The SAT Essay: Preparing Students for the Test & Tips for Sealing the Deal

 

National Leave the Office Early Day!As a part of their graduation requirements, every student in Michigan must take the complete SAT, including the essay. This is relatively new for us in the mitten state; previously, our required test was the ACT. As with just about any major change in education, when this first became law, I went through the stages of grief. But now, I’ve moved beyond acceptance and have learned to embrace the newly revised SAT*.

*Ok, “newly revised” requires a bit of perspective. It’s been in place for a couple of years now, but if you haven’t thought much about the SAT since you taught it, it’s changed – a lot.

Now, I’m never going to go bonkers in support of lots of mandatory, standardized testing. But, let’s face it: it’s not going away, so if a test can supply me with reliable data to help inform my instruction, I can deal.

Plus, the SAT is hard, which is one thing that frustrates a lot of people about the shift to this test, but I’d argue that because of its particular type of “hard,” the SAT – especially the essay – is making me improve my teaching.

See, when I say that the SAT is “hard,” part of what I mean is that you can’t really prep for it like you might for other writing tests. That’s because the SAT essay doesn’t just grade kids on how well they can perform with a particular kind of writing. There’s still the kind of icky, unnatural pressure of timed writing, but there’s more to it than that.

A quick look at the rubric will tell you that you’re not dealing with a formulaic response, here. A third of it is devoted to students’ comprehension of the argument they read and another third is devoted to their analysis – their thinking – about the text. That means that a full two thirds of this rubric measures skills that can’t be taught with any kind of formula. And the third that deals with writing? Take a look at the language. It values effectiveness, precision, and variety above structure – all skills for which there simply is no formula.

When we first made the switch to the new SAT essay, my colleagues and I sat down with the rubric and the sample student responses that had been released. We wanted to wrap our heads around this beast to figure out what kids need in order to do well. The discussion was long and at times fraught with emotion, but we were eventually able to agree on a couple of non-negotiables that students would need to be able to succeed on this test. And the really good news is that, to meet these needs, we don’t need to teach to the test or do test-prep; we need to double down on really good instruction. Continue reading

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YA Sentence Study Snapshot: The Girl Who Drank the Moon

ds are the luckiest.

Text:

IMG_7677 The Girl Who Drank the Moon by Kelly Barnhill

Audience:

Grades 6-12 — Truly, there is something here for middle grades readers, and something for AP/IB literature students. (It’s my dream to do a joint middle school / IB seniors book club around this text. Hear that, Stefanie? ;))

Book Talk:

This fairy tale tells the story of a kingdom known as the Protectorate and the witch who lives in the wood surrounding it. Each year, in order to keep the witch at bay, the elders of the Protectorate sacrifice the community’s last-born baby. What the citizens don’t know, though, is that the witch isn’t real — she’s a scapegoat devised by the elders to keep the people in line.

Or so they think. There IS a witch who lives in the woods — a good witch who takes the baby and gives them to loving families in other kingdoms. But one day she keeps one of the babies who becomes filled to the brim with magic from drinking moonlight. This book is the story of her growth from magical infant to adolescent. It’s a story about perception versus reality, the lies we tell to keep ourselves safe, the sacrifices we make for love, and what happens when people begin asking questions and resisting. And, of course, it won the Newberry.

Sentence Study:

“A swallow in flight is graceful, agile, and precise. It hooks, swoops, dives, twists, and beats. It is a dancer, a musician, an arrow.

Usually.

This swallow stumbled from tree to tree. No arabesques. No gathering speed. Its spotted breast lost feathers by the fistful. Its eyes were dull. It hit the trunk of an alder tree and tumbled into the arms of a pine…”

The Girl Who Drank the Moon, p. 255

This passage can help writers…

  • Compare and contrast expectations and reality
  • Move around time in a passage
  • Describe
  • Use meaningful fragments
  • Use sound devices

Together, the class might notice…

  • Paragraph 1 is in present tense (expectations), paragraph 3 (reality) is in past tense (like the rest of the book)
  • Paragraph 2 is a one-word paragraph. It serves as a shift between expectations and reality.
  • In paragraph 1, there are three lists. List one is three adjectives. List two is 5 verbs, List three is 3 metaphors.
  • There is alliteration in paragraph 3.
  • There is assonance in paragraph 1.
  • The two sentence fragments in paragraph 3 coordinate with the metaphors in paragraph 1.
  • There is personification in paragraph 3 (“the arms of the pine”).

