View From Lodi, CA: In Praise Of The Senior Writing Project
May 14, 2004, 05:00 AM
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I have been a staunch supporter of the Lodi Unified School District's senior writing project since its inception.

Nothing identifies an educated individual more definitively than his ability to structure an intelligent written report or research paper.

And while the senior project creates a good deal of grousing by not only students but also their parents, I remain unshakeable in my defense of the importance of good writing.

For college bound students who feel they have already mastered essay or report writing, you're wrong. You can always improve.

And for high school seniors who feel that the senior project is a waste of their time because they have no university aspirations, you're wrong too.

Whatever the future may hold for this year's graduating seniors, learning to write well is a discipline that will enrich your lives. And to be able to write well is within the reach of anyone who puts forth the effort.

For decades, I have been concerned about the abysmal quality of prose. Whether I was reading the New York Times—where I recently found a 63-word sentence in a front page story—or a best selling John Grisham novel that apparently never reached an editor's desk, the written word is under assault.

Earlier this week, I had an opportunity to speak with Will Fitzhugh, founder of the Concord Review.

In 1987, Fitzhugh began publishing exemplary history essays crafted by high school students throughout the English-speaking world.

Secondary school authors from forty-three states and thirty-three countries have had their reports—average length 5,500 words— in the Concord Review. With the fifty-seventh issue (Summer 2004), 638 research papers have been published.

The best of them win the Review's Ralph Waldo Emerson Award. Among the winning entries are original reports like "A Blow to Labor: The Homestead Strike of 1892" by Jacob C. Goldberg and "The Treason Debate: Ezra Pound and His Rome Radio Broadcasts" by Jonas Doberman.

Fitzhugh is confident that high school students, given the proper instruction and encouragement, can produce quality writing.

But Fitzhugh frets that the traditional high school research report is on the way out as more and more emphasis is placed on the short essay.

Even more troubling, Fitzhugh is convinced that the majority of high school seniors graduate without reading a non-fiction book cover to cover.

The evidence supports Fitzhugh. According to a report sponsored by the Concord Review and conducted by the Center for Survey Research and Analysis at the University of Connecticut, while 95% of all teachers surveyed believed that writing a research paper is important, 82% never assign a report of over 5,000 words and 62% never require more than 3,000 words.

The bottom line says Fitzhugh is that kids miss out on a wonderful opportunity to learn.

As Fitzhugh told New York Times education columnist Michael Winerip, "I tell people, the topic doesn't matter, it's the quality that matters, so a kid learns the joy of scholarship. If you learn what it means to go in depth, you also realize when you're being superficial." A Vital Touchstone for High Schools , New York Times, 2004-03-03

Ultimately, the Concord Review is about scholarship. But there are intangible benefits to good writing. On May 9, "60 Minutes" aired a segment titled "Couldn't Keep It To Myself" about female inmates doing hard time at Connecticut's only maximum security prison.

Women enrolled in a writer's workshop found to their surprise and delight that their essays were eventually published in a critically acclaimed anthology, "Couldn't Keep It To Myself."

Any high school student debating the senior project's merit might be interested in what the women and their instructor had to say about the positive impact that writing had on their lives.

Instructor Wally Lamb: "I'm not a therapist. But I could see that there was therapeutic value in the writing.  People's body language began to change. People's level of articulation."

Robin, a student: "What I saw was transformation.  I saw women that just came in damaged, broken. And they just started to open up and bloom into beautiful flowers. Brand new people."

As CBS correspondent Steve Kroft concluded, "The writing program was worth fighting for. It provided one of the few opportunities for growth and rehabilitation."

My final word of advice to reluctant seniors is that good writing will separate you from your peers. Fitzhugh told me that the overall quality of writing is so poor that law firms now routinely offer remedial writing courses for their new hires.

Seniors, take advantage of the opportunity before you. Throw yourself into your last high school project with enthusiasm and dedication.

Joe Guzzardi [email him], an instructor in English at the Lodi Adult School, has been writing a weekly column since 1988. It currently appears in the Lodi News-Sentinel.