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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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

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

“Word by Word”: Thinking About Close Reading, Revision, and NCTE

The title of Anne Lamott’s book on writing, Bird by Bird, comes from a family story that a favorite colleague of mine also liked to tell when she was helping students get started with their writing. As Lamott tells it, when her father saw her brother overwhelmed by the task of a report on birds that was due the next day, he sat down next to his son and told him to take the work “bird by bird.” Similarly, Lamott suggests that writers use short assignments (think about a paragraph rather than a chapter, a description rather than a character’s whole story) to overcome writer’s block or dispel writing fears.

This fall, I’ve been thinking a lot about taking writing and life bird by bird. As I’ve mentioned in some previous posts, I made a big move in August, and life in a new city and a new school often forces me to live and work from moment to moment. I can’t do the kind of long-term planning I used to because I’m living a new routine for the first time. And in the classroom, I’ve recognized that my savvy students are very good at seeing the big picture–the “flock,” if you will–but they need more practice with recognizing and appreciating the finer points of a writer’s style, so I’ve started to implement some strategies that help my students read and write “bird by bird,” or, more accurately, “word by word.” Serendipitously (I mean it! This synergy wasn’t planned–such is the “bird by bird” life!), these strategies will also be on my mind and my presenter’s podium at NCTE later this week!

Words in Action: Learning with the Body

When I attended the Folger Library’s Teaching Shakespeare Institute in 2014, one of the most surprising and exciting lessons I learned was how I could engage my body to learn language. I am not an athlete, nor am I very coordinated, so my feelings about my body were a lot like those that Shonda Rimes describes in her encouraging memoir The Year of Yes (if you need a boost, I highly recommend it!): my body was “just the container I carry my brain around in.” But then Caleen Jennings–a professor, playwright, and actress from American University and one of the best teachers I’ve seen in action–challenged our cohort to learn a monologue. She gave us strict instructions to learn the first five lines by creating a different, deliberate action for every word in every line–even the articles!

At first, I felt like a goofball, walking the campus at American University, my home during the institute, and reciting my lines while flailing about, but soon I could put my script away and recite my monologue easily as my limbs moved slowly and carefully through each action! As Caleen had promised it would, my body knew the words; they had been sculpted into muscle memory. And physicalizing the words made them realer to me. I could physically feel the difference between Juliet’s “joy” in Romeo and her fear about his “rash” and “sudden” vows of love at her balcony.

With memories of that miraculous memorization in mind, I’ve incorporated similar strategies into my Shakespeare lessons. This week, I started a study of Hamlet’s act four soliloquy by handing out some of the “juiciest” words and phrases from the speech to my class. First, students spent a minute or two walking around the room saying their words with different tones and pitches. Then, I asked students to create an action to represent their words. They could also take a moment to look up their words in the dictionary for clarification. Finally, we stood in a circle and spoke our words while performing our actions. After we had shared around the circle twice, I asked students to reflect on how it felt to say their words out loud and how this collection of words shaped their understanding of the context of Hamlet’s speech and their perceptions of his character. As we read the whole speech together, I saw students sit up a little straighter or repeat their actions when their words and phrases were spoken. The words anchored them to the text.

In retrospect, I wish I’d done this activity earlier, because my students had just handed in a writing assignment that also asked them to approach the play “word by word.” In that assignment, students wrote a defense of a particular performance of Hamlet or a “mash-up” soliloquy script of their creation by grounding that defense in specific evidence from the text. It’s easy to get swept up in the plot of Hamlet, so I wanted students to dig deeper and think about how particular words (rather than melodrama) shape an actor’s performance. I’ve been delighted by a number of their essays so far, but I think earlier physicalization could have made thinking “word by word” even more natural for them.

In the future, I’d like to incorporate more word physicalization in my senior class and freshman writing workshop. Here’s what I’m thinking about trying:

  • Repeating this “words in action” activity with words and phrases from poems before reading the whole poem
  • Asking students to physicalize a word they’re currently using and an alternative word or phrase; when they compare the two actions, which is more robust, more exciting, more engaging? Use that word.
  • Asking students to assign an action to each vocabulary word–I’ve tried this before, and it has worked really well for some students! Perhaps I could pair this with Hattie’s fun word nerd work!

Want to see this lesson in action? If you are headed to NCTE this week, come to the session I’m presenting with Jacqueline Smilack and Corinne Viglietta on Friday, November 17, at 3:30: “Students Close-read Hamlet by Putting It on Its Feet.”

Words in Transition: Revising with the Stars

While my seniors close-read Hamlet, my freshmen in Reading Writing Workshop are shifting toward nonfiction and continuing to close read their own writing. They are a very talented and imaginative group of writers, so my challenge will be teaching them new ways to revise their work (my seniors could use practice with revision, too). I would like them to recognize how a word or phrase can reshape a draft.

