Recommended reading: A great essay & a history test

There are two stories in today's New York Times that merit some consideration. One is an essay about a sperm donor and the other is a pop history quiz (sorry, test-haters, it's multiple choice). ?What the two have in common is 12th-grade.? The essay writer, one Colton Wooten, we are told, ?graduated from Leesville Road High School* this month.?? And the Times test is taken from the infamous National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) history exam that got so much press this past week (see here and here).

Start with the test. As the headline asks, ?Are You as Smart as a 12th Grader??? Well, my guess is that the average adult American is probably as smart as the average 12th-grader, considering that only 12 percent of the NAEP sample of seniors were proficient in the history test.? But the questions are not easy ? everyone remember what the Ordinance of Nullification was? ? and the test, however golden a standard,? is probably a better measure of the nation's curriculum anarchy than of student knowledge.? (See my post on the national obsession with putting the assessment cart before the curriculum horse.)

Mr. Wooten's essay illustrates a different set of challenges for our schools; most specifically, how do you teach writing?? The young man's op-ed essay is wonderfully constructed and shows a mastery of the topic and of the writing craft that is far more mature than the standard 12th-grade fare I've read.

I didn't think much about [about being the product of an unknown sperm donor] until 2006, when I was in eighth grade and my teacher assigned my class a genealogy project. We were supposed to research our family history and create a family tree to share with the class. In the past, whenever questioned about my father's absence by friends or teachers, I wove intricate alibis: he was a doctor on call; he was away on business in Russia; he had died, prematurely, of a heart attack. In my head, I'd always dismissed him as my `biological father,' with that distant, medical phrase.

Assuming it hasn't been too seriously edited, Wooten's prose begs the question, for me, how did he come by such talent?? Can it be taught?

I will let people more adept than I am take a swing at that. But I suggest two things other than what we seem preoccupied with doing in too many of our schools, which is ?making kids write as soon as they can hold a pencil (or tap at a keyboard).? The two better methods of teaching children how to write are:? a) have them read and b) teach them how to diagram a sentence.? As someone who came to the writing craft by way of the latter, via Father Ignatius's drill-and-kill sentence diagramming program, and who has, more or less, made a living trying to string words together ? or help others do it ? I can tell you that learning the basics helps (and will compensate for some reading gaps). By the same token, an avid reader (of good stuff), will learn the basics of grammar and sentence structure by osmosis and so may not need to know the parts of speech backwards and forwards. In any case, one of my favorite pieces of advice on this score comes from Pat Conroy, a superbly gifted writer, in his memoir, My Losing Season. As I recall the scene from the book, sometime in high school (at the Citadel), young Conroy, probably about Wooten's age, decides he might want to be a writer and so asked his English teacher what he should do. And the answer went something like this, ?Read the great books, Mr. Conroy, and only the great books. There isn't time for anything else.?

So, keep reading, Mr. Wooten ? and writing. ?And if any of Mr. Wooten's teachers would like to share their secrets, please write as well. ?And please tell us something about teaching history while you're at it.

--Peter Meyer, Bernard Lee Schwartz Policy Fellow

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*I peeked, at Google: Leesville Road appears to be a public school in Raleigh, NC.

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