Friday, January 29, 2010


Unknown Source. I thought it was from Alfred North Whitehead, but I can't find it.

"In education, a man's books and teachers

are but a help. The real work is his."

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

“The man who does not read good books has no advantage

over the man who cannot read them.”

Mark Twain

Friday, January 22, 2010

Valerie Strauss, The Washington Post; 22 January 2010

That first big research paper

The following was written by 17-year-old Christiane Henrich, a senior at Marblehead [MA] High School, about how she wrote her first research paper, on U.S. Civil War medicine. It was published in the Winter 2009 issue [#80] of The Concord Review, believed to be the world’s only quarterly academic journal for high school history research. She wrote it to Will Fitzhugh, publisher of The Concord Review, who shared it with me.

By Christiane Henrich

Before crafting my research paper on U.S. Civil War Medicine, I had never composed a piece of non-fiction literature beyond six or seven pages. Twenty pages seemed to be an unconquerable length.

I remember the dread that filled me as my AP United States History teacher, Mrs. Melissa Humphrey, handed out the assignment for the twenty-page research paper. She also passed around copies of The Concord Review as examples of research papers done well. For us, the first deadline was only a few weeks away. We had to have a thesis. It was then that I truly realized the depth of this academic adventure. My job was not to simply report on some topic in U.S. history; I had to prove something. I had to create an arguable thesis and defend it. I was overwhelmed.

I put the assignment in the back of my mind for about a week. Then I began to think seriously about what I could possibly want to write about. I brainstormed a list of [the periods] in U.S. history that fascinate me, ranging from World War II to the Civil Rights Movement. Finally, I settled on Civil War medicine because of my plans to pursue a career in medicine. I figured this would be a great opportunity to gather more knowledge on my potential future profession.

Simply choosing a topic was not enough, I needed a thesis. So I began to search through books and online databases for any information about Civil War medicine. I gathered so much information that my head was spinning.

I realized I had to narrow down my topic, and that this would be done by creating a specific, arguable thesis. Sifting through all the data and historical articles, I noticed that Civil War medicine was not as atrocious as I had always believed it to be. I had my thesis. I wanted to defend Civil War medicine by placing it in its own historical context, something many fail to do when evaluating it with a modern eye. 

A few weeks later, approved thesis in hand, I stepped into the Tufts University library, the alma mater of my mother. The battle plan: gather enough materials, particularly primary sources, to prove my thesis. The enemy: the massive amounts of possibly valuable literature.

I had never previously encountered the problem of finding books so specialized that they didn’t end up being helpful for my thesis nor had I ever been presented with so many options that I had to narrow down from thirty to a mere fifteen books. Actually, I had never left a library before with so many books. 

For the next few months, the books populated the floor of my room.

Every weekend, I methodically tackled the volumes, plastering them with Post-it notes. The deadline for the detailed outline and annotated bibliography loomed. I continued reading and researching, fascinated by all I was learning. 

In fact, I was so fascinated that I felt justified using it as my excuse to delay synthesizing all of my information into an outline. With thousands of pages of reading under my belt, I finally tackled the seven-page map for my twenty-page journey. That was easily the hardest part of the entire process. Once the course was charted, all I had to do was follow it. Of course, it was under construction the entire way, and detours were taken, but the course of the trip turned out much like the map.

I thought printing out the twenty-page academic undertaking, binding it, and handing it in was the greatest feeling I had ever experienced from a scholastic endeavor. I remember being overjoyed that day. I remember sleeping so soundly. I remember the day as sunny. I’m not sure if it actually was.... 

Clearly, I was thinking small. I had no idea what my grade would be. At that point, I did not even care. I had finished the paper. I considered that a tremendous accomplishment. Eventually, the graded research papers were handed back. What had previously been my greatest academic feeling was surpassed. The grade on my paper was a 99%. I was overjoyed and thrilled that I had not only completed such a tremendous task but had completed it pretty darnn well. I thought that was the greatest feeling.

I still needed to think bigger. I submitted my paper to The Concord Review on a whim this summer. I remember Mrs. Humphrey showing us the journals and praising their quality. She is a tough teacher, and I thought since she had liked my paper so much I should give The Concord Review a go. I was not counting on being published. I knew my chances were slim, and I knew I was competing with students from around the world.

