Headmaster’s Thoughts – March 2013

This is the one-hundredth “Headmaster’s Thoughts” I have written. That means that every month since December 2004, I have written a multi-paragraph essay for publication on the York Prep website.

I am surprised (and I admit, pleased) to have written 100 pieces. My first essay was about the joys of standing in the front lobby and looking down through the large window at the activities of the gym classes. I wrote it because I wanted to show my Ethics class (a class I teach to all seniors) that I actually could write and, since I required them to write and then critiqued what they produced, that they were welcome to critique what I wrote. My hope was to challenge them to model that writing and to embark on writing their own blogs.

The goal of these essays has not really changed since then. I still think it important to give students the example that the work their teachers publicly produce is subject to scrutiny and criticism. But what I have found in the process of writing these 100 pieces is how easy it is to do. It takes about 20 minutes to write these essays (and then another 20 minutes to re-read and edit them). That was not true at the beginning, but it is true now. The more I have written, the easier it is to write.

The other discovery is that, because I made it a rule to write an essay every month, it has now become a habit to write an essay every month. This leads me to answer the most commonly asked question put to me by parents: “How do I get my child to be a better student?” My conclusion, based on the writing of these pieces, is that a regular rule, such as doing homework before anything else, can become a habit. More generally, doing what you have to do before anything else can become a lifelong habit. Luckily, I learned this early. When I was assigned some essay at school on Monday for delivery on Friday, I wrote it on Monday and therefore had a few days to think about improving it. That started as a rule which my parents imposed, and it became a habit by my mid-teens. Fifty years later, you are reading the result.

This brings me to the next fact: few people actually read what I write. I really do not mind. I write these pieces for the reasons I have given; it is a free country, and you can read what you want. As I write, I remember all the rules about writing a multi-paragraph essay that were drilled into my young head at school. There should be a beginning that results in a conclusion. The first and last sentence must connect through the body of the essay. You should know (by outline or pre-thought) what you are going to write before you begin. And try not to be boring.

In England, we did not have “bubble answer” tests: we had to write four essays in three hours out of a choice of ten title options. That was the standard exam after the age of 11. It applied to every exam I ever took—including the one I took for my graduate degree—with the exception of the history open scholarship exam at Oxford, where we had to write a three-hour essay with no choice of subject. My year, that essay had to be on “The Moon.” Yes, three hours writing on “The Moon!”

As a result of my education, I dislike “bubble” tests graded by a Scantron reader, and I probably am no good at them because I never got into the habit of taking them. I am convinced that young minds possess neuroplasticity and can be developed by practice. The more you do, the better you get. I am also convinced that rules become habits. I know that next year at York Prep, we are going to teach the writing of essays (call it “English Language”) as a separate subject in the high school from “English Literature.” I hope that teachers and students will publish essays on our website.

When that happens, when someone else from the faculty or student body takes over this monthly “Thoughts” forum, I will stop inflicting them on you (my dear and rare readers) and write only for myself. Until then, next month will see Number 101 of these “Headmaster’s Thoughts.”

Ronald P. Stewart, Headmaster
E-mail: rstewart@yorkprep.org 

“Headmaster’s Thoughts” for previous months are archived in the section More News. You may access additional months by clicking Headmaster’s Thoughts Archives on the same page.