Since my freshmen are learning new writing moves from mentor texts, I thought I would try to gather some mentor texts with revision moves. A quick Google search can yield a wealth of resources, like this draft from Gary Soto (his “Oranges” was a favorite during our poetry unit), or this list from LitHub, or a teacher Twitter favorite from August, The New York Times Book Review special feature on “Poetry in Action.” (Another great resource I can’t wait to check out? The NY Times headline-charting Twitter feed Michael mentioned in his recent “Teaching from My Twitter Feed” post.)

The Soto draft, like the “Aha! Moment” column from Poets & Writers Magazine shows on paper how a writer’s work interacts with the reader.

screen-shot-2017-11-14-at-6-18-52-am-e1510658653320.pngSoto’s draft includes edits made by a good friend who is one of his favorite first readers. The draft offers an opportunity to talk about the difference between a “chum” and a “comrade,” or “remarkable strength” versus “overwhelming duty.” Also, how can adding one ingredient like turkey to a “dry sandwich,” suddenly render a more vivid scene?

Putting a draft up against a final copy shows students that revision is more about word work than fixing spelling or punctuation. (At NCTE, I’ll show you how you can compare Shakespeare “drafts,” too!) Once students study these revision mentor texts, we can try mimicking some of their moves:

  • Change or swap a word
  • Cut or move a phrase
  • Remove a paragraph from an essay or a stanza from a poem
  • Rearrange stanzas
  • Cut more small words
  • Delete a favorite line (ahhh!)
  • Expand analysis/condense evaluation

If you’re interested in learning more about “Revising with the Stars” and are going to NCTE, don’t leave St. Louis without attending “Bust a (Writing) Move,” the session led by the Moving Writers team on Sunday, November 19, at 12:45.

How do you encourage students to read and write “word by word”? How do you remember to take life “bird by bird” amidst the zaniness of second quarters and holidays? I’d love to hear your ideas and examples in the comments below or on Twitter @MsJochman. Hope to see you at NCTE!

 

Truman Capote’s “A Christmas Memory” as Mentor Text

We’ve been excitedly sitting on today’s guest post for nearly a year! We are so happy to finally share this lesson with you — perfect for the late fall and early winter as you scramble to engage your students in meaningful work before Winter Break!

 Adrian Nester is an AP English teacher and journalism adviser at Tunstall High School in Dry Fork, Virginia. After 16 years of teaching, she is thankful to have met her AP Lit Help teaching community when entering into her mid-career crisis years.  She is the mother of two, wife of one, and teacher of many.

 

screen-shot-2017-01-08-at-2-31-48-pmEach year at the end of the first semester, I reward my juniors with a day of reading Truman Capote’s “A Christmas Memory” and a slice of sub-par store bought fruit cake. That was it. Although my intentions were good,  I did a disservice to Capote, my students, and definitely the fruit cake.

This year with four days left before the scheduled exam review, I decided to take a different approach with “A Christmas Memory” and use it as a mentor text for crafting personal narratives.  

I became familiar with using mentor texts this summer after reading Allison and Rebekah’s Writing with Mentors and used the concept with some nonfiction pieces, but would it work with fiction?  Fiction is so unique to each individual writer, could it work as a mentor text? Would it be so impactful that it would help them borrow the writer’s moves and become more like “real writers” as with Karla Hilliard’s post on The House on Mango Street.

The plan for reading and writing

Day One: Continue reading

6 Authentic Alternatives to the Book Report

6 authentic alternatives to the

I have inherited a legacy of book reports.

Every quarter for eons, students in my school have written book reports. And, for whatever reason, parents in my community are rumored to be enamored with book reports — they are somehow a mark of a rigorous writing curriculum. So, while I work on a grand re-education project, I’ve been looking for ways to check this box for parents while doing what’s best for student by providing opportunities for authentic writing experiences.

Why the Book Report Anyway?

Book reports fill an important hole in students’ K-12 writing experiences; it fills a gapQuote (1) between simple comprehension-driven plot summary in the primary grades and literary analysis in high school. They sit in the gap, offering students a chance to recap the plot (thereby verifying their comprehension) with some add-on reader response, getting them closer to the how and why of analysis.

So, what’s wrong with it?

It’s not authentic. You can’t open The Atlantic and find a book report. And if a type of writing doesn’t exist out in the world, it shouldn’t exist in our classrooms.

If writing is going to matter to our students, authenticity has to be our cornerstone.

6 Authentic Alternatives

There are authentic alternatives — texts created by professional writers and thinkers that do more than a mere book report but stop shorts of serious literary analysis. Some require very little actual writing but require the same thinking and rehearsal as a more formal piece of written text. Others require multiple pages of written text. You know what your students are ready for. And you know how to scaffold for them.

Maybe you move from non-written to written responses to literature over the course of the school year? Maybe you create smaller writing groups and assign each one a different product based on their  needs. Perhaps you present all of these as a menu of options they choose from a few times over the course of the year.

Sketchnote

Continue reading

YA Sentence Study Snapshot: Everything, Everything

ds are the luckiest.Today’s snapshot comes from Katie Stuart (@KatieStuart10) who teaches 9th grade English and 11th and 12 grade electives at Windham High School in Windham, NH. She previously taught at Windham Middle School and Pinkerton Academy in Derry, NH.  She earned her B.A. in English and M.A.T. in Secondary English from the University of New Hampshire.  