Invite students to try it by saying …

While Kelly Barnhill uses these techniques to describe a bird (a character) in her novel, we could use these techniques to compare and contrast lots of different things. What if you used this to discuss your expectations for the school year versus the reality of the school year? What if you used it to describe a friend or family member who has let you down in some way? Students have used this frame to describe Panda Express and also the setting of a fictional world. Your options are wide open. Select something to compare and contrast in terms of expectations and reality, and see what you can do with this in your notebook! 

What possibilities do you see here for your students? How could this sentence / passage study connect with the current literature or writing content in your class? How could it help your students? Leave us a comment below! 

 

Mentor Text Wednesday: Two Timberlakes

Mentor Text: The Selling of Two Timberlakes by Hanif Abdurraqib (via Pacific Standard)

Techniques:

  • Contrast and Comparison
  • Criticism and Analysis
  • Organization
  • Making Connections
  • Using Narrative to Make a Point

 

Background – Full disclosure. It’s taking a lot of self-control to stop me from turning Mentor Text Wednesdays into a Hanif Abdurraqib fan column. I discovered him as a poet first, via FreezeRay Poetry, a journal that focuses on pop culture inspired writing. I read what he shared via Twitter, and snapped up his collection of essays, They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us right away, returning a week later to buy the other copy in the store for a friend. His collection of poetry, The Crown Ain’t Worth Much was one of my Christmas book gifts. He’s a powerhouse of a writer, combining identity, race and pop culture in such a way that you are inspired and heartbroken in one fell swoop.

 

This essay happened into my Twitter feed without my knowing it was Hanif’s writing. It was one of those beautiful moments when the subject caught my attention, and when I clicked through, I discovered I was about to read some new work by one of my favorite writers. I love when that happens.

One of the amazing things about Hanif’s work is how he writes about music. He writes about what he loves so passionately, you want to love it too. (Seriously. I am so not Carly Rae Jepsen’s kind of audience, but he’s got me curious.) He’s not afraid to be honest, and say what he actually thinks, but so articulately, and respectfully, making his writing perfect mentor text material for writing about music. When he writes about music, you feel like you’re part of a dialogue, that someone is working to help you understand why he feels the way he does, yet cares what you think, and wants to hear it. I kind of hope my students feel this, and work to answer him back in a manner approaching the way he writes. Continue reading

Low stakes writing: How I reclaimed my sanity and unburied myself from grading.

National Leave the Office Early Day!

My first year teaching AP Language, I was overwhelmed by the grading. The class culminates in a three hour exam; for two of those hours, students are writing three different essays. The amount of prep your average student needs to confidently bang out three essays asking them to do three different things in two hours? A lot.

But, I was new to the class and determined to prepare them well, so I parked myself at my kitchen table every weekend and graded. Essay after essay after essay. By the end of the first semester, all 90 of my students had written at least six process essays (Two of each kind! Gotta show growth!)  Second semester we dove into practicing timed writing so we did two EACH WEEK. There were about 12 weeks in second semester before the test so that means about 24 essays per kid.  Quick math? I easily assessed about 2700 essays that year. That’s insanity.

And it was completely unnecessary.

I know it was unnecessary because I’ve never done it again (my husband threatened divorce!) and my students continue to score better than that first group every single year. Over the years as I’ve shifted to a Writer’s Workshop format, I’ve made more and more moves toward low stakes writing because I’ve realized it’s really the most effective form of test prep.

 

Continue reading

A Test-Prep/Writing Workshop Loop

I acknowledge that learning to really craft writing on demand (rather than brain-dumping on demand) is an important skill for our students to cultivate. They will all engage in some kind of timed, test-like writing situation in their academic lives. And after that, they will still be asked to compose something on-the-spot in job interviews and assessments.

But that doesn’t mean I ever want to give one minute of writing workshop to it.

We know how hard it is to find and make and carve out the time for the things that really matter in our classrooms. We fight for time to let our students write on topics and in genres of their own choosing. Handing that time back over to test prep is incredibly unappealing.

What if every writing study of the year in your workshop could double as on-demand writing test preparation?