 This November, I received a letter in the mail from Will Fitzhugh, the founder of The Concord Review. My paper was selected to be published in the Winter 2009 issue. That was the greatest feeling.

I am a 17-year-old public high school student. I am also a 17-year-old published author. People work their whole lives to make it to this point. I feel so honored to have this recognition at my age. My hard work paid off far beyond where I thought it would. Thank you, Mr. Fitzhugh, for recognizing the true value of academic achievement and for reminding me why I love to learn.


Follow my blog all day, every day by bookmarking

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Valerie Strauss
The Washington Post
21 January 2010

Writing for Knowledge

In this post, Will Fitzhugh, editor of The Concord Review, explains why it is important for high school students to write research papers. The Review is believed to be the world’s only English-language quarterly review for academic history papers by high school students.

By Will Fitzhugh

Professors E.D. Hirsch, Jr., and Daniel Willingham of the University of Virginia have continually, and most usefully, pointed out that tests of reading are really tests of knowledge.

They have also campaigned, somewhat quixotically, to encourage educators and "literacy pundits" to recognize that knowledge has a lot more to do with whether students can understand what they read than does their heavy-laden toolbelt of gimmicks and techniques to teach "literacy skills.” 

Indeed, one major literacy study and report recently pointed out, in an aside, that the idea that reading books will do a lot for the literacy of students is sadly misguided. What students need, it was felt, is lots more technique and process classes, K-12, on “finding the main idea,” “identifying the author’s audience,” and all like that there. 

I would argue to the contrary.

Not only does reading books contribute powerfully to the knowledge that students need in order to read more and more difficult material (such as they should face in high school and will certainly face in college), but, also, the work of writing a serious research paper will lead students to do a lot more reading and to gather a lot of knowledge in the process.

A study done for The Concord Review Institute some years ago found that the majority of U.S. public high school teachers no longer assign serious research papers, because teachers do not have the time (or perhaps the knowledge) to guide students through them and to assess them when they are handed in. 

It is clear that working with students on term papers would be less time-consuming than layup drills for basketball, tackling drills for football and batting practice for baseball, to which countless hours of students and coaches are devoted every year on a regular basis.

But as long as educators do not see that writing serious term papers will lead to more knowledge, which leads students to read better and understand more, such papers will continue to receive the small notice they now do. 

The California State College System people, at a conference last November, reported that 47% of their freshmen are in remedial English classes, just one bit of evidence that those students have not done the serious reading and writing or acquired the knowledge they should have to get ready for college work.

There are those who say that high school students are really not capable of writing serious research papers—and one student even told me that at her school the assumption was that students would learn to write in college—but they are quite mistaken, as it turns out. 

This view, when made known to college professors, does not make them happy. A Chronicle of Higher Education poll a few years ago found that 89% of college professors reported that the students they were getting were not very well prepared in reading, doing research, and writing.

Since 1987, I have published 879 history research papers (averaging 5,500 words, with endnotes and bibliography) in 80 quarterly issues, by high school students from 44 states and 36 other countries. Samples of this exemplary work may be found here.

As has so often been reported, and as famed teacher Jaime Escalante used to say, students will rise to the level of the academic expectations we give them. And this is true for serious term papers as well as for history books, calculus, science, foreign languages and the rest. 

I hope that those who have written so convincingly of the need for students to have more knowledge in order to be able to understand what they are reading, will come to agree with me that in the process of writing serious term papers students are very likely to gain some of that knowledge, as they read and work on their own to produce informative and readable essays of the sort I have published over the last 20 years or so.


Follow my blog all day, every day by bookmarking

Follow all the Post’s Education news & blogs on our Facebook fan page, the "PostSchools" feed on Twitter or our Education home page at

Friday, January 15, 2010


There is an old story about a worker at one of the South African diamond mines, who would leave work once a week or so pushing a wheelbarrow full of sand. The guard would stop him and search the sand thoroughly, looking for any smuggled diamonds. When he found none, he would wave the worker through. This happened month after month, and finally the guard said, “Look, I know you are smuggling something, and I know it isn’t diamonds. If you tell me what it is, I won’t say anything, but I really want to know.” The worker smiled, and said, “wheelbarrows.”