Screen Shot 2017-10-27 at 8.51.48 PMText:

Everything, Everything by Nicola Yoon

Audience:

High School

Book Talk:

Imagine being a teen who is allergic to the world.  Maddy cannot leave her specially designed, air-lock protected house for fear of germs that might kill her. When smart, funny Olly moves in next door, they quickly become intrigued with each other.  This book is written in the style of a diary and is a fast read. 

Sentence Study:

“Then I see him.  He’s tall, lean, and wearing all black: black T-shirt, black jeans, black sneakers, and a black knit cap that covers his hair completely.  He’s white with a pale honey tan and his face is starkly angular.  He jumps down from his perch at the back of the truck and glides across the driveway, moving as if gravity affects him differently than it does the rest of us.”

This Passage Can Help Writers: 

  • Describe a person’s appearance in a way that communicates something about his or her personality
  • Use a colon to introduce a list
  • Vary sentence length
  • Play with repetition

Together, the Class Might Notice …

  • Yoon starts with a short, punchy sentence.
  • The colon is used to introduce a list
  • Each item in the list repeats the adjective that was used in the first clause
  • The third sentence is shorter and contrasts all the “black” in the second sentence
  • The last sentence describes how the person does something, not just how he look
  • The last sentence uses figurative language,  the simile “as if”

Invite Students to Try It By Saying …

There are many times we might describe someone in writing — sure, in fiction like Nicola Yoon. But we might also describe a person when writing a profile, a memoir, a poem, a personal essay. Try on the techniques we noticed here: the colon to introduce a list, the repetition, the description of how, and the figurative language. Use them to try your hand at describing a person who is important to you. It can be anyone you want, a real or fictional person. It could be your dog. See if this mentor text can help you describe a person.

 

Are there other ways you might use this sentence with students? Do you see different techniques worth teaching? Leave us a comment below, join the conversation on Facebook, or connect with me on Twitter @RebekahOdell1. 

Making Hot Takes Cool Again

In an effort to help pry our writers loose from the death grip of formulaic writing, my PLC went out on a limb last year.  We decided to see what would happen if we let the kids cut loose with their argumentative voices and throw caution (and, to some extent, evidence) to the wind.  

I’m talking of course about that most wonderful of all internet prose, The Hot Take.  If you aren’t familiar, the genre basically entails an excessively strong opinion piece about a hot button issue.  And it doesn’t usually entail much else!  It’s an impassioned, evidence-deficient perspective being shouted from some jagged rock of a blog by some bleating, bloviating pundit or opinionated amateur who just doesn’t have time for evidence, dammit, but if you’d only listen to how LOUDLY he’s shouting then you’d understand how right he is!

They’re delightful to read.  A few respectable voices on the internet have even embraced and defended them.  

Whatever your personal opinion of them, they certainly brought our more timid writers out of their shells.  The results were some of the most personalized and impassioned–and organizationally liberated!–writing we’d seen in years. Continue reading

YA Sentence Study Snapshot: A Long Walk to Water

No matter how much we try, none of us can do it all; there simply aren’t enough hours in the classroom. So, whenever possible, I try to double-dip — pulling the learning from one area of our work to another. 

And that’s exactly my aim in this new column. To feed our students’ book love, we need to prepare book talks. We also know that the mentor-text centered sentence study that we do during Notebook Time often provides some of students’ richest writing experiences. This is exactly where I like to do one of my favorite double-dips:  sentence study and book talk in one. 

In this column, I’ll pull sentence studies from young adult and middle grades texts — give you a little book talk, show you the sentence study, and walk you through the way you might use it with students today! Let’s get started! 

ds are the luckiest.

Text:

A Long Walk to Water by Linda Sue Park

Audience:

Middle grades

Book Talk:

A Long Walk to Water combines fiction and non-fiction to tell two stories in Southern Sudan: the fictional story of Nya, an eleven-year-old in 2008 who must walk for 8-10 hours a day to fetch water for her family,  and the true story of Salva, and eleven-year-old in 1985 who is forced to flee home because of war and violence and walk to Ethiopia. Each chapter shares a part of Nya’s story and a part of Salva’s story. Students like trying to piece together how these two narratives will speak to one another by the end of the book.  A Long Walk to Water tells a simple story but asks big questions: How can we maintain hope and perseverance in the face of the unimaginable? What can one person do to make a difference? What is really needed to live? At it’s heart, it’s a survival story.

Sentence Study: 

I came to this text as the first in our series because A Long Walk to Water is the middle grades selection for the Global Read Aloud this year. Here’s the sentence I worked on with my students:

“There was always so much life around the pond: other people, mostly women and girls, who had come to fill their own containers; many kinds of birds, all flap and twitter and caw; herds of cattle that had been brought to the good grazing by the young boys who looked after them.” 

Continue reading