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The Power of Words

January 14, 2019|By Steve Engler

I am a word man in the midst of math and science people. While my colleagues are focusing on theory, equations, and formulas, I’m honing in on grammar, punctuation, and style. 

As the grant writer/editor at the Dana Center, I’m tasked primarily with polishing the prose of program staff in proposals and progress reports. The writer portion in my title is a misnomer—I rarely write text from scratch because it would lack credibility. My colleagues doing the actual work are the ones with the authority. They bake the cake, and I provide the icing.

Before entering the education arena, I worked as a technical writer in the oil and gas pipeline field. The technical specifications and reports were pretty dry stuff. Precise language was predominant, and colorful adjectives were a rarity.

When I joined the Dana Center, the black-and-white days of engineering text were replaced with Technicolor days of lively education language. The pages of copy teemed with passion for the subject at hand. Adjectives such as rigorous, powerful, and innovative were peppered throughout the writing. It was a very exciting turn of events.

Moving Words Into Action

The words Dana Center staff choose are weighty. Our new website’s banner leads with our core values of equity, access, and excellence. Simple and direct, these words capture what we strive for in K–16 education. Each word may have slightly different meanings for each of us, but their essence focuses the work for us all. 

In my role, I support our work across the K–16 continuum, enabling me to see emerging trends in secondary and higher education. One intriguing word used in writing about both sectors is underserved, which is packed with meaning. Underserved is not a vague term in an educational context, but instead an all-encompassing one that allows the inclusion of many. The versatility of language allows a single word to encapsulate details and nuances that might otherwise take paragraphs.

Another term I often encounter in our proposals and reports is pathway, a word that elicits the vision of a route to be followed. The Dana Center uses pathway to describe students’ movement to and through courses that enrich their education and their lives. The expandability of language takes the basic original meaning and creates a fuller and more robust definition.

Sometimes a word can have multiple applications. At the Dana Center, we use persistence in many arenas. On the programmatic side, persistence is a noncognitive skill (i.e., not having to do with academic content) taught to students through hands-on activities and interactive content in the Center’s K–12 course programs. On the policy side, persistence relates to students’ completion of a postsecondary degree. The word has the same meaning but is used in entirely different settings, displaying the broadness of language.

Words fascinate me. 

At a recent lunch with a couple of my colleagues, our discussion of the 16-team Dana Center fantasy football league (and my victory) turned to math in the blink of an eye. 

Marvin and Rip (names changed to protect the innocent) were like kids in a candy shop, eagerly throwing out terms I’ve never heard. In the middle of wondering what had just happened, I realized that I feel the same way about the English language. I am a word man in the midst of math and science people, but all of us harness our passions every day to further the excellence, equity, and access goals of the Dana Center. 

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About the Author

Steve Engler

My mother taught kindergarten for more than 25 years, instilling the importance of education in the Engler household from an early age. Even though I didn’t follow her path into the education field, I have worked my entire adult life educating my colleagues on proper grammar, spelling, and punctuation. My goal is to eradicate excessive use of commas and incorrect implementation of hyphens (particularly following an adverb in –ly).