Prepare Yourselves

Prepare Yourselves

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On Lying to Your Test Scorer

Earlier this fall I took part of a day to introduce students to the three essays that are usually components of the AP Language & Composition test most of them will take in May. These include the synthesis essay, a rhetorical analysis essay, and what I have long referred to as the argumentative/persuasive essay. On this third question, students are typically given a debate on which they are supposed to articulate a position, supporting that position with whatever appropriate evidence they can come up with. That evidence might be from what they’ve read, what they’ve seen on television, what they’ve learned in other classes. It can also come from their own personal experiences.

When I said that last bit to my class, one clever young man asked, “Can we make things up?” Someone always asks this. It’s often a clever young man. I responded, obnoxiously, with a paraphrased quote from Twain: that if you always tell the truth, you never have to remember what you said. (As an aside, I have no idea whether Twain actually said this, or if it’s just one of the many things misattributed to him.) In any case, the point is, the kid asked. I dodged. And I dodged for the same reason that he asked: it’s fairly obvious to everyone that the scorer won’t know whether the kid’s telling the truth or not, sitting in that room with a hundred other scorers and a million other essays. And yet it seems wrong to say to students, who are sitting before you, innocence glinting in their eyes, “B.S. away, my children. B.S. away.”

This issue came to the fore yesterday, at least if you read Matthew J.X. Malady’s article in Slate about the essay portion of the SAT. (Is that the author’s real name? I guess I’ll never know.) Posted under the horribly misleading title, “We Are Teaching High School Students to Write Terribly,” Malady details what he sees as the harmful, unintended consequences of standardized essay exams.

So, for instance, in relaying personal experiences, students who take time attempting to recall an appropriately relatable circumstance from their lives are at a disadvantage, he says. “The best advice is, don’t try to spend time remembering an event,” Perelman adds, “Just make one up. And I’ve heard about students making up all sorts of events, including deaths of parents who really didn’t die.”

This is apparently cause for alarm. But rather than making some sort of moral case against it, Malady wants to argue that it actually causes students to write more poorly in the future. He goes on to cite university professors such as Anne Ruggles Gere at the University of Michigan:

College professors, according to Gere, expect their students to be able to demonstrate evidence-based argument in their writing. This involves reading and synthesizing materials that offer multiple perspectives, and writing something that shows students are able to navigate through conflicting positions to come up with a nuanced argument. For those trained in the five-paragraph, non-fact-based writing style that is rewarded on the SAT, shifting gears can be extremely challenging.

I’m sorry, but were college students showing they were able to “navigate through conflicting positions to come up with a nuanced argument” before the SAT writing portion came along in 2005? If you were teaching at the college level before then, I bet you’d argue otherwise. Now, there’s no question that the SAT, and other writing tests that ask students to write for half an hour to a mysterious, impersonal audience they’ll never hear back from, encourages students to game the system. And indeed, I need no convincing that college freshmen think more about whether a personal story will satisfy their assignments than whether that story is meaningful or even factually true. But to blame that on the SAT is to imagine an educational system that teaches writing primarily with standardized essay tests in mind. Happily, I don’t think we have that system yet. I think we still teach students the value of using writing processes that include brainstorming, drafting, revising, and editing. (If you want to panic about why we teach the wrong things, there are certainly programs for sale that justify some level of concern.)

Meanwhile, let’s not assume that students–high school or college–are such dupes that they can’t tell the difference between a writing situation where they are actually trying to communicate with someone and one that doesn’t actually matter beyond a number. If the way you assess writing looks like a hoop, don’t complain when students try to jump through it.

As for my students, the best advice might be to return to the approach that I teach them about all writing: think about your audience, your purpose, and the occasion. Given those three factors on a standardized writing test, if you don’t feel gross making up a story, just make sure it’s a good one.

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Cool Story


Over at Slate they have a pretty good essay about how the word “cool” changed over time, from its origins in African-American subculture, through its place in ’60s and ’70s youth culture, to a concept that crosses ethnic, gender, and generational lines today. Ultimately, Carl Wilson is trying to answer, “What does ‘cool’ mean in 2013?” I figured I’d post a link to it, since we were just talking about this the other day in relation to slang and the evolution of language. And Wilson includes lots of links to genuinely cool stories.


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Are you having trouble logging into Canvas? Well, if so, you’re the only one.

No, not really. Actually, there are quite a few people.

Here are my suggested three steps to getting into Canvas this evening:

  1. Try your normal school password that you remember having last year.
  2. If that doesn’t work, try the PowerSchool password that was on your printed schedule today.
  3. If that doesn’t work, give up. Just for tonight. We’ll talk Wednesday.

Sorry for the confusion. This is the first time technology has ever not worked right.

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So here we are, at the beginning of the 2013-14 school year. Are you excited? I’m excited.

I don’t know how much I’ll be using this site this year, since we’ve been migrating things to Canvas. But you should bookmark it just the same, so you can get to it later if you need to.

In the meantime, please note that over on the right side, there’s a link to Canvas. So if you’re looking for the required reading, you should be able to find it over there.

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Sleep Tonight. Crush the Test Tomorrow.

cute_baby_sleepingIn case you think I’m kidding about going to bed early tonight, here are a few links about the importance of adolescents getting sufficient sleep. For example this, from PBS:

 In experiments done at Harvard Medical School and Trent University in Canada, students go through a battery of tests and then sleep various lengths of time to determine how sleep affects learning. What these tests show is that the brain consolidates and practices what is learned during the day after the students (or adults, for that matter) go to sleep.

Here’s another one from NPR, and one from the National Sleep Foundation.

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AP Test Prep Dates

screamIt’s time to begin our after-school test prep sessions. These will be in Ayers’ room from 3:00 – 4:00. Each session will focus on a different component of the exam.

The dates are April 8 (Monday), April 11 (Thursday), April 15 (Monday), and April 18 (Thursday).

Finally, on Saturday, April 27, we will meet at the Iowa Memorial Union in Iowa City to run through a full practice AP Lang exam. The test itself will run from 8:00 – 11:00, followed by a one-hour debriefing/discussion.

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Tropes vs. Women in Video Games

Here’s the web video I mentioned, by Anita Sarkeesian: “Damsel in Distress: Part 1 – Tropes vs Women in Video Games.” If you like her work, go visit her blog.

What’s a trope? Here’s a short answer. Here’s a longer one.

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The Bechdel Test

If you missed (or wanted to re-watch) the video featuring the Bechdel Test, I live to serve:

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Required Reading: Statistics and Inferences

In a blog post on the New York Times‘ site today, Nate Silver raises cautions about the use of statistical evidence in an argument that could be very useful to us. He’s discussing the debate before the Supreme Court right now regarding the Voting Rights Act, which is far afield of our recent class discussions. But his warnings about what conclusions we reach based on statistics are very relevant, including his point that “the act of citing statistical factoids is not the same thing as drawing sound inferences from them” (¶4). Silver’s example, from late in the piece:

Most of you will spot the logical fallacy in the following claim:

No aircraft departing from a United States airport has been hijacked since the Sept. 11 attacks, when stricter security standards were implemented. Therefore, the stricter security is unnecessary.

As much as I might want to be sympathetic to this claim (I fly a lot and am wary of the “security theater” at American airports), it ought not to be very convincing as a logical proposition. The lack of hijackings were in part a product of an environment in which airport security was quite strict, and says little about what would happen if these countermeasures were removed. The same data might just as easily be cited as evidence that the extra security had been effective:

No aircraft departing from a United States airport has been hijacked since the Sept. 11 attacks, when stricter security standards were implemented. Therefore, the stricter security is working.

Go read the whole thing.

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