Class Struggle

Time for required writing should be made

By Jay Mathews
Thursday, October 14, 2010

In my search for signs of serious writing instruction in American high schools, I have stumbled across a rare creature: a physics teacher in Fairfax County who makes everyone in his honors classes enter a national science essay contest.

The 67-year-old West Springfield High School instructor, Ed Linz, is unconventional in other ways. He is a retired naval officer who once commanded a ballistic missile submarine. He was an All-Met Coach of the Year in cross country. He had a heart transplant 16 years ago. (When I asked how that was going, he said, "I woke up this morning.") He wrote a book, "Life Row," about the experience and does a weekly column for a newspaper in Spokane, Wash.

Teachers with dynamite résumés are not uncommon in the Washington area. Like Linz, they don't take any nonsense from me. When I gushed over the writing he was teaching his students, and mentioned my view that all schools should require major essays, he said that showed how naive I was about demands on teachers' time.

I think public high school students need to write a serious research paper before they graduate. Private schools insist on it. Students who do the International Baccalaureate program write 4,000-word essays, and many say it was their most satisfying academic experience. But Linz snorts at the notion of essays for all. "I cannot imagine how any high school teacher with five classes can do a 4,000-word project," he said. "To be done even semi-correctly, the teacher would have to do virtually nothing else for much of the year."

Still, Linz has had success requiring his honors physics students to enter the DuPont Challenge, an annual competition requiring a researched 1,000-word science essay. I have never encountered a science teacher who insists on a major writing project, but it works for Linz. He likes the essay contest much better than the science fair. To him, competing experiments mean stacks of liability forms and debates about outside help. "I got tired of judging parents' work," Linz said.

He has no honors classes this year, but last year he had three. "We began by choosing appropriate topics in late October," he said, "and then worked our way through at least three drafts before submitting the documents in late January. This assignment consumed at least half of my outside-of-class time for the second quarter of school to assess the work and four full class periods to discuss the papers with the students." Having students do much of the work in class reduced the parental over-involvement he found with science fairs.

Like IB essay writers, Linz's students groan about the high standard they are forced to meet but eventually admit it was good for them. Topics are as varied as why there are no square drums and why botox is more than a beauty treatment. Five Linz students have received DuPont honorable mentions in the past three years, more than in any other high school in the United States or Canada, he said.

"The real benefit for high school students is to sit with the teacher and receive critical feedback," he said.

Exactly. I want Linz, who solved much more daunting organizational problems as a nuclear sub officer, to design a way to make that happen for everybody in high school.

If we raised class sizes for courses that did not require research papers and freed time for teachers with writing skill to meet with students as they wrote their successive drafts, it might work. Linz has handled a heavy load of writing students even though he is older than even I am and on his second heart.

Good writing is crucial to success in the era of the keyboard. High schools should teach it.

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