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No Snooki? No problem!

March 24, 2011
Ned Johnson

The SAT created quite a kerfuffle with the essay prompt from the March SAT.  As I'm sure you've read by now, the essay asked in part:

Do people benefit from forms of entertainment that show so-called reality, or are such forms of entertainment harmful?

It was not universally a hit. As reported in a number of media outlets from the sober to the shrill, students, parents and educators railed against a question they saw as vapid, unfair, and (above all else), stupid. College Board spokespeople were sent out like political operatives dispatched to the Sunday morning news shows.

While English teachers opine about what makes good writing, I submit that (on the SAT as in politics) good pivots (or, redirecting the questions) make good answers.  Put simply, write about something you know a lot about.

A common lament is that politicians never answer the questions asked of them. My thought is "why would they?" Surely experience has shown them that there is at best uncertainty and at worst peril in candidly answering questions posed to them. Hence the pivot. For example:

"Senator, if you were elected president, would you end US military action in (insert country du jour)?"

"That's a very good question, one on the minds of all Americans. But, before I answer, allow me to offer my gratitude to the men and women fighting in (CDJ) and also to their families for the sacrifices they have made and are making to protect the rights and freedoms that we all hold so dear.

There are, however, other costs that we can and must put a price on...The question we need to be asking ourselves is not only what is our objective in CDJ but also whether this is the best use of the tax dollars of the hard-working men and women in America. As you may know, American school children just place 43 out of 67 industrialized countries in an international math competition. To remain competitive in the world, we must invest more in our young people than we currently are. That is why, as president, I will call for an additional...."

Uh-huh. The pivot.

Much like politicians who utilize talking points, students will do well when they write using examples that they know a lot about.  The prompt asked about “reality tv”, but why not spin your response to work in your favor? Know ALL about Snooki? Go for it!  Expert on 17th Century Flemish poetry?  LUV it!

In the SAT's defense, the essay prompt on the March SAT actually allowed kids to show knowledge (low-brow or geeky) with this topic.  Imagine walking into 3rd period Social Studies Class and having your teacher greeting you thusly:

"Good morning, Ned!  We are eager to hear your class presentation.  Please step to the front of the class!"
"My what?!?"
"Your class presentation...it's a third of your grade."
"On what?'
"The War of 1812.  Please proceed."

Gulp.

Versus this:

"Good morning, Ned!  We are eager to hear your class presentation."
(etc, etc)
"On what?'
"A current figure from television, politics or academia. Please proceed."

Snooki it is!  Or, if you can pull it off, the current goings-on in modern string theory or MLK. 

Back to the March SAT: "Do people benefit from forms of entertainment that show so-called reality, or are such forms of entertainment harmful?"  Let’s try the pivot:

"People do not benefit from so-called reality television.  Such material displaces programming that does.  People benefit from TV that depicts the reality of situations, even ones hard to watch.  One can recall the role that television played during the unrest of the 1960s. TV, when working well, can transform society as it did in its pivotal role in the Civil Rights movement of that era.  Had not the words of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s "I have a Dream Speech" been broadcast into millions of homes across America, it is easy to imagine that the widespread political support for the Civil Rights Act of 1964 would have never materialized.”
 
Then, go on tell the story of King and his followers and how TV brought their experiences to the entirety of America.

Much as the electorate is filled with an overriding sense of cynicism about politicians, deriding every move of College Board is sport for some and well-nigh a crusade for others.  But, at least for this essay prompt, I think many missed the point.  For my part, I don't watch reality TV and wouldn't know Snooki if she (or until she) slapped me across the face.  But, the part of the prompt that was not reported is this:

"Support your position with reasoning and examples taken from your reading, studies, experience, or observations."

Feel free to pivot.

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