I think of this story when teachers find excuses for not letting their students see the exemplary history essays written by their high school peers for The Concord Review. Often they feel they cannot give their students copies unless they can “teach” the contents. Or they already teach the topic of one of the essays they see in the issue. Or they don’t know anything about one of the topics. Or they know more about the topic than the HS author does. Or they don’t have time to teach one of the topics they see, or they don’t think students have time to read one or more of the essays, or they worry about plagiarism, or something else. There are many reasons to keep this unique journal out of the hands of secondary students.

They are, to my mind, “searching the sand.” The most important reason to show their high school students the journal is to let them see the wheelbarrow itself, that is, to show them that there exists in the world a professional journal that takes the history research papers of high school students seriously enough to have published them on a quarterly basis for the last 22 years. Whether the students read all the essays, or one of them, or none of them, they will see that for some of their peers academic work is treated with respect. And that is a message worth letting through the guard post, whatever anyone may think about, or want to do something with, the diamonds inside.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

“Windows on College Readiness”

Will Fitzhugh, The Concord Review

The Bridgespan Group, working for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, released a report called “Reclaiming the American Dream.” The study was intended to find out how to get more U.S. high school students prepared for and through college.

Much of the report is about getting kids to go to college, and it finds that if there is enough money provided, and if parents, peers, counselors and teachers say going to college is important, more high school students are likely to go.

The major weakness of the report, in my view, is its suggestions for the kind of high school work that will help students to do college work and to graduate.

One of the concluding statements is that “Inertia is particularly difficult to overcome when people are unaware that a problem exists or that the potential for solving it is real.” What a useful insight. What they recommend for high school students is “a rigorous college preparatory curriculum.” What could be wrong with that?

Two very simple and basic things are wrong with that. Current “college preparatory” curricula, including AP courses, do not include the reading of complete nonfiction books or the writing of serious research papers.

That is almost as if we had a crisis in preparing high school football players for success in college and recommended a standard preparation program which did not give them practice in running, blocking and tackling. ACT found last spring that 49 percent of the high school students it tested could not read at the level of college freshman texts. And the Chronicle of Higher Education reported on a survey in which 90 percent of college professors thought high school students were not well prepared in reading, writing and doing research. A true college education requires reading serious books and writing substantial papers although many schools have watered their requirements down. High school students should be ready for in-depth study.

If high school football players haven’t done much blocking or tackling in high school, no one would expect them to play well in college, but somehow we expect high school students in a college preparatory program which includes no nonfiction books and no real research papers to do well with college reading lists and with college term paper assignments.

In my state, Massachusetts, 34 percent of the students who go to state four-year colleges are in remedial classes, according to The Boston Globe. Those students had the expectations, support, access and aspiration for the college dream, but when they got there, they were not ready to do the work.

The Gates report says that “the high school environment needs to provide students with high expectations and strong teaching...” but without any real focus on students’ independent academic reading and writing, that environment doesn’t do the job of preparing students for college work.

If we want students to be able to read and understand college books and to write research papers there, then we must give students a chance to learn how to do that in a ”rigorous college preparatory program” in high school. But that is not happening, and just about no one is paying attention to the fact that it is not happening.

The inertia in this case that is “particularly difficult to overcome” is the exclusive focus on what teachers do and what courses cover in textbooks. There must be more attention to the actual academic work that students are required to do—at least in the humanities. Perhaps in mathematics and the sciences, some students are really doing the kind of academic work that prepares them, but in the world of academic reading (nonfiction books) and academic writing (serious research papers), most schools badly serve their students. This report, like so many others, completely misses that.

The Business Roundtable reported in 2004 that their member companies were spending more than $3 billion each year on remedial writing courses for both salaried and hourly employees, so even many of our college graduates may not have achieved a very satisfactory level of academic competence in reading and writing these days. With so many ill-prepared students coming into college, many professors have taken the path of least resistance and watered down their courses.

Our high school programs for students who hope to succeed in college and beyond should require them to write extended essays and papers which are rigorously graded. They should also require students to read at least one serious complete nonfiction book every year. While this may be beyond the prevailing and generally feeble educational standards of the moment, if we don’t do it, most U.S. high school students will continue to be unprepared for higher education.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

HS Writing—Content

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

by Will Fitzhugh, The Concord Review


When teaching our students to write, not only are standards set very low in most high schools, limiting students to the five-paragraph essay, responses to a document-based question, or the personal (or college) essay about matters which are often no one else’s business, but we often so load up students with formulae and guidelines that the importance of writing when the author has something to say gets lost in the maze of processes.