Inspired by a session with Mary Ehrenworth and Lucy Calkins at NCTE 16, this is my new routine — one that allows students to practice on-demand writing regularly without compromising the integrity or routines of my writing workshop:

On-DemandFlash Draft

Allow me to explain and show you how this worked itself out in one writing study with my 8th graders this year!

Step One: On-Demand Flash Draft

At the beginning of a writing unit, I give my students a basic definition of the new kind of writing they will do or the technique we will focus on. I give them a few minutes to brainstorm or talk out ideas with their peers, and then I give them the rest of the class period to write.

For instance, upon starting a study of opinion writing, I said, “We are about to begin a new kind of writing which focuses on stating and supporting our opinions. This is the kind of writing you might find on someone’s blog, but more often in a newspaper or website. Typically, people use this kind of writing to share their opinion when they know that others are likely to disagree with them. So backing up your thinking with examples and other support is important. So, today, I want you to spend the rest of this class period writing about an opinion you feeling strongly about and explaining why you feel that way.”

And then they were off!

What? you exclaim. What if they don’t have ideas? What if they aren’t ready? What if they don’t know what they’re doing? 

Exactly.

Continue reading

Planning a Course With a Looming Writing Test

As this post goes live, my Grade 12 students will be finishing their final assessment in their course, a Provincial Assessment. They will have written a process exam for the past four days. Based around a single theme, which they learn on the first day, they were expected to read, respond and write.  The first day, they answered a series of Responding to Text questions dealing with texts that are provided. This is a three hour block. The remaining three days, an hour per day, they worked on a piece of writing that shares their thoughts about the theme. They also have three other questions to answer: about connections to the theme, a reflection on their writing, and explain the connections between their writing variables.

It’s a big test to teach to. I actually quite like many things about our provincial assessment. It does a decent job of giving students a chance to show their ability to meet a number of the outcomes of our curriculum, and doesn’t ask much more of them than I might. (Full disclosure, there are some logistics of the assessment that make me incredibly frustrated, but that’s not what we’re here for.) We echo the format in our other English courses at our school, and knowing that it’s the final assessment for many of our students in English, it has an impact throughout our course planning.

We are firm believers in finding ways to embed “teaching to the test” into our regular teaching. This is important, because an assessment should ask students to do things that they do in the normal course of their class. Most aspects of our assessment are relatively fixed. We know what kind of responses will be asked of students, and we know the structure within which they’ll be writing. These things are considered when we plan.

One of our biggest considerations is teaching thematically. Each of our courses has an overarching theme. There are many reasons for this, but one of them is the provincial assessment. What better preparation for writing about a theme over four days than writing about a theme over four months, four years in a row? We practice making connections within the theme, exploring and explaining our ideas about that theme, learning different genres, forms and strategies as we go. Continue reading

3 Ways I Approach Voice & Style with my AP Literature Class

I’d like to formally apologize to my college professors for my “I’m trying to sound smart” papers.

I remember cranking out papers in college that, when looking back, make me shudder with embarrassment. How many attempts at “smart sounding” papers did I diligently and dutifully write while holed up in my tiny room in my tiny apartment, typing away into the wee hours of the night? It’s hard to say. Words like thus and therefore littered my papers and dichotomy and paradoxically kept them company.

There’s nothing wrong, of course, with any of these words. I was just trying on my “academic” and “formal” writing style in college—the descriptors my own students now parrot back to me—because I thought that was what I was supposed to do, or rather, how I was supposed to sound.  

You walk a fine line when teaching a course like AP Literature and Composition because, as I often say, it’s about the test, but it ain’t about the test. Helping students develop their aptitude for handling complex texts, exploring truths of human nature, and embarking on the quest of elegant and creative writing is challenging and deeply rewarding.

And what I’ve learned is that oftentimes my students have the tools for deep, insightful analysis, but clearly and creatively articulating them in writing is where they struggle. And rightly so. It’s a difficult skill to grasp and master.

I’ve also learned that every student who has aced the AP Literature exam is a student who has extraordinary control and command of language. My “fives” are the students who can bend language to their will and capture your attention in a mere 25-30 minutes of drafting.  

Here are a few strategies we use in my class to consistently build our voice and style in writing, so on test day, students feel comfortable and confident in their writer’s skin and focus on both the content and the quality of their writing.

