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The Right Way to Learn

A high school campus

Never stop learning.

I’ve got a few good stories from high school, most of which don’t make me look like a really great student. I’ve been repeating one in particular lately that’s all about skipping classes (lots of classes) and claiming with certainty that, as a writer, I didn’t need school.

I was wrong — that’s the punchline of that particular story — but the impression that story gives is wrong, too. I always excelled in school. I have a knack for tests and (as you’ve seen) a deep appreciation for the essay form.

I also love learning. Always have. I just got tremendously bored whenever I was stuck sitting in classes not learning.

Those were mostly just the General Ed classes, though. I loved my language classes (English, French, Latin, Spanish, Biblical Greek, and Russian, in that order), and of course I always showed up for creative writing, but when it came to learning, nothing ever beat A. P.

My high school offered a ton of Advanced Placement courses — high school classes that could count for college credit, if you learned enough to pass the final exam. Of course, the lion’s share of the A. P. classes were sciences and maths, and I didn’t want to work that hard on something I wouldn’t be pursuing.

The ones that appealed to me were English Lit. and U. S. History. Mr. Davis taught English, and Mrs. Davis taught History. Husband and wife, they taught those two classes with a powerful synergy.

For two straight semesters, their sole focus was to teach us how to ace A. P. tests. Don’t mistake that for any kind of shortcut, though.

From day one they flooded us with information, and then required us to demonstrate a total understanding of all of it. Every class period felt like an A. P. Exam. It was brutal, but when the actual exam rolled around, it felt old hat.

I worked harder in those two classes than in any other class I’ve ever taken. I learned more, too — not just facts and theories, but life skills. I showed up, I paid attention, and even if it was only for fifty minutes at a time, I sure looked like a really great student in there.

The Right Way to Do Research

One of the best skills I learned in those classes was the right way to do research. I’d been using the school library to support essays for years, and by that point (1997) I was getting pretty good at finding information on this crazy World Wide Web thing.

There’s more to good research than just finding information, though. Especially when you’re writing to a deadline.

That was a critical lesson for me when I was preparing to take the A. P. exams, and it’s just as valuable for you now, whether you’re trying to find time to pack extra relevance into your weekly blog posts or hoping to finish your final pass revision on your novel with a little bit of fact-checking.

Come back tomorrow, and I’ll tell you what I learned about doing research to improve my writing under pressure.

Photo credit Julie V. Photography.

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