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GRAVES: Holding up the lamp of learning

Recently, at a gathering of professional educators, as well as "civilians" with a high level of interest in schooling, a fellow put a question to me that I have had asked any number of times during my career. It runs something like this, "If you could make one change to schools that would have the greatest positive impact on students, what would it be?"

Notice the question, said or implied, asks what I would change about schools rather than about students. If the question assumed omnipotence, my response would be more along the lines of student resilience, family support, socio-economic status, responsibility, etc. What a wonderful world to live in if every young person came from idyllic backgrounds. But that is not where we are. Opening a school -- and yes I love this fact -- is more about the words at the base of the Statue of Liberty ("Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!") than it is about the sometimes work of Ellis Island, evaluating the suitability of various immigrants for entry to America. Schools, at their best, lift high the lamp of learning for all students.

Thus, improving schools, as the questioner usually intends it, is about what we do in schools. And the one thing that I believe would have the most positive, sustained impact on students would be an intensive K-12 program of writing, across almost all subject matters, and fully engaged in by all teachers. This is not to say that we don't already work quite hard at teaching writing to all students, which raises two follow-up questions. First, why would an intensive, comprehensive writing program have such a positive impact? Second, so why isn't it generally done?

Writing, to answer the first, is a capstone skill. It is a skill which, because it requires both the ability to compose and the ability to compose about something, usually utilizes all other areas of learning. It is a skill which requires a person to think about what they know and believe and apply and evaluate. It encourages and even sometimes absolutely demands that a person think rigorously about what they really believe. To write is to scrutinize, to examine, to analyze and dissect. And to write well is to have a skill both marketable and enlightening, crossing the lines between the technical and the liberal arts. Writing has it all.

If that is the case, and I don't think you'll find many educators who disagree, why is there almost everywhere a constant tendency to retreat from teaching writing, a retreat that must be countered on a very regular basis? One reason is the curricular segregation in most secondary schools, the identification of writing as solely the English teachers' job. But this is really a non-answer. What motivates the non-English teacher to do so? The depressing answer is the same answer explaining why even English teachers will sometimes flee from teaching and assigning writing: it is hard, time-consuming, laborious work. When, in the past, I have taught in the grades seven through 12 history classroom and the post-secondary education classroom, I have always assigned papers. Doing so means taking valuable instructional time away from the subject matter and committing it to writing expectations, such things as the exclusive use of third person, the classical essay format, the necessity of references -- even just the difference between using someone else's ideas and plagiarizing their writing.

This reaps huge rewards for student learning, of course, but it also leads to the terrible, horrible day when the student papers are due. By that, I don't mean terrible, horrible for the students, but for me, because on that day I am now facing seemingly endless hours of grading papers. If you find it hard to appreciate the distastefulness of that task, loiter around the door or your favorite English teacher's classroom some evening around 9 p.m. or some beautiful Saturday morning, or sunny Sunday afternoon, etc., and witness the sunken eyes, the Sisyphean expression, the incessant realization that she has only herself to blame, for she assigned the darned things in the first place. For such work, English instructors with fidelity to their role as teachers of writing deserve our appreciation. The best of them deserve our adulation.

They also need a light at the end of the tunnel of ungraded compositions, a light that may be coming. Over the past several years, software companies have been marketing programs which can not only check enormous databases for plagiarism but also grade written assignments, a task which doesn't seem possible, but in an age of cars that can drive themselves, GPS' which take real-time traffic into account and robots which beat the best Jeopardy! champions (See The Second Machine Age), what isn't possible? In fact, as recently as 2012, the Hewlett Foundation proved that meaningful grading of student writing is now possible through software applications.

If such applications are possible -- and there is every sign not only that they are coming but that some imperfect ones are already here -- we may quickly enter an age when educators are more willing to wade into the world of assessment not by multiple choice and short answer but by reflective, analytic writing. That lamp of learning, end-of-the-tunnel illuminator will be such not just for teachers but, even more importantly, for students as well.

-Joe Graves is superintendent of Mitchell public schools.