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

Advertisements

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 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

Memoir Study Remix: Lessons Learned

As I mentioned a couple of weeks ago, my team and I decided we needed to revisit and remix our memoir study. In that post, I talked about what we did in regards to the lowest moment experienced by the subject of the memoir. This week, I’ll share what we did with the lessons learned from these memoirs.

One of the main reasons that I like having students study memoir is that there is teaching inherent in this pursuit. The sharing of a life is full full of the lessons that were learned in that life. Sometimes, as we’re all aware, the lessons are overt, while other times, there are lessons in there that must be uncovered. Most powerful of all, I think, are the lessons that a reader finds based upon their own experiences, and what they bring to the “conversation.” When we’ve studied memoir together, this is often what our conversation is based upon.

However, my Grade 12s aren’t necessarily reading the same memoirs. My goal is to have us all reading memoir (and biography) and looking for the common elements. There are often pockets of readers working with the same text, but it’s not something I can guarantee, as I work very hard to flood them with memoir choices.

As they read, I asked them to keep notes, specifically noting things they felt were lessons that could be learned from the memoir. We have a conversation about what these lessons could be – the things that are obvious, the things the author intends for us to learn as well as the things that we discover ourselves. I’ll be honest, the size of my school, and some of the decisions we make regarding class composition helps in these conversations. Most of my students have been in my class before, and we’ve done similar activities in previous courses. Continue reading

A Teaching Lesson from the Dance Studio: Crash and Learn

If you read the #NCTE17 recap, you know that the Moving Writers team has busting a move on the brain, especially me, since I am currently taking a second round of swing dancing lessons (so maybe it’s more like I’m “cutting a rug”?). This dance class crosses a long-existing item off of my bucket list, and I’m having a blast (and not crushing too many toes). While I expected to enjoy learning how to dance, I didn’t anticipate how much I would enjoy watching my dance instructors teach. Both are just plain great teachers–they are patient, kind, and encouraging; they are clear communicators; they break steps down into pieces their students can handle; and they always explain why leads and follows move the way we do in each step or sequence. I leave class happy to have learned new steps and happy to have watched two great teachers in action!

One of the strategies my instructors like using most is “crash and learn.” When they start to teach a new step, they will demonstrate it once or twice and then let the class just go for it to see what happens. The result is usually pretty messy. Limbs tangle, laughs ring out, apologies are mumbled. Then, the instructors share what they noticed and take the step apart so we can make it work. As my first semester at a new school nears its end, I’m realizing that “Crash and Learn” could very well be the theme of my half-year. A few years ago, the perfectionist in me would have been mortified by tiny missteps or wonky lessons, but a few months of “crashing and learning” has taught me a lot about the joy of risk and the knowledge that can only come from making a mistake first. And as I “crashed and learned,” I realized that the process was one my students ought to get comfortable with, too. As you look forward to Christmas break and perhaps make some classroom resolutions for the new year, here are some tips for how to make the most of your “crash and learn” moments.

Hang on, Ginger Rogers! That’s a clever title, but what does “crash and learn” actually look like in the classroom?

Good question! “Crash and learn” could mean handing students a poem for a cold read and asking them to make some sense of it alone before you read it together. “Crash and learn” could mean giving students a mentor text the class hasn’t annotated and asking students to write a draft of something like it. It could mean–as it did for my seniors this week–completing a mock assessment of a poem students had only read alone. It’s not a strategy for every day, but it’s something worth trying a few times each year.  I’ll share some more specific details about recent “crash and learn” moments in my classroom below.

“This is my dance space; this is your dance space.” DanceSpace

Johnny Castle was right. Dancers need to know their places (but nobody puts Baby in a corner), so make sure to set some guidelines for all who will be crashing and learning. Let students know when you’ll step in and when they will have to navigate on their own–and hold yourself to those guidelines, even if you start to see struggle!

