A scene from the documentary The War Room flashed through my mind recently when I was scoring writing samples from my sophomores. Fiery Campaign Manager James Carville goes ballistic while watching on TV, then, Presidential Candidate Bill Clinton in a debate. “What are you doing?” Carville screams incredulously in his spicy Cajun drawl. “If you want to win, focus on the economy stupid!” Carville is trying to communicate to Clinton that if he just focuses on the economy during the campaign, he’ll win the election.
I share Carville’s frustration over staying on message reading my students’ essays. Having taught both AP and Core students, I see the the same mistake over and over again in their writing – THEY DON’T READ THE PROMPT! I want to scream, “Read the prompt (insert child’s name here)!”
Take the prompt my sophomores just wrote about:
Poet W.E.B. Yeats is attributed to saying ‘education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.’ What he means is teaching and learning is NOT about being given information, but being inspired to learn on your own. In a multi-paragraph essay explain how a teacher/coach/mentor/parent has ‘lit a fire’ to motivate you to be successful in life.
Many of the responses to the prompt I did not anticipate. One student talked about how his father “lit a fire underneath me by telling me what to do” (opposite what the prompt was asking). Another student persuaded me why his soccer coach was his best teacher (the essay was informative). Then, there was the student who argued why teachers shouldn’t allow kids to play with fire because they should be good role models to children(I experienced temporary aphasia – a loss of words).
To help remedy this situation, prevent my already high blood pressure from rising further, and to inoculate my sophomores from having early-onset-senioritis, I devised the following strategy. Ladies and Gentlemen, may I present Answering a Prompt 101, aka the 6Ts:
1. Type: What “type” of essay will you be writing? In high school, the Common Core asks to students to either write informative or argumentative essays. It is the teacher’s job to explain the difference between the two. Looking at the aforementioned Yeats’ prompt, the word “explain” is underlined, thus indicating the students will write an informative essay.
2. Topic: What subject will you be writing about? Once students have determined which type of essay they will be writing, then they need to determine what topic they will be writing about. The quote in the Yeats’ prompt gives a big clue to the students. They need to discuss how a “teacher/coach/mentor/parent has ‘lit a fire’” that motivated them to be successful.
3. Task: In what medium will you be giving this information? Though most SBAC prompts ask students to compose essays, I have seen examples asking students to compose a letter. In this case, it is important to show students that all letters begin with “Dear” and end with “Sincerely.” The Yeats’ prompt uses the verbage “a multi-paragraph essay.” Students need to know this is code for a five-paragraph essay.
4. Textual Evidence: Where are you getting the evidence to answer the prompt? Students need to read the prompt carefully to determine where they will be getting evidence in the essay to support their thesis. Some SBAC prompts ask students to synthesize evidence from multiple sources provided. In the Yeats’ prompt, students must brainstorm ideas how the “teacher/coach/mentor/parent” inspired them to be successful. Once students realize they will be writing a “multi-paragraph essay,” they need to find three specific examples that support their thesis.
5. Target Audience: Who will you be writing to? Students should infer from the prompt which audience would read their essay, not just the amorphous reader. When I taught seniors, my students composed admission essays for college. I reminded my student-writers that no matter which prompt they selected, they were always writing for an admissions officer. They needed to use college level diction and syntax to demonstrate they knew how to effectively communicate at the college level. In the Yeats’ prompt, my students must understand there are two audiences at play: the mentor/coach who the essay is about, and me, their teacher who will be assessing their writing.
6. Theme: What universal theme is the prompt addressing? One writing tip I instill in my students, that separates great writing from mere good writing, is a writer’s employment of a universal theme. Take for example Martin Luther King’s “Mountain Top” speech. He references a letter he received from a school-age girl saying she was “glad he didn’t sneeze” after someone stabbed him, because if he had, he would have bled to death. King uses this idea “if I sneezed” to list all the milestones in the Civil Rights Movement he would have missed. No, I do not expect my students to write like MLK, but I know they are capable of finding a universal theme within a prompt, and weaving that theme throughout their essay. In the Yeats’ prompt, the key phrase is “to be successful in life.” Students can unpack their definition of success and how their mentor/coach led them to be successful.
I encourage you to employ the 6Ts when teaching your students about essay prompts. Show them a new prompt each day and have them identify the 6Ts. Then, have them compose an intro paragraph and score each other using the SBAC Informative Writing Rubric. All this practice will help them activate the writing-prompt center of their brains. Who knows? You may “light a fire” for them to become the next W.E.B. Yeats, or at a minimum, be able to competently respond to an essay prompt.