For Class 8, A Victorian-Themed Research Project

At Chapin, students in each division learn to explore the eventful past in detailed and thought-provoking ways. One outstanding example of this type of “deep dive” occurs in Class 8 English, where scholars have embarked on a major research project ahead of reading “Jane Eyre” by Charlotte Brontë.

Set during Great Britain’s Victorian Era (1837-1901), “Jane Eyre” is a masterful work in its own right. Yet, the political, literary, sociological and historical forces that shaped Ms. Brontë’s life – and, in turn, the life of her fictional characters – offer an enlightening framework for studying the classic English novel, which was originally published in 1847. With this fact in mind, English teachers Diane Spillios and Russell Silverman designed “The Jane Eyre Research Project” as a platform through which their students could investigate a significant topic related to Victorian society.

Because this multi-faced undertaking required focused work in the Annenberg Center for Learning and Research, Head Librarian Barbara Lutz joined Miss Spillios and Mr. Silverman’s classes to provide an overview of the library’s comprehensive resources of print and electronic source materials, including reference books, journal articles and educational videos.

“We hope your topic grabs your interest, and hope what you learn sheds light on Brontë’s novel so that you will appreciate her work all the more when you read it,” remarked Miss Spillios. “Ms. Lutz is your best friend for this project,” she added with a smile.

First, the students – divided into groups of three or four – were assigned their research topics from a list of five areas.* Before they began looking for sources, Ms. Lutz prepared each class with a lively orientation on the basics of scholarly research. On this day, with their desks forming a semi-circle around the perimeter of the fourth-floor classroom, students in one class listened eagerly as Ms. Lutz reviewed the mechanics of the library’s online catalog, which was projected on the smart board.

“What is one type of resource?” Ms. Lutz asked. The students suggested “e-book,” “website,” “video” and “print book.” Ms. Lutz then demonstrated how to construct keyword searches to achieve the most germane results, an information-gathering exercise Mr. Silverman referred to as “pre-search,” for preliminary research. For example, the search “ideal woman in Victorian England” garnered a range of material – some useful, some not – while the simplified search “women Victorian” pulled up a host of more closely aligned sources.

“It’s like a treasure hunt,” said Miss Spillios of the trial-and-error process that such research requires.

In the days that followed, fortified with Ms. Lutz’s helpful tips and tricks, the students assembled in the Annenberg Center to begin their projects. Their initial task was to compile a packet of 30 notecards. Although working collaboratively, each student was asked to identify three unique sources on her own, only one of which could be shared with her group members. As Miss Spillios emphasized, the notecards needed to highlight a single research subtopic, with no more than five pieces of information, as well as corresponding data for the annotated bibliography, another important component of this project.

On a recent afternoon, students in one of Mr. Silverman’s classes dispersed to various areas of the light-filled library. Some sat at tables – scattered with pink, blue and yellow notecards – poring over documents with their group members and typing on laptops. Next to the tables, a few perused a cart of selected books about the Victorian Era, while others scanned the stacks on the fifth floor in search of even more relevant material. Throughout the class period, Ms. Lutz was a knowledgeable, reassuring presence as she answered the students’ questions and recommended approaches to tackling this captivating assignment.

Over the upcoming few weeks, the students are using the wealth of information they garnered to develop and implement Victorian-themed “learning stations.” Using a presentation technique of their choosing – such as a poster, a multimedia exhibition or a video – the students will create engaging, informative and interactive venues for their fellow classmates to experience.

Through their carefully researched and creatively executed projects, the scholars in English 8 are becoming experts on a fascinating aspect of Victorian life, while building vital skills around the processes of gathering, synthesizing and presenting information. Without a doubt, a thrilling examination of “Jane Eyre” awaits!

*Jane Eyre Project Research Topics and Questions:

1. The ideal Victorian woman/women in Victorian England

According to Victorian thinking, what was the ideal woman like, and how did that ideal conflict with the realities women faced in England at the time?

2. The life of a governess in Victorian England

What was life like for a governess in Victorian England, and why were some women drawn to the profession?

3. The life of Charlotte Brontë

What was Charlotte Brontë’s life like, both as an author and as a person?

4. Victorian etiquette and manners

What role did etiquette and manners play in Victorian life in England?

5. Social class in Victorian England

How did social class function in Victorian England?

Browse photos of the classes below: