The SAT Essay: Embracing My Fear
I don’t know about you, but when I got my first look at a sample SAT essay prompt, my eyes just about bugged out of my head.
It was last year, and I was trying to wrap my head around the changes that were in store for our kids with the switch from ACT to SAT. If you’re not already familiar, take a look at the information and samples on the College Board website. The essay question on the redesigned SAT, which all Michigan juniors will be required to take this spring, asks students to first read a high-level text that presents an argument. The topic of the text, the College Board explains, will “express subtle views on complex topics.” Then, students must write an analysis of the rhetorical strategies that the author uses to express those subtle views.
At first, I wanted to argue, “But I know how to prepare the kids for the ACT!” Even if students walked into my room with zero knowledge of persuasive writing, I could coach them with enough practice, checklists, and do’s and don’ts to help them reach proficiency. We were machines when it came to preparing for the ACT essay!
But the SAT essay doesn’t assess a genre of writing; it assesses students’ reading comprehension, analysis, and writing. No matter how much I wanted to prepare students for this essay, I couldn’t give them crash-courses—in how to understand a complex text, or how to analyze an author’s purpose. I felt like I would somehow be failing my students.
The Upside of the Essay
The more I worried about it, the more I came to the realization that changed my perspective: This isn’t a bad thing. Why was I clinging to prepping students for a test? I don’t know anyone who went into education in order to teach to a test; I certainly didn’t. The redesigned SAT essay measures the very skills we’ve been teaching as we have shifted to the Common Core State Standards. I realized that I needed take heart in the fact that this new test would assess the skills I am already teaching within my regular units of study.
Still, I worried that the students and the teachers in my district wouldn’t be ready for such a change. I initially felt uncomfortable moving away from teaching as if my students were essay-writing machines, and, I realized, surely there were other teachers who felt the same way. So, I dug into the research and my own practices to determine what I could do to support them.
I kept coming back to the portion of the essay that asks students for analysis. At first, I wondered if we could put together a toolbox of the most common ways of building an argument, or a list of a few “magic” rhetorical devices students could expect to encounter. But the more I read and explored, the more I came back to the answer that no, there would be no magic lists or silver bullets for this test. What the analysis portion essentially boils down to is: Can students understand what an author’s purpose is, and analyze the moves the author made to achieve that purpose? This isn’t a test prep strategy; it’s just what good readers and writers can do!
What made me even happier as I came to this realization is that this is exactly what we are scaffolding in our AARI reading intervention classes. In AARI, or the Adolescent Accelerated Reading Initiative, we regularly read to determine the author’s purpose, then analyze how the author supported that purpose by how he or she organized his or her evidence.
Clearly this is a great start. But it’s not enough. It needs to happen in every class at every level, with a variety of texts.
Taking the Lessons to Other Classrooms
To start supporting our teachers in this endeavor, I went back to the work of favorites like Katie Wood Ray, Kelly Gallagher, and Jeff Anderson, who advocate the use of mentor texts to “read like a writer.” In this instructional method, teachers lead students to not only read for comprehension, but to also analyze how the texts are written, so that they can essentially imitate the craft in their own writing. The result is more focused, purposeful reading, and authentic writing.
This is not a new idea, especially for many elementary teachers who have lived within reading and writing workshops for years. But it can be transformative for many secondary teachers who are still adjusting to our new standards and units.
And though there may not be any magic lists or silver bullets for this essay, this instructional method just may be the closest thing.
Megan Kortlandt is a secondary ELA consultant and reading specialist for the Waterford School District. In the mornings, she teaches AARI and literacy intervention classes at Waterford Mott High School, and in the afternoons, she works with all of Waterford’s middle and high school teachers and students in the Curriculum, Instruction, and Assessment department. Additionally, Megan works with Oakland Schools as an instructional coach for AARI. She has presented at various conferences including the Michigan Council for Teachers of English and Michigan Reading Association annual conferences.