Only at Barstow: Research, Writing and a Rite of Passage

Marc Kulick, ‘06, didn’t get his first choice of research topics back in the spring semester 2004. Nor did he get his second. To hear Kulick tell it, though, that third topic choice — The 1979 Soviet Invasion of Afghanistan — had a profound effect on his intellectual understanding of history and serves as the source for his life-long love of the subject.
As the founder and CEO of Vesta Realty and Vesta Capital, Kulick says that history lessons are also business lessons. “We often think that the goal of history is that you have to take a side. But you don’t have to,” he says. “In my line of work, just like history, you can’t start with an answer. You have to ask questions and gather evidence.”

In many ways, Kulick’s statement mirrors what history teacher Angela Guldin and English teacher Mark Luce want students to discover as they embark on the Barstow rite of passage that was started by Walt Brayman, Val Ostarch and Bob Demeritt in the fall of 1985.

While many high schools have moved away from larger research projects, Guldin and Luce believe the project gives students a host of benefits that will serve them well, especially in college. Students learn to evaluate sources, which can mean considering contradictory information about the same event. In addition, writing a seven to 10-page paper requires focus, citations, organization and clear writing.

Lauren Fox, ‘15, remembers the process of making notecards and the scaffolding that helps students manage what can seem overwhelming at the start. Fox, now a graduate student in English at the University of Kansas, wrote about Ireland’s response to British executions following the Easter Rising in 1916. What Fox took away from the project, though, was something that lasts to this day —  a small comment from Mr. Luce. “I dedicated just one paragraph of my paper to the role of women in the insurrection, and I remember Mr. Luce wrote a comment about how he would like to know more about that,” Fox says, “Now, as a master’s student who constantly writes 10-page papers, I often think about his comment and how a paper can be expanded by following different threads.”

Such long-lasting connections and skills, says Guldin, remain central to the entire project. “We want students to have books in their hands. Reading is the absolute key to the whole project,” she says. “Repeatedly we have former students tell us, ‘Hey, thanks for that.’ They don’t realize at the time that this paper serves as a research foundation that will serve them extremely well in college.” 

Over the years, Guldin and Luce have tweaked minor details of the project, but the emphasis on building a paper has stayed. The students start with a guiding question, acquire sources, make notecards that paraphrase important passages, build an outline, and then craft the final paper. 

Along the way, Guldin and Luce have one-on-one meetings with each student to provide guidance and feedback. Luce likens the Barstow Sophomore Research Project to learning to ride a bike. “At a certain point the intellectual training wheels need to come off, and the students have the confidence to move forward on their own. But in order to get to that point, Angela and I stay close to help avert mishaps,” he says.  

Kulick continues to be thrilled with the entire project;  he makes it clear his paper about Afghanistan fueled his interest in how small wars reflect larger geopolitical struggles. “The sophomore research paper was my first act of scholarship,” he says with a smile. “I did that. And it was a significant moment for me.”