexpected information while researching Harriet Tubman. She said she was surprised to learn that in addition to her work on the underground railroad, Tubman was also a spy for the Union during the Civil War, and would often “go behind the lines of battle and collect information” for the Northern army. She echoed Howe in her thoughts about studying famous women.
“There’s so much we don’t know about women’s history and their impact on America,” Bertsch said.
Prue said it meant a lot to have professional historians at the conferences take her seriously and appreciate the work she did as a high school student.
The experience has also affected other areas of the students’ lives.
For Howe, it has pushed her to do more research into everyday topics she is interested in, such as politics, and to keep learning about them instead of being satisfied with surface-level information.
It has also influenced Bertsch’s future plans for college. She is nearly done with the application process and hopes to major in either political science or journalism because both incorporate two things she is passionate about – writing and the study of world issues.
Howe said though she does not know what she wants to major in, her time in the class will influence her college studies. Knowing “what has worked in the past” and what has failed in society, she said, is important because it can be key to affecting change in the present day.
She also said she thinks archiving historical writing from students her age is important because of the fresh perspectives and interpretations they may have on historical events compared to older people.
Glider agreed and said the influence of the reality his students are living today came through in their work. They highlighted ideas that historians often overlook, he said.
“I think there’s so much value to how (they) perceive the world and how that builds into the research that (they) all do,” Glider said.
Bertsch also said she thinks it’s important for students her age to know their writing is professional-level.
“If anything it’s a confidence boost,” she said. “I think that’s really important for young researchers and writers.”