For example, as I fielded some seniors’ frustrations about recent assignments, I realized that they were expecting more guidance from me about which writing topics to choose and what exactly they ought to say about those topics. While I don’t plan on dictating that much of their writing (our goal is authentic thought and personal response, so I keep prompts as open-ended as I can), I could be more explicit about what students can expect from me, what I’m expecting them to do on their own, and why those are the expectations of the assignment and the course. I will start next semester with a similar conversation.

Pick yourself up, dust yourself off, and…” well, you know the rest…

footloose_04

If you’re going to crash and learn, make sure you’ve allotted enough time for students to retry the activity a few times. For example, my freshmen are currently writing a collection of digital texts, and our schedule is such that they’ve had to “crash and learn” a few of the digital genres on their own. They have had five chances to try the “read a mentor text/mark your noticings/use the mentor as model” method, and their work has improved with each new attempt. Any “crashing” that happened with the first two attempts–sentences that bordered on plagiarism, sources that were too weak (or pieces without sources), pieces that didn’t use mentor text moves at all–led to a lot of learning that has produced better, stronger texts on the third, fourth, and fifth drafts.  

Cue Tom Bergeron…

Even Dancing with the Stars makes time for reflection. Every time dancers finish their numbers, host Tom Bergeron is there to ask them how they feel about their performance. I realize that “crash and learn” can look and feel a lot better for a teacher than it may to a student, since I might register students’ progress or the way they’re building scaffolds before they do. Thus, I’ve tried to follow each “crash and learn” experience with time to reflect as a class or individually. When my seniors performed a mock assessment of a cold-read poem yesterday, I made sure to carve out time for a discussion of what they observed, what questions they had, and what they now knew they needed to feel ready for the actual assessment. Now I know that learning new strategies for organizing our analyses should be our top priority.

As a semester of “crashing and learning” comes to a close, I’m also asking students to fill out what would normally be end-of-the-year course evaluations so that I can recalibrate for the new semester.  
Find a Partner!

Dance-Marathons

And with course evaluations inevitably comes some constructive criticism. I’m grateful for new buddies in my department who have helped me to process the survey results and find new ways to meet students’ needs. “Crashing and learning” can leave some bumps and bruises, so make sure you have a partner or two who can keep you on your feet and ready to get back on the dance floor!

When is the last time you “crashed and learned”? Have any other tips for how to learn from diving into the deep end first? Please share your thoughts in the comments below or on Twitter @MsJochman. And if you need a little boost as the holiday craziness sets in, here’s a great dance montage

Beyond Notebook Time: The Journal Explode Essay

Beyond Notebook Time_ The Journal Explode

With thanks to guest contributors

Kevin Mooney, rumored to be the inspiration for the teacher John Keating replaced, he is a lead teacher at North Hagerstown High School in Washington County, Maryland and is in his 22nd year in education. 

Liz Matheny, AP Language and Composition teacher in Frederick County, Maryland. (Check out a great mentor text post from her here.) 

Each day to begin class, we journal. We journal because journaling is useful. We journal because it is a low-pressure opportunity for my students to share their thoughts, feelings, and observations about a text, a topic, an issue, or an image. We journal to connect to a character or anchor a big idea, and we journal to set the table for the day’s instructional menu. We journal because it’s fun and gratifying. We journal because Kelly Gallagher says students should write four times more than what we teachers can grade. Journaling is useful.

But where do these journals go? Some years, I’ve asked students to write, rest, repeat, and let this daily exercise stand on its own as writing calisthenics. Some years, I’ve collected journals and asked students to tag entries they’d like me to read and respond to. Other years (including this one), I spot check journals in class and invest time in the important discussion and sharing of ideas that ensues after our “on the clock” writing time.  

But the best, most effective, most bang for your buck expansion of in-class journaling?

The Journal Explode.

What is a Journal Explode and how does it work?

I’ll let my teaching mentor and Journal Explode creator, Kevin Mooney, explain…

For years, I didn’t assign many in class essays for two main reasons: students didn’t write well and reading over 100 essays devoted to the same prompt was grindingly boring. So I didn’t assign essays except for the required “full process” or “research essay” or as an option as an end-of-unit or alternate assessment. Unsurprisingly, not assigning essays didn’t make the essays I got any better.

