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 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

A (Writing) Library of Possibility: Structure and Freedom

In recent years, I’ve moved further away from assigned writing prompts to a more open workshop model. It’s been a hard shift, though, and it’s messy. Really messy. Like many teachers, my planning for writing often goes one of two ways: 1) read mentor texts and then develop a writing prompt, or 2) develop a writing prompt and then study mentor texts. With so much beautiful writing in the world, it can be difficult to keep up. I want students to read and write all of it, but because that’s impossible, choices have to be made and then we dig in.

How to decide what to write comes down to a number of factors. Faced with time to do only one essay, for example, should we do a narrative or a process analysis piece or a definition essay? Of course, the most important thing to consider are the kids currently sitting in our classroom, kids who may have different needs and interests from the students who sat in those seats last year. Flexibility is key.

But just like we need to balance whole class novels with choice and independent reading, we also need to think about what opportunities for choice we give our students in writing. Yes, students can always choose how to respond to a prompt, and we can create prompts that are open-ended enough that no two students will ever have the same response. But what about choice in the prompts themselves? Or what about allowing students to find their own mentor texts, choose their own modes and genres, write their own prompts? How can I use a balanced writing approach that allows students to study the same mentor texts as a community of writers but also give them space to individually find and study their own?  Continue reading

Researching the Future

My colleague had a rather weird experience this fall when a recent grad came back to visit.  She was one of those students who barely made the finish line but managed to get herself on a wonderful path to success at a local community college.  These are the sorts of victories all teachers root for, but if you’re a teacher, like me, who teaches entire classes full of learners who are significantly below grade level, these sorts of success stories become especially meaningful.

Which is why my colleague’s guest–and her surprising, unprecedented “news”–became an unexpected warning that led me to revisit my research writing with that exact crew of writers this year. Continue reading

3 Techniques for Students Who Know What They Want to Say But Not How to Say it

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Can you picture the student who has just said this in a writing conference? He smoothes the pages of his notebook to reveal countless scribbles and doodles that he has spent the past few days getting down. He has generated multiple ideas for his next writing project. He has done his homework. But he sits here on Flash Drafting day, staring at a blank screen, the cursor mocking him.

“You doing okay?” I ask.

He sighs. “I know what I want to say, but I don’t know how to say it.”

I sympathize with this student. He’s a perfectionist. He writes one sentence and then the next, slowly building the perfect essay in the same way my son arranges his animals in his crib at night: one after the other, each in its place; snug, tidy, perfect.

So much depends on what I say next. And when I say “so much” I mean: this student’s stamina, his self-confidence, his writing future.

It would be easy to look at his notes and suggest a starting line — to “put words in his mouth.” And while this may help him get started on this particular paper, it’s also where the help ends: here. Next time he can’t figure out “how to say it,” what tools will I have given him? How will he move forward without a teacher whispering in his ear?

Here are three strategies you can share with the student above to help him move past his current state of stuck and any stuckage he may encounter in the future.

Strategy #1: Loop Your Thoughts

Looping is a strategy I discovered in Kelly Gallagher’s Teaching Adolescent Writers (my favorite book of his!) that helps students in myriad ways: land on a topic, narrow the focus of a piece of writing, or figure out “how to say it.”

The steps:

  1. Write your topic or basic idea at the top of the page.
  2. Then write as fast as you can for 2 to 3 minutes, jotting down whatever comes to mind on this topic. Let your ideas flow onto the page without judgement.
  3. Read over what you wrote, either out loud or in your head.
  4. Choose one thing resonates with you — a word, a phrase, or a line.
  5. Skip a few lines on your paper, and write this new idea on a clean line.
  6. Repeat steps 2-5, writing from your new idea each time, until you figure out what you want to say.

Strategy #2: Write In Between The Lines

Often when a student tells me she knows what she wants to say but not how to say it, she has a draft in front of her. She just doesn’t like how it sounds. And while there are times when scraping a draft makes sense, when starting from scratch can provide the clean mental space a student needs to find momentum again, but I usually encourage the student to try writing in between the lines first.

The steps:

  1. Start with a draft, even if it’s yucky, even if you hate it.
  2. If it’s on the computer, double or triple space it.
  3. If it’s in your notebook, type it up and double or triple space it. Print it out.
  4. In a colorful pen, write in between the lines, or in the white spaces, to flesh out and extend, or question and contradict, the existing writing.
  5. Type up everything you’ve just written in the different color.
  6. Read what it says. See if it moves something in you, or if it better expresses what you were trying to say.
  7. Consider blending the first draft with this “in between” draft for the perfect expression of your ideas.

Strategy #3: Start Talking

James Britton must have been thinking of the writers who can’t find the right words when he wrote that “writing floats on a sea of talk.” In the past I rarely made time for writing partners and groups to get together and talk about their ideas: I worried it would fester into chit-chat and what-are-your-weekend-plans chatter all too soon. But the more I realized the power of conversation as a writing tool, the more room I left in our schedule for regular meetings between writers. This talk strategy can be used in writing partnerships, writing groups, or in a writing conference with your student.

