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View From Lodi CA: Senior High School Writing Project—An Important Step In Learning
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May 02, 2008, 05:00 AM
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Several years ago, I taught a General Educational Development preparation class at Lincoln Tech Academy, then known as the Lodi Adult School.

My students were welfare recipients that the San Joaquin County had sent back into the classroom to get their high school equivalency degree.

For the most part, the students passed the three reading comprehension sections—social studies, science and literature—but hit roadblocks on math and language arts.

Translated, language arts means a two-part test with multiple choice questions on grammar and a brief essay on an assigned topic.

I was astounded at how difficult it was for students to express in writing their thoughts about even the broadest subject—such as, for example, "What Is the Perfect Way for You to Spend a Day Off?"

Students literally sat motionless at their desks unable to put their pencils to paper.

The most common objection I heard was that they "didn`t like to" or "couldn`t" write.

What they meant, of course, is that no one had encouraged them or showed them how to write effectively.

Luckily for Lodi Unified School District seniors, they`ve had plenty of coaching.

Good writing is crucial to our educations and our careers. And because relatively few write well, I have been a staunch supporter of Lodi Unified School District`s senior writing project, a multi-step research project required for graduation, since its inception more than ten years ago.

For the many students and their parents who may question the importance of good writing and the value of the senior project, they`re missing the big picture.

How people write makes an important statement. College recruiters and prospective employers realize this. Intelligently written, clear presentations distinguish one candidate from another.

And in the workplace, since so few people can write well, those that can are highly valued. Writing skillfully, thus, opens the door to advancement in almost any field a job seeker may pursue.

Understandably, the writing process intimidates some high school students.

My advice to them is that writing is much like learning tennis. The more you do of it, the better you will become. And while few apprentice tennis players will become Maria Sharapova, neither will many budding writers win Pulitzer Prizes.

But all can—and will—become better through practice.

Here, from thirty years ago, is American style expert E. B. White`s timeless advice to a teenage writer aspiring to become a published author:

"You asked me about writing—how I did it. There is no trick to it. If you like to write and want to write, you write, no matter where you are or what else you are doing or whether anyone pays any heed. I must have written half a million words (mostly in my journal) before I had anything published, save for a couple of short items in St. Nicholas. If you want to write about feelings, about the end of summer, about growing, write about it. A great deal of writing is not `plotted`—most of my essays have no plot structure, they are a ramble in the woods, or a ramble in the basement of my mind. You ask, `Who cares?` Everybody cares. You say, `It`s been written before.` Everything has been written before."

Bear Creek`s Jennifer Cassel has been teaching the senior project longer than any other district instructor.

Cassel told me that the program is a huge success. She said:

"Our pass rate is superb, averaging 95 percent every year. We`ve had few complaints from either parents or kids.  We hold our students to the district wide standards. By the end of the year we see many truly deserving, accomplished and proud kids cross the stage at graduation."

The hard work put in on the senior project by district teachers has been recognized nationwide. In 2007, the Lodi Unified School District was named as the first in the country to become nationally certified in Senior Project.

I cannot think of anything that has served me better, in either my personal or professional life, than my ability to clearly express my thoughts and feelings in writing.

And, having served on panels that evaluate individual senior projects, I`m happy to say that I can see many other students who will one day feel the same as I do.

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.