Strategy: Student Blogs

Tricia’s post To Blog or Not to Blog: Blog! beautifully captures the benefits of student blogging. Consider this my ditto and what she said. Blogging gives students license to experiment with and exercise their own authentic voices, and, importantly, it gives them an audience for their voices.

My students write a monthly blog post about a contemporary poem. For the complete assignment, check it out here. Like any other literary analysis, they must discuss the content of the text, the choices of the writer, and what it all all means. The catch is: my students participate in a “blog share” with other AP Lit classes from all over the country. Each month they are responsible for posting their own work, reading the work of others, and commenting on posts from our cooperating classes in other states.

In short here’s what this assignment has afforded my students:

  • Choice in content and approach
  • Creative license in structure and format
  • The opportunity to read their work through the eyes of a living reader
  • Reflection on what works and what does work in their writing and the writing of others
  • Practice narrating ideas, analysis, and arguments in — gasp! —  their  own voices, the way they choose

Because blogging about poetry isn’t nearly as intimidating or daunting as drafting a “controlled analysis with significant insight” in 40 minutes, students see that dialing back the big words and ratcheting up the intention can have an impact on the personality and panache of their writing. 

For examples of student blogs, check out Chocolate Curls, The Inner Workings of Ally’s Mind, Chasing Daisies, and Poetic Thoughts With Matthew.

Giving students a platform to experiment and exercise their voices has been a) meaningful b) effective and c) really fun and rewarding to watch grow.

Strategy: Free Response Texts as Mini Mentors

I admit it. This is wacky. But it works.

My mentor, who taught AP Lang, used to say he wanted his students to “write the quiet beautiful essay about the quiet beautiful essay.” Here’s how I nudge students towards utilizing and transferring this skill…

I introduce free response texts as mentor texts in Notebook Time. Like any other mini mentor text we study, students read like readers and like writers—arguably, the foundation of AP Literature, and then analyze the passage or poem to determine how the writer created the effect he or she did through their craft.

Students then spend time in their notebooks answering an AP style prompt.

But there’s a catch.

As students develop their argument, I ask them to try out one of the writer’s moves in their own writing. So if students notice repetition, they use repetition in their response. If they notice strong connotative language, they assert their claims and evidence with strong connotative language. If students see rich and vivid imagery, they, too, attempt to describe the writer’s approach and their insights using rich and vivid imagery. Of course the upshot is students will have identified moves that they can both implement and discuss.  

It’s no easy task, but in a low stakes writing opportunity, students has have permission to play—and importantly, to wander outside the bounds of more traditional analytical writing.

My goal is to practice this skill enough, so that when it’s game day, my students are bringing these mature reading and writing skills to the exam. I want them to feel comfortable and confident with any passage or poem — knowing that they can read it, interpret it, and borrow from it to guide and inspire their own writing.

If you want to try it out, a good jumping off point comes from a popular, workable passage and prompt that, with a little adjustment of your students’ reading lens, could yield some pretty excellent writing: “Birthday Party” by Katherine Brush from the 2005 AP Literature .

Strategy: Mentor Texts from “the wild”

This is one of my favorite ways to get kids hip to voice. Just last week, I screenshot excerpts of emails from friends and colleagues who manage to breathe life into their professional emails and speak with style from their screen to mine. If you’re a member of Folger Library’s new teacher community Forsooth!, you already have a wealth of voice and style mentor texts at your fingertips in the emails from Dr. Peggy O’Brien, Education Director at Folger. She is so wicked smart and funny, her emails read like you’re hanging out with her.

If you don’t have a whizz bang emailer with strong personality and clear stylistic choices, try Twitter. It’s incredible what effect a (now) 280 character tweet can hold. But if you’re still swinging and missing, try out Amazon reviews. Trust me, some folks make art in their commentary on hygiene products/air compressors/baby gates/down comforters/wifi crockpots/eyeglass cases, and…you get the idea.

The power of this strategy is in question “How does it work?”

Invite students to read the mentors from the wild to determine how voice and style work—to examine what moves communicate the author’s personality and intention to the audience.

Of course, this strategy doesn’t have a clear through line to The Test, but it sure is fun. And it opens one more door for students into considering the impact of their writerly choices, their intention, and the impact of their voice on their writing.

The hope is, by developing and practicing this skill early and often, students are prepared for, yes the AP test, but writing beyond my AP Literature classroom, so one day, when their future selves are cranking out papers in their tiny rooms in their tiny apartments, they will be writing with intention and the goal of making effective, engaging writing.