Steps:

  1. Grab a buddy.
  2. Talk to them. Tell them what you’re thinking. If you’re trying to write a scene, close your eyes and tell them what you see. If you’re writing about an opinion you have, tell them your opinion and why you feel that way and why it’s important to talk about. If you’re writing something informational, tell them what you already know and what questions you have and what excites you about the topic. Just talk. For a few minutes.
  3. Buddy: Grab some sticky notes. Write down words, phrases, and lines that resonate with you as the writer speaks. Then tell the story of your sticky notes, and hand them back to the writer.

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    Notes from a writing conference: The students’ handwriting (left) and mine (right)

  4. Writer: Put these sticky notes in your notebook. Ponder them. See what additional thoughts they may yield. Note how powerful it can be to see your words staring back at you.

How to use these strategies with students

Rewind to the moment when my student tells me he doesn’t know how to say what he wants to say, and keep in mind that conferences should be short, instructive, and transferable. In this particular moment, I have three options:

  • If I had taught one or more of these strategies as a minilesson in the past, I could direct the student back to his notes, review the steps with him, and watch him get started.
  • If I had never taught one of the above strategies, I might choose in my head the one that I think would best fit his purpose or writing style and do a quick 30-second demo in my own notebook in front of him.
  • If there were other students in the class with whom I had shared these strategies, I might form an impromptu writing group in the corner and ask each of these students to share one of the strategies with the writer.

Over time, as you teach minilessons that help students solve writing problems, you might consider helping them create glue-ins or classroom anchor charts that remind them of the different tools at their disposal. Here’s an example of one:

It’s tempting in a conference to help the student “fix” the paper in front of him, but if a larger goal of our teaching is our students’ independence, we have to help him solve his problem now and in the future. In other words, we have to give him a tool — or a few — that he can keep in his back pocket for the next time the same problem presents itself.

What strategies do you share with writers who struggle to find the words to express their ideas? Let’s add to this list of strategies together! Find me on Twitter @allisonmarchett or email me at movingwriters.org.

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

No Happy Endings

You know, I had my blog post for this week all mocked up. The rough edges were in, I was filling in the details and ironing out the formatting. It was supposed to be about my go-to mentor texts for starting units – a handy little collection. Neat and tidy.

And then, as it tends to happen in our profession, my teaching feet were knocked out from under me.

We were wrapping up a mini-lesson on endings in personal narrative writing. We had collected some noticings, discussed how they worked, and charted strategies on the board. Notebooks were rustling as kids were going back to their drafts to play with their own endings. Some would add reflection while others might try to tie back to where they started. It felt like I’d taught this lesson a million times. And then a student looked over her notebook pages at me and asked, “but what if there isn’t a happy ending?”

I pulled up a chair. I was ready for this question; I’d tackled it before. I started to direct her back to some of our mentors, but she pushed back. “No, what if I don’t have an ending like this?” she sighed, starting to sound a little exasperated. “These are happy endings,” she waved her hands over her folder of texts we’d studied. I noticed that another student had looked up and was listening. He nodded in agreement; he was struggling with the same question.

I’ll admit, that wasn’t something I’m used to hearing. I usually get the question “Why is everything we read so depressing?” about the literature we study. And it’s true. It seems like in middle school and high school, we’re always trotting out the books about death and dying, but she was still seeing these as having “happy endings.”

“What if I don’t have an ending like this?”

Her question had a weight to it that told me this was more than just a question about craft.   Continue reading

Organizing Instruction for Effective Feedback: Strategies for Teachers and Students

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As any writing teacher knows, one of the hardest things about teaching writing is getting meaningful feedback to students. And in a writing workshop model where students are constantly writing, the task can be even more daunting.

But as Kelly Gallagher has reminded us, our kids need to write much more than we can grade. If they only write as much as we can grade, then they simply can’t write at the volume they need to in order to improve as writers. How can we organize our writing workshops, especially at the beginning of the school year, to provide more meaningful feedback for the months ahead?  As I thought about this question, I realized that this was ultimately a question about conferring, since talking about our own writing is the most effective way to get feedback. We learn best in the context of our own writing and our learning can be enhanced through meaningful talk. Continue reading

Rethinking Writing Genres

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As an English teacher with a minor in History, I’ve often wondered aloud to my colleagues in the Social Studies department about how they are able to continue cramming more and more history into the same size school year as the decades wear on.  Part of the answer, of course, is that what we think of as “modern” or recent history mostly goes unstudied–if it’s still fresh in the collective memory of society, chances are it’s getting only light attention in classrooms.  There are only so many hours in the school year, and the older stuff makes more curricular sense in a lot of ways (A student might absorb some sense of the Post-9/11 era at home or through media.  The significance of the Tennessee Valley Authority?  …Not so much.)

I couldn’t say why this year was the first time I made the connection, but it suddenly occurred to me as my PLC sat down to plan our first unit calendar that the curriculum of English classrooms has begun to mirror the struggles of history classrooms.  For one thing, the Canon that once dominated every English classroom in the land has slowly but surely been chipped away at in favor of at least some balance with more modern and diverse text selections.  The problem is, text selection is only one piece to the puzzle…

Continue reading