But I knew that I was taking the easy way out. And I knew that writing made writing easier for students. So I created what I called a “journal explode.”

Here’s the idea: every day we do a journal entry. By the end of the week, students choose whichever journal they’re most interested in, tickled by, etc. and turn it into a full process essay and turn it in on Friday. Students write their journal entries in composition books. (This was, at the time, important to me, because I wanted students to be able to have an almost “flip book” sense of how their writing was improving as we wrote more and more.)

With the new system, if a student wanted, he could take the journal entry from Monday and “explode” it into a full process essay Monday night and be done for the week. Or she could wait until Thursday night and choose from the week’s worth. Or he could go back into the archives of journal entries from weeks past and choose one of those to write about. Or she could revise and recast and rewrite a previous Journal Explode.

I could require or encourage students to try to apply concepts we’d covered during the week – participial phrases, for example – as part of the assignment. I could look at all the essays and start seeing patterns of students’ strengths and weaknesses: they’re not varying sentence structure; they’re using a particular phrase too often and needlessly (in my opinion, though other people might disagree, I still think that…). We’d do mini lessons using student examples to clean and recalibrate.

And grading? That bugbear? I found I could get through all my classes in a couple of hours because there was lovely variety and real earnestness in their essays. They’d chosen a topic they really dug (“Should Iron Man be allowed to keep his suits? Defend with readings, observations and experiences,”) and which they were more or less excited to write about. I’d give a holistic grade: check, check plus, check minus, the rare zero. I’d spend time not so much correcting (though I did that, too) as making positive comments whenever possible. And all the while, looking for patterns in their writing and planning my week’s writing activities.

By the end of the year, my students had written at least one essay a week. More than they had probably written in all their other classes. Combined. Ever. They were no longer intimidated by essays. But it was really all them and their efforts and their work and their writing. And, I hope, essays became for them what they were for Montaigne and which we all intend them to be: unpacking and developing your thinking on paper in surprising, idiosyncratic and impressive ways.

Journal Explodes and Current Events

Liz Matheny also uses Journal Explodes to much success in her AP Language and Composition class. Click here to read all about her process. But in the meantime, read the highlights below beginning with a few examples of successful journal prompts from her classroom:

Journal: Starting January 1, everyone in France over the age of 15 became an organ donor unless they “opted-out” in the country’s refusal program. Every day 22 Americans die while they wait on the transplant list. What should we consider ($SEEITT) about organ donation?

Defend, Challenge, Qualify: America should change from an opt-in system to an opt-out system.

Journal: The number of 18- to 35-year-olds seeking prenups is on the rise nationwide, but many millennials are more interested in protecting intellectual property — such as films, songs, software and even apps that haven’t been built yet — than cash.

Defend, Challenge, Qualify: Prenuptial agreements should only cover physical or monetary property.

Some days I will simply use [an AP Language] Q3 prompt we do not have time to actually write in class. My students have no idea that it is a prompt, so it is a good way to help them see how the daily journals connect to the exam and their ability to craft meaningful, nuanced arguments on the spot.

Once a month my students select a journal and “explode” it into a full argumentative essay. I do not require a specific number of paragraphs, but I often assign them specific rhetorical moves and techniques to try out as they go (anaphora, epistrophe, staccato sentences, etc.).

I love this easy-to-implement daily writing because it helps me focus on argument development every day. It also serves as a formative assessment which ultimately leads to a summative assessment. Our daily discussions create a strong sense of community as students often develop beliefs and find their voice about global topics many of them wouldn’t encounter until they graduate or become adults.

Journal Explodes and Blogging

And finally, here’s how I incorporate Journal Explodes in my class.

I choose my journal prompts based on student need. Some days, we dig into a passage from our text, other days we examine mini mentor texts to spark inspiration. Sometimes we play with language or talk about what’s on our minds, and sometimes we examine a big idea that exists in our literature and in the world. Day after day, students use this time to strengthen their thinking, explore their voices, and just…practice.

That’s the fun part — any idea is fair game and the outcomes are flexible.

Like the original assignment, I ask students to expand upon one of their in class journals and turn it into a developed piece of writing. But this year, we’ve gone digital. I’ve moved my students’ Journal Explode experience to Weebly blogs, giving them agency and audience.

Here is one smart cookie’s Journal Explode blog on a childhood memory from our introductory journals to To Kill a MockingbirdAnd check this one out to see a student really explore and challenge his thinking about dark and offensive memes. (Special thanks to Katherine B. and Revan B. for allowing me to share here.)

Although we’re in the beginning stages of blogging, and though there will likely be missteps along the way, I believe blogging is an awesome platform and opportunity for my students’ journal writing and “exploding” to go live somewhere beyond their notebooks and out into the world. 

In what ways might you adapt the Journal Explode assignment for your classroom? We’d love to find out!

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

-Karla

Required Reading: On Mandated Texts

If you’re a regular visitor to Moving Writers, you’ve seen the Behind The Scenes series of posts throughout September related to organizing the year. Earlier, throughout August, the Ask Moving Writers series had this team sharing answers to readers’ questions.  I have an obvious bias, but what a wonderful thing to have a community of teachers sharing their experience and insight.

In the spirit of this, I’d like to address a question that came up as we prepped for the Behind The Scenes series. Britt Decker asked about mandated novels within the workshop model. Although I don’t necessarily work in the workshop model, the idea of working with mandated novels got me thinking.

 

reading2

via the TEDEd blog

I’m lucky enough to not have to deal with mandated novels. My team and I have great flexibility, and have novels that are loosely attached to a grade, but little that is set in stone. We communicate to make sure we’re not stepping on each other’s toes, and make an effort to complement what each other are doing with the texts that each of us chooses.

 

I’ve been open about my affinity for the whole class novel. I think a community of learners, exploring a text, creating some common experiences and knowledge is a powerful thing in a classroom. The whole class novel has been tarnished by the image of repetitive, mindless busywork. The mandated text compounds this distaste for us, because it feels like our freedom is impacted. We have to teach a book we didn’t choose, and we think of how we likely did a whole class novel as students, that mindless busywork hamster wheel we felt trapped on. Continue reading

Organizing Instructional Time

1

food organization

I don’t know about you, but I feel much better now that the slice-able carrots are in the same bin as the plastic bok choy.

Organization. When we first kicked around the idea of organization being a common thread for our first series of the school year, I had to take a few deep breaths to keep from panicking. As I racked my brain for something I could write about, I was coming up empty. Well, unless you count Organization or Procrastination: You Decide as a worthy topic, in which case I could write all day. Take for instance the deadline for this blog entry. Before finally sitting down to hammer it out, I didn’t just tidy up my kids’ toys, I organized their pretend kitchen by food group.

 

Aside from this particular habit, anyone who has seen the mountains of file folders on my desk could probably attest that organization is not exactly my area of expertise. In nearly every case of organization I could think of as a possible topic, I found more questions than answers. How we organize our instructional time is no exception, but it is one that I’ve been especially invested in lately.

How we organize our instructional time is a big question in itself, or rather, it is comprised of several smaller questions:

  • How do we strike a balance between reading and writing?
  • What about the speaking and listening standards? Where do those fit?
  • How much time do we devote to reading shared vs. choice texts?
  • What role does independent reading have within the class structure?
  • How do we gradually release responsibility so that students can confidently take on the lessons independently?

These questions have been churning around in our department over the past few years, but this year, they’re mixed in with another big one:

How does lesson planning change between a standard period and a block?

Continue reading

Behind The Scenes: Considering The Big Picture

On Monday, Allison wrote about the nightmare of the blank planner.

I started this week with that nightmare as a reality for one of my classes. I knew exactly where I’d be starting with my Grade 11s and my Grade 12s, but I was kind of blanking on what my Grade 9s would be starting with. It kind of freaked me out.

And it kind of seemed like the right thing to do.

