Sunday, November 18, 2012

A Free Lesson in SAT Essay Planning

I spend most Saturdays teaching essay writing for SAT mastery. This week's sample question (a real past prompt from an SAT; the prompts are always generic like this) was:

Do people truly benefit from hardship and misfortune?

There was a paragraph-long lead-in to the question that is supposed to whet the appetite and start giving students a way to tackle the question.

This is what it was:

It is not true that prosperity is better for people than adversity. When people are thriving and content, they seldom feel the need to look for ways to improve themselves or their situation.  Hardship, on the other hand, forces people to closely examine--and possibly change--their own lives and even the lives of others.  Misfortune rather than prosperity helps people to gain a greater understanding of themselves and the world around them. 

First, I should explain that I tend to ignore the lead-in (and advise my students to do the same) because two things usually happen when too much attention is paid to it: 1) it leads to a boring, everyone-is-writing-the-same-thing answer or 2) it can even lead students off topic a bit. Trust me: I have seen it happen. It's a trap, so don't fall for it.

Instead of ingesting the lead-in (beyond a cursory glance), I tell my students to start brainstorming on their own. Start thinking of examples to write about, ideas, quotes, images, etc.

Here is what I came up with for this particular prompt:

REMEMBER! It's important to ignore the knee-jerk, automatic answer, which is YES. Ignore it because you might come up with good material for a less-obvious approach.

Instead, make a YES and a NO list.

Yes
We can learn valuable coping skills and life lessons from adversity
We can become more resilient, stronger
More careful, frugal, resourceful
Adversity can be a much-needed "kick in the pants"
After experiencing trauma, we can tell instructive stories that help other people
Others can learn from us
Who benefits from adversity? War profiteers. Oil barons, politicians, weapon makers

No
Trauma can be, well, traumatizing...for life!
PTSD
scars, injuries
We might never recover emotionally, financially, socially
could lose family and all stories of past
hardship often causes division in families and societies
Example of returning Vietnam vets ostracized
Refugees' experiences
Economic crisis in USA currently causing hatred between social classes

Literary examples
Night by Elie Wiesel
Many 19th century novels (particularly ones about orphans...Dickens novels would be good)
The Kite Runner
Atonement
novels about dystopia
World War I novels prove that adversity doesn't improve people; it makes them nihilistic

Historical/social examples
survivors of war
The Greatest Generation
Refugees
people affected by wars in Bosnia, Cambodia, N. Korea, Africa, Vietnam

Quotes that come to mind
That which does not kill me makes me stronger--a Latin quote, now appropriated by Kelly Clarkson for a song
If you think of any other quotes, jot them down.
If you're really stuck, make up a quote! Seriously. Quotes are good ways to get started!

Spend 4 minutes or so brainstorming. Come up with more examples than you can possibly use. This is important because it will allow you to pick and choose the best examples, and also, based on the strength of your brainstormed examples, you will be able to craft a thesis.

Remember, you need to brainstorm before you have a thesis. You need to write a thesis before you can write an essay. I can't say that enough.

You must invest 1/5 of your time in planning. The rest is for writing. If you've planned well, the writing can be done in about 18 minutes. You only have 25. My math may be screwy (hey, I am an English teacher), but you get the point.

Also remember that your thesis MUST use words from the assignment question. This is to 1) prove that you are indeed answering the precise question posed and 2) keep you on track.

A sample (basic) thesis here:

People do not "truly benefit from hardship and misfortune."

How I actually wrote my thesis (with transitions et al): Use first part of thesis (above) and add the all-important "because."

Example: ...because the potential devastating effects of adverse conditions such as war and poverty can be impossible for many to overcome.

Once I have my thesis, I can plan my paragraphs.

Body graf one will be on Elie Wiesel.

I write my topic sentence (the one sentence I know for sure will be read in the entire paragraph):

Here it is:

Elie Wiesel, author of the Holocaust memoir, Night, survived years in a World War II concentration camp and wrote a highly-acclaimed, bestselling book about the experience, yet Wiesel would likely never agree to go back in time and relive the horror that ultimately made him a literary star.

Second body paragraph is on other survivors (of war, famine, displacement, and abject poverty) and how these survivors, like Wiesel, would likely not agree that the hardship was a benefit to them.

I actually have a third graf in this essay--I don't usually do that since there is rarely time, but this topic is easy enough and lends itself well to refutation, so I went for it. My third graf topic explains how some survivors are clearly more resilient, persistent and resourceful than others, but most people experience long-term trauma, with lasting physical and mental scars. 

Good luck with your own essay.

I will model mine for my students, because I think it's helpful, but honestly, modeling can feel ridiculous, sort of like showing off. It's not; this topic is not too difficult, but I found myself veering off track and erasing many lines. The point is: I model my mistakes, as well. I show how I almost lost control of my topic, but then self-corrected.

No one is perfect, after all.

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