On the one hand writing is difficult enough to do, and academic writing is especially difficult if the student hasn’t read anything, and on the other hand teachers feel the need to have students “produce” writing, however short or superficial that writing may be. So writing consultants and writing teachers feel they must come up with guidelines, parameters, checklists, rubrics, and the like, as props to substitute for students’ absent motivation to describe or express in writing something they have learned.

Samuel Johnson once said, “an author will turn over half a library to produce one book,” the point being, as I understand it, that good writing must be based on extensive reading. But reading is just the step that is left out of the “Writing Process” in too many instances. The result is that students in fact do not have much to say, so of course they don’t have much they want to communicate in writing.

Enter the guidelines. Students are told to write a topic sentence, to express one idea per paragraph, to follow the structure of Introduction, Body, Conclusion, to follow the “Twelve Steps to Effective Writing,” and the like. This the students can be made to do, but the result is too often empty, formulaic writing which students come to despise, and which does not prepare them for the serious academic papers they may be asked to do in college.

I fear that the history book report, at least at the high school level in too many places, has died in the United States. Perhaps people will contact me with welcome evidence to the contrary, but where it is no longer done, students have not only been discouraged from reading nonfiction, but also have been led to believe that they can and must write to formula without knowing something—for instance about the contents of a good book—before they write.

A nationally famous teacher of teachers of writing once told me: “I teach writing, I don’t get into content that much...” This is a splendid example of the divorce between content and process in common writing instruction.

Reading and writing are inseparable partners, in my view. In letters from authors of essays published in The Concord Review over the years, they often say that they read so much about something in history that they reached a point where they felt a strong need to tell people what they had found out. The knowledge they had acquired had given them the desire to write well so that others could share and appreciate it as they did.

This is where good academic writing should start. When the motivation is there, born from knowledge gained, then the writing process follows a much more natural and straightforward path. Then the student can write, read what they have written, and see what they have left out, what they need to learn more about, and what they have failed to express as clearly as they wanted to. Then they read more, re-write, and do all the natural things that have always led to good academic writing, whether in history or in any other subject.

At that point the guidelines are no longer needed, because the student has become immersed in the real work of expressing the meaning and value of something they know is worth writing about. This writing helps them discover the limits of their own understanding of the subject and allows them to see more clearly what they themselves think about the subject. The process of critiquing their own writing becomes natural and automatic. This is not to deny, of course, the value of reading what they have written to a friend or of giving it to a teacher for criticism and advice. But the writing techniques and processes no longer stop up the natural springs for the motivation to write.

As students are encouraged to learn more before they write, their writing will gradually extend past the five-paragraph size so often constraining the craft of writing in our schools. Our Page Per Year Plan© suggests that all public high school Seniors could be expected to write a twelve-page history research paper, if they had written an eleven-page paper their Junior year, a ten-page paper their Sophomore year, and a nine-page paper their Freshman year, and so on all the way back through the five-page paper in Fifth Grade and even to a one-page paper on a topic other than themselves their first year in school. With the Page Per Year Plan©, every Senior in high school will have learned, for that twelve-page paper, more about some topic probably than anyone else in their class knows, perhaps even more than any of their teachers knows about that subject. They will have had in the course of writing longer papers each year, that first taste of being a scholar which will serve them so well in higher education and beyond.

Writing is always much harder when the student has nothing to communicate, and the proliferating paraphernalia of structural aids from writing consultants and teachers often simply encumber students and alienate them from the essential benefits of writing. John Adams urged his fellow citizens to “Dare to read, think, speak and write” so that they could contribute to the civilization we have been given to enjoy and preserve. Let us endeavor to allow students to discover, through their own academic reading and writing, both the discipline and the satisfactions of writing carefully and well.

In 1625, Francis Bacon wrote, “Reading maketh a Full man, Conference a Ready man, and Writing an Exact man.” These benefits are surely among those we should not withhold from our K-12 students.

“Teach by Example”
Will Fitzhugh [founder]
Consortium for Varsity Academics® [2007]
The Concord Review [1987]
Ralph Waldo Emerson Prizes [1995]
National Writing Board [1998]
TCR Institute [2002]
730 Boston Post Road, Suite 24
Sudbury, Massachusetts 01776 USA
978-443-0022; 800-331-5007;
Varsity Academics®