J. Steinberg's 3.16.11 article "SAT's Reality TV Essay Stumps Some" (www.nytimes.com/2011/03/17/education/17sat.html) discusses how some versions of the most recently administered SAT had an essay question dealing with reality television which, apparently, caused some students a lot of heartache. According to the article, the prompt included the question, "How authentic can these shows be when producers design challenges for the participants and then editors alter filmed scenes?"
The article also points out that this (and all) SAT questions "are preceded by an explanatory statement -- 'These shows depict ordinary people competing in everything from singing and dancing to losing weight, or just living their everyday lives' -- as well as an assertion: 'Most people believe that the reality these shows portray is authentic, but they are being mislead.'" The intention is to supply students an opportunity not only to demonstrate their writing skills, but also to give them what they need to answer the prompt, regardless of their interest or knowledge on that particular subject.
What struck me, in particular, was this statement: "This particular prompt, Ms. Garcia [executive director of the SAT program] said, was intended to be relevant and to engage students."
(However, despite the attempts at relevancy and engagement levels for students, some of them still complained. One student is quoted in the article as saying, "I kinda want to cry right now" and another as remarking, "I don't watch reality tv at all so it was hard for me. I have no interest in reality tv shows..." What they don't seem to realize is that watching reality tv is not necessary in having an opinion about it. And ironically, most people have stronger opinions on matters they know even less about, and that rarely stops them from weighing in!)
More and more, there is a move to make things relevant and engaging to students. Relevance IS important because it does lead to buy-in and engagement, which, in turn, leads to happier students and, in theory, greater achievement because they care about what they're doing. However--and this is something that has bothered me for years--NOT EVERYTHING is going to seem relevant or be engaging to all students. Sometimes in life, things are boring. Sometimes, we're asked to work with ideas we could give two craps about and just wish would go away. We still have to do these things. Sure, we can complain about them being boring or pointless or dumb, but they still have to get done, and done to the best of our abilities. That's life.
But I've noticed in the past 2 years or so that the move in education is so much more toward the dog-and-pony show, and not enough the reality that not everything is going to be fun.
For one thing, students come in to class and expect to be entertained all the time. They want movies, technology, group work. They hate having to read, think, or be creative. Lectures are boring. Background information--which, ironically, may in fact point out the relevance of the lesson to their lives--becomes a perfect time to catch up on calculus homework or some ZZZs.
It isn't that there's anything wrong with movies, technology, or group work. They can be great. That is, if they are being implemented because they are legitimately the most effective way to cover the information. However, let's face it, there's a lot of work that leads up to the effective use of those other things. How can you have a lively discussion about a piece of literature if you've never read it in the first place? How can you dissect a pig if you don't know where to cut and what you're looking at? It's the "boring" background work that sets up the relevancy but that students seem to so resent (and, in turn, ignore and complain about.)
Students aren't the only ones expecting a show--administration wants the dog-and-pony show, too, that often takes place when teachers are observed.
Teachers are routinely observed by their administration to make sure they are doing what needs to get done and keeping up with district standards and implementing best practices and the like. It could be likened to performance reviews in the corporate world.
In theory, when admin drops in to see a lesson, these lessons should be the normal day-to-day type. However, particularly in announcing their date in advance, there's an expectation that something interesting takes place on that day. (And, frankly, if that isn't the true expectation, it's the PERCEPTION, and thus what teachers do out of fear that if they don't, they'll be negatively viewed.) Therefore, even though there are those lessons where teachers have to just have students reading a section or practicing 20 math problems on their own, those are not the lessons administrators want to see. They sometimes say that they're ok with those types of lessons, but since they have to take notes on the visit, they are decidedly not ok with those types of lessons on those days. So teachers have to plan 'fun' lessons even for the administrators for those days. It isn't that the teachers never do these types of lessons, but it's like they have to break out the good china for their guests those days. The expectation is that the good china will be used.
These "expectations" lead to another trend I've been seeing more and more in the past couple of years, which goes back to something not covered deeply in the Times article but which, I suspect, is part of the issue: students expect something specific and classically academic and are very thrown and/or put out when given a choice or asked to think more creatively.
When I was in school, it was a treat when a teacher assigned a project that had choices. For instance, in one English class I had, we were given a 1-page list of options for how to demonstrate our knowledge of the information. We could write a paper, create a brochure, make a movie or skit, write a book or song, give a speech, make a poster, create a board game, draw a comic strip... you get the point.
As students, we were invigorated by the options and the products were usually great because we felt that relevancy as we worked and had that engagement with our product. (We also appreciated the choice.) Some people still went the "standard" route and wrote papers, of course, because that's how they best expressed themselves, but the option was refreshing.
In my first year of teaching, I had students create a newspaper (with several smaller writing samples dealing with multiple topics) instead of writing a formal essay on one over-arching topic. Some students really struggled with this task because it was outside-the-box for them. Some curricula allow for this type of assignment movement, while others do not, so as I started teaching other levels, the obvious opportunities to offer these other choices seemed to dry up.
As the years went on, though, and particularly after I'd taken a really interesting continuing education course on assessment types and strategies, I made an effort to try to vary assessment types to appeal to different styles of learners and to add that originality and creativity to assessments.
I've noticed, though, that in the past 2 years or so, students (for the most part) do NOT find these options refreshing; rather, they seem stressed out by them. Sure, there are still some students who love having a choice, who think that any option that allows them not to write a formal paper is awesome. (Just as some students in the Times article found the reality tv prompt, "a welcome respite.") But more and more, like the student in the article who wanted to cry, they see the other options as exhausting. Create a song? Create a board game? Too much work.
More and more, they OPT to write the paper. (And, trust me, it is NOT because paper writing is how they best expressed themselves...) The rest is just too tiring.
Even when I had students write in a daily journal and assigned a "free write" (for which they could write about whatever topic they wanted to discuss), they complained about it. "What? I hate free writes. I don't know what to write about. Can't you just give me a topic?!"
[They also HATE anything subjective (unless, of course, they earn an "A" on the task; then it's ok and nobody ever questions it as an unfair or mentions it as a potentially subjective assessment.) If it isn't multiple choice or matching (especially with a word bank), they want no parts of it. How are they supposed to study for it? How can I as teacher deem an answer right or wrong? How can I award partial credit? Why that amount and not more? It's not faaaaaaiiiiirrrrr! If it isn't black and white, it tends to infuriate them.]
The struggles and stress students seem to feel at being asked to think creatively or discuss unexpected or subjective subjects is disheartening. So it's really no great surprise to me that some students are having such difficulty with a more "fun"-seeming SAT prompt.
All of this might lead one to set about to answer a similarly phrased prompt: How authentic can these "relevant" tasks be when school systems attempt to design challenges for the participating students and then students cannot alter their set ways of thinking? Or, dare we say, cannot think at all?