I have the luxury of working in a smaller school. Aside from a few changes, my 11s and 12s are groups of students that I know well, and have built a culture with. There are some programming pieces that I’ve used in those courses that are a perfect fit for them.

Those 9s though, I don’t know them yet, and I can’t decide what things I’ve got in the bag of tricks are going to work best for them. It’s a different situation for me – usually, I don’t see Grade 9 students until second semester, and by then, I have a sense of who they are. This year, I’ve got them in my classroom on the first day. I have an opening piece all figured out, personalizing our notebooks. I’ll be scrambling, trying to get some quick reads on who my new students are.

But here’s the thing. I’m actually pretty confident about things, because I’ve thought about what the Big Picture is in the course. I’m not sure exactly what the path will look like, nor have I figured out exactly what we’re going to do, but I know where I’d like us to be at the end of it. Continue reading

Preparing Mini-Lessons that are Intentional

1

Recently I attended my oldest daughter’s back-to-school orientation in her third grade classroom. It was a typical night of excited cafeteria room chatter, squeaky new sneakers, and the exchange of adorable little kid hugs between reunited playground friends. The loudspeaker chimed in and out, prompting us to move from one location to the next, and parents shuffled around their forms and folders and PTA fundraising packets. Beginnings are beautiful. But they can be messy.

They can be stressful and overwhelming and exhausting.

But not if you have a plan.

A few other observations I made that night at intermediate school orientation had to do with my daughter’s incredible teacher, Mrs. Bowman. Mrs. Bowman is a teacher’s teacher — the kind who, if you’re in education and you’re sitting in her classroom, makes you want to be a better teacher. Besides the fact that she’s so obviously on the side of her students and passionate about their learning, and looking beyond her adorably and thoughtfully arranged and decorated classroom, what I saw was nuts and bolts organization and intention.

There was a book basket “book shopping” center, writer’s workshop table, and student conference space; there were comfy chairs, work-stations, folders, calendars, Class Dojo accounts, iPads, and adorable multi-colored paper-clips mounted to the walls ready for student work. And my personal favorite, a space on her board entitled, “We will do…How to do…How to succeed” for daily agendas, goals, and self reflection.

Mrs. Bowman has a plan. She doesn’t just anticipate her students’ needs, she prepares for them.

It gets me thinking. When we prepare a new writing study, this is what we should do — prepare for our students’ needs. We should think through each step and prepare our lessons and to joyfully and intentionally meet our students where they are in order to help them achieve as much as they can.

One way to do this is through mini-lessons that scaffold to the overarching goal of your writing study.

Here are some guiding questions that may help you plan and prepare for your writing unit and evaluate where some gaps might need filled in or extra practice might be required:

When taking stock of your writing study…

  • Did you begin with the end in mind? What is the overarching goal?
  • What is the final product? How will you know when a student is successful?
  • What are the critical skills students need in order to be successful in the writing study?
  • What will students need to know in order to successfully create the final product?
  • What will students need to do in order to successfully create the final product?
  • What kind of classroom atmosphere would be ideal in order for students to be productive?
  • Are there opportunities for collaboration?
  • Are there opportunities for modeling?
  • Are there opportunities for reflection and self assessment?
  • What do you want the students to get out of this experience? What do you hope they take away?

I’ve found that if I invest the time up front in asking and answering these questions myself, I have a deeper understanding of not only what I’m asking students to do, but where and when to schedule mini lessons based the task and overarching goal. For example, if you know that you want your students to have a strong introduction devoid of the classic, “Have you ever” questions, then you might want to spend some time in class analyzing and evaluating what makes an effective introduction, modeling how you might approach introducing a topic, and giving students low-stakes writing opportunities to practice and share. You can include plenty of mentor texts along the the way to guide your discussions and writing.

But of course, the greatest variable is our students — their strengths, weaknesses, and greatest needs. And if we can be intentional in preparing for them, I think we’re one step closer to moving our young writers.

How do you decide which mini-lessons to include in your writing study? What questions do you ask in preparing a writing study?

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