Friday, March 16, 2007

Another Day

Spent the bulk of the evening reading SAT-format essays from my sophomores. As of last year we have a departmental agreement that we will give the students practice in writing 25-minute timed essays twice a quarter during freshman, sophomore, and junior years. By the time they are juniors they should have had roughly 20 "rehearsals" for the real event.

As I've written before, I don't place much stock in the SAT, much less in the idea that one can be reasonably expected to crank out a substantive essay in 25 minutes. And reading the essays, even the ones that are pretty good, amounts to a kind of self-inflicted torture. Even the well-written ones, that only take two minutes to read, seem like they take a lot longer. I read two, then I've got to get up and get a drink or something to eat and then wander back and plunk myself back down into my seat at the dining room table, knowing full well that the likelihood that I'm going to run into an original idea or even an innovatively crafted sentence in the next batch is next to nil.

But, in the last analysis, it's not a difficult writing task. Stupid, maybe, but not that hard. And it's something that parents—and a lot of the students—take seriously, because they perceive it, correctly, I suppose, to be an important factor in college admissions. So we do our due diligence and work the kids through the process. We look at the rubric. We compare the rubric to the more fully developed rubric we use in our department. We have the kids write essays. We have the kids grade other student essays using the rubric, compare results, talk about what works and what doesn't, why a certain paper might be a 5 for one reader and a 2 for another. We give them back their essays with scores and annotations about what they need to do to improve. We focus on clarity and specificity and logic, and tell the kids not to worry too much, given the 25-minute time limit, about significance or breadth or depth.

And I've got to say it seems to be working. The essays by this year's second-semester sophs are by a considerable margin clearer, better organized, and more convincing than the ones I was seeing from last year's sophs, who had not had any experience with the essay freshman year. I can't imagine who in their right mind would want to read the essays that result, but, given that the goal is to be able to demonstrate a certain kind of minimal competence, the essays do manage to get that done.

I used a recent prompt from an actual SAT (the prompts are posted and updated with each new test session on the wikipedia):
Think carefully about the issue presented in the following excerpt and the assignment below.

If we are dissatisfied with our circumstances, we think about changing them. But the most important and effective changes—in our attitude—hardly occur to us. In other words, we should worry not about how to alter the world around us for the better but about how to change ourselves in order to fit into that world.

Adapted from Michael Hymers, "Wittgenstein, Pessimism and Politics"


Is it better to change one's attitude than to change one's circumstances? Plan and write an essay in which you develop your point of view on this issue. Support your position with reasoning and examples taken from your reading, studies, experience, or observations.
Not surprisingly, the vast majority of the students opted for the opinion that it's better to change your attitude. The most frequent, and least effective, argument was that it's better to change your attitude than your circumstances because "it's easier." Most of the students were able to come up with something resembling a plausible argument that a shift in attitude can make a bad situation better. The most interesting essays, from my point of view, were the ones that chose to challenge the Hymers hypothesis and argue that in many situations (the revolutionary war, Gandhi's India, the civil rights movement) real progress was made only when people stopped adjusting their attitude and decided to actually DO something to "alter the world around us for the better.

So, there it is. Nothing startling or educationally inspirational on the agenda here. There are other days, some of which I have written about before, and others which I surely hope I will be writing about sometime soon, where there is something so exciting going on that I just can't contain my enthusiasm. But there are in an ordinary school year, a lot more days like this one. Just another day in the sequence of days in which we're trying to prepare the kids for what comes next.

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