For other tips and tricks for developing student voice, check out Meagan’s post 3 Moves Towards Better Teaching: Tone and Voice , my post called Voice Lessons: Helping Students Find Their Writerly Voice, and Kelly Pace’s guest post Do You Hear What I Hear?  Using Song Lyrics as Mentor Texts for Teaching Voice. 

How do you help students develop their voice and style? How do you see voice and style fitting into the AP English classroom? 

Leave a comment below, find me on Twitter @karlahilliard, or connect with us on Facebook!
-Karla

Test Prep for Below-Grade-Level Writers

National Leave the Office Early Day!

If you’ve never proctored an extended-time room for one of the big, high-stakes standardized tests as a high school teacher, I don’t recommend it.  And yet I wish every high school teacher could have that experience at least once.  As a teacher who has invested several years in a co-taught English 11 class, I was lucky enough to get that chance a couple testing seasons ago.  It was perspective changing.

The idea of the modification is that for each section of the test, IEP students with certain accommodations are given double time to complete the work.  It’s logical, but for all but two of the dozen or so students I proctored the test for, it was utterly useless and actually worked only to extend their misery:  For each section of the test, the students gave up and closed their test booklets within 15-20 minutes–less than half the allotted work time for a normal test session, in most cases.  

They had internalized a belief that they weren’t going to be successful on a test like that, so putting in all of that time on it just didn’t make sense for them.   Continue reading

Teaching to the Writing Test – a Moving Writers series

National Leave the Office Early Day!

Although there may be a horde of teachers who have whittled it down to a perfect science, no teacher has ever been excited or invigorated by preparing his or her students for a standardized writing test.

And yet, it’s something that pretty much every one of us must do in one way or another.

Like it or not, our students’ futures will be full of high-stakes “test writing” circumstances — yes, AP and IB tests as they get into junior and senior year, the SAT and ACT, college placement tests, and even job interviews in which they will be asked to compose a piece of writing on-demand in hopes of securing a position.

It’s not fun, but it’s real.

So, we want to spend January letting you into the reality of our classrooms when matters of writing test preparation are at hand:

  • To what extent do we “teach to the test” and to what extent do we let what we still know to be true and best about writing guide our instruction?
  • How do we prepare struggling readers and writers?
  • How do we prepare older students for AP test, IB test, and the SATs?
  • How do we plan a workshop curriculum when standardized tests are looming in the distance?
  • To what degree do we infuse test prep with writing workshop and writing workshop with test prep?

Regardless of the students sitting in your classroom this year, we hope that each installment will give you food for thought and inspiration for making this year’s test prep meaningful beyond test day! We’ll tackle these questions this month as we look ahead to the spring semester with a desire to prepare our students for what lies ahead on the test and in life as writers.

3 Moves Toward Better Teaching Tone and Voice

If I was lucky enough to see you at our #NCTE17 session this year, you know that tone and voice are both something that have been on my mind as a teacher a lot lately. I think most of us can agree that the standard of “maintaining a formal style and objective tone” falls a little short on this nuanced topic. Our voice is in many ways how we convey who we are in our writing, and our tone is immeasurably influenced by it, so it seems to do a disservice to our writers to always expect “formal” and “objective” if we want our students’ writing to be meaningful and effective. In order to dive into a deeper exploration of these concepts, I’ve made three major teaching moves that have helped tremendously:

1. Right a wrong: Move the tone lessons up front where they belong

Okay, so maybe this isn’t a mistake you’ve been making, but it sure has been for me. For the past I-don’t-know-how-many years, I’ve been teaching tone and voice by tacking a lesson on to the end of the writing process – in the revision stages. Once students’ pieces were all but finished, we’d do some quick checks to make sure the tone was appropriate for the audience. Every once in a while, we might catch a phrase or two that seemed a little off, but otherwise, the lesson almost always fell flat as a waste of time.

And then I had one of those lightbulb moments. Our tone is something that we develop before the words ever leave our mouths – not something that we revise once the words are already out there. It’s shaped by our attitude toward our subject and our audience, and in this way, it’s inextricable from our writing purpose. If our voice in writing is made up of a combination of our personality, our experiences, and our culture, we must let it inform our tone as we approach a subject. Continue reading