Thursday, April 29, 2010

Dispatch from the Trenches of the New York State ELA Exam, Day 2: The Hazards of Overpreparation

If there's one thing I know I can teach efficiently, effectively, and helpfully, it's essay writing. Essay writing is easy. People make it harder than it has to be. I can strip down an essay to its core like nobody's business, show my kids exactly how an essay works and how to put it back together. Being able to write an essay in one's sleep is a good skill to have by the end of middle school, I think.

So maybe it's my relentless teaching of essay-writing that helps my kids rock-n-roll the state exam. I guess it is, since I'm a skeptic a la Dan Willingham and others that "reading strategies" make any damn difference in middle school, so I spend very little time on them. It could also be that, in my experience, kids find essay writing to be the hard, intimidating part of the exam. Give them an easy way to deal with it and they will feel much calmer overall.

And as I watched my kids do Book 3 yesterday, which in eighth grade is two reading passages, three short response questions, and an essay, I knew that I'd done at least that much well yet again. I was "actively proctoring," of course, and I could see that they used their planning pages, they filled all the lines and then some, they had introductions and conclusions and body paragraphs and transitional devices and evidence from the text. Nice, children, nice. I was very happy when the time was up and I had to collect the exams.

Color me shocked when so many of my students thought they'd done terribly.

"Why?" I asked them after we'd handed in the tests. "I was watching you! You did great! You have nothing to worry about! What's the problem?"

"I didn't finish my conclusion," a few girls fretted.

"I should have written a separate body paragraph for that new topic," said a boy.

"I forgot a conclusion," even the valiant Drew admitted.

And then it hit me: I'd overprepared them.

You see, I've scored the ELA exam before. I've been alternately depressed and relieved by the minimal standards the test sets. I saw essays that I would have considered barely competent to pass, say, fifth grade English get marked well enough to get a 2 or even a 3 on the eighth grade exam. I want my eighth graders to be ready to write high-school level essays, which is not the same as getting them ready to write an essay for a state ELA exam.

I could save them, and myself, a lot of grief by telling them the truth: that putting in a bunch of details from the text to support one or two opinions, in some kind of logical sequence, will be enough to get them to pass the state exam. And then wouldn't my numbers look fabulous.

But they can do better. And so can I.
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