The essay paradox (maybe facts aren’t so bad after all!)

Here’s something I find puzzling: the SAT essay consistently comes under fire for allowing kids to make up information without being penalized for it. Presumably, then, the people doing the criticizing believe that knowing facts, and citing them appropriately in one’s writing, is a good thing. But at the same time, those people turn around and criticize schools for promoting “drill and kill” and “rote learning.”

If students were truly exposed to endless “drill and kill,” they would presumably at least know facts. There’s almost no way *not* to remember things after hearing them repeated a certain number of times. But from what I’ve observed, most of my students have difficulty discussing their Essay examples in anything resembling an in-depth manner because they don’t know enough concrete facts — about academic subjects, at least — to be able to discuss history, literature, or current events in detail. As a result, their writing inevitably becomes vague, repetitive, and confused.

Does anyone else see the irony here?

You can’t insist that schools stop teaching facts and then be surprised when students don’t know facts!

To be clear, I understand perfectly well that students learn facts best in the context. But the idea that kids are simply sitting and chanting “one times one is one, two times two is four…” is profoundly detached from the reality of American schools in 2014. (Yes, there are plenty of schools that drill kids endlessly in test-taking strategies, but that’s not what I’m talking about here.) More likely they’re clustered in groups so they can “learn from each other,” with one or two diligent kids sitting and doing the work while the others talk about what they did last weekend.

If an administrator happens to poke her head in, they’ll all look like wonderfully active and engaged learners, but the chances that they’ll retain any of what they discussed tomorrow or the next day are pretty slim. Then the  ones who can afford it hire tutors to do the drilling they didn’t get in class.

The reality is that even if teachers do present fascinating, engaging, stimulating lessons, kids still need to be held responsible for mastering basic pieces of factual knowledge — the two are not mutually exclusive, and it’s a gross oversimplification to claim that they are. But learning usually involves repetition, sometimes lots of repetition. That’s just how it works. In other domains (sports, music, etc.), that’s still accepted as common sense, but when it comes to academics, all that flies out the window.

Incidentally, I now encourage my students who are big sports fans to just write about sports: a kid who can’t write a coherent argument about the The Great Gatsby to save his life suddenly turns into a clear, flowing, and eloquent writer, complete with names, dates, facts, and statistics, when discussing Magic Johnson’s career. And it works: those essays are (by SAT essay standards) interesting to read, relatively painless for the kids to write, and they consistently receive scores of 10+.

Funny that I don’t see anyone complaining about “rote learning” there — if a kid wants to spend hours memorizing batting or shooting statistics, no one seems to have the least problem with it.

You can’t write 12 essay in 25 minutes if you can’t write a 12 essay period

A while back, I happened to be chatting with PWN the SAT (aka Mike McClenathan), and inevitably, the topic turned to the infamous SAT essay and how (I think) that the time factor has a tendency to get blown out of proportion.

Mike made the exceedingly astute comment that since most test-prep advice gets doled out by adults, it occasionally has a tendency to focus on the things that *adults* find difficult about the SAT. And let’s face it: if you haven’t sat in an English class since sometime around 1983 and are no longer required to churn out in-class essays about The Great Gatsby on a regular basis, popping out a coherent, specific piece of writing on, say, the nature of heroism, in a mere 25 minutes might seem like a pretty big challenge. That’s just not a lot of time, and consequently the rush/panic factors loom large.

Here are some things, however, that are not typically problematic for most college-educated adults who attempt to write an essay in 25 minutes:

-Using clear, coherent standard written English

-Using correct grammar, punctuation, and syntax

-Formulating a clear thesis statement

-Staying on topic

-Using examples that clearly support the thesis

-Making clear the relationship between the examples and the thesis

-Providing specific details when discussing examples

-Separating ideas into paragraphs

-Using tenses correctly and consistently

-Varying sentence structure

-Using logical transitions to connect ideas

-Throwing in a couple of correctly used “big” words

If you can take all of that for granted, of course the biggest challenge is the time limit! But that’s really an awful lot to take for granted.

All of these things — I repeat, ALL of these things — have serious potential to cause problems for most teenage writers. And they do. Often the problem isn’t just one or two of the above factors but five or six. Unfortunately, having real trouble with even just one or two of them is enough to prevent someone from ever attaining a 12 without going back and shoring up the fundamentals. A kid who just cannot maintain focus on a thesis throughout an essay will have an exceedingly difficult time scoring above an 9, no matter how good their ideas are.

Likewise, a kid who truly does not yet understand how to make examples specific by providing concrete detail and offers vague and repetitive assertions instead is also unlikely to ever score above an 8, maybe even a 7. It doesn’t matter how many timed essays they write; the score just won’t go above a certain level.

I’m not trying to deny that time is an important factor, just to suggest that it isn’t the factor par excellence that it often gets made out to be. A clear, well-argued essay whose author runs out of time to stick on a conclusion still does have the potential to receive a 10+ score. Conversely, a finished essay with intro, conclusion, and body paragraphs may score several points lower if it exhibits serious technical errors. As with many things on the SAT, there’s no quick fix if the basic skills aren’t already in place.

One of the things I try to look at in conjunction with my students’ SAT essays is a school essay that they haven’t written under timed conditions. It’s the only way to tell what their actual level of writing is. If there’s a significant gap, then yes, timing (or just not knowing what to write) may be the problem. But if I see the same technical errors — sentence fragments, tense switching, lack of a clear thesis, unsupported statements — that’s a pretty big red flag that we have to take a couple of steps back and talk about how to write an essay period.

Sometimes it’s ok just to tell a story

So much gets made out of the “right” way to write the SAT essay: plug in a couple of examples about The Great Gatsby or the Civil Rights movement, throw in a bunch of big SAT words whether or not you really know their definitions, stick in some transitions, and presto….! You’ve just written pretty much the same essay as a hundred thousand other people. So don’t be shocked when you get an 8.

Even though I frequently remind my students that if they write a paint-by-numbers essay, they’re likely to end up with average score, I’m still a little surprised by just how risk-averse they are. On one hand, I of course understand why: it’s the SAT, for crying out loud! One false step and you’ve ruined your chances at the school you’ve dreamed about going to since you were five and, by extension, the entire rest of your life. But on the other hand, you’re not particularly likely to get a stellar store on the essay if you don’t step out of your comfort zone and do something a little more interesting. Something that actually holds your reader’s interest and gives them a break from the tedium of reading hundreds if not thousands of essays about MLK and Hitler. This does not, however, mean trying to sound like a 50 year-old and overloading your writing with ten dollar words. Simple does not necessarily equal unsophisticated.

One of the things I want to emphasize, though, is that the best essays often don’t feel forced. They don’t even always feel as if they were written for the SAT. They don’t scream, “Please give me a high score because see, look how much big vocabulary I used and how sophisticated I tried to sound even though I don’t really know what half of these words mean.” They just tell a story, albeit one that has a lot of detail and whose relationship to the prompt is absolutely clear. Incidentally, that’s the danger in making up examples: they tend to be bland and vague. If you’re a strong writer and know how to use detail effectively, however, essays that focus on a single (personal) incident can really work.

I’m not saying that this will always work; 25 minutes is not a long time, and if you get thrown a question you just don’t have great examples for, it’s easy to flounder. But in general, if you approach the essay from the standpoint of trying to engage your reader, to interest them, not just to impress them, you might do a lot better than you expected.