I Don't Hate the Five-Paragraph Essay
An Ambivalent Narrative
I have been spending some time reading books, blog posts, and other resources on the internet about how to manage giving quality feedback without going insane. It is part of my Paper Problem Series I am working on because I believe that if I can figure out how to maintain the level of feedback I am giving AND not work 15 or more hours on a weekend-I can stay teaching. A lot of the books, articles, and other resources I am looking at bring up (to no surprise) the five-paragraph essay. I cringe whenever I read these parts. I think back to a moment that has happened many times over the past seven years. One of my students will come up to my desk and state: "Mrs. H I have a ton more reasons for my thinking, do I have to narrow it down to three for my essay?” I always die a little on the inside. For the given assignment? Yes, you have to narrow it down. For the real world? Not at all. Another one of my students bit the proverbial dust of the five-paragraph essay form. This happens each year because I would like to admit right away...I teach the five-paragraph essay.
As I recognize that the five-paragraph essay is ingrained in my curriculum guide, I have also been an advocate for the five-paragraph form not being a sole method of delivering the instruction of writing. I started out writing this piece with an innate desire to crush and obliterate the five-paragraph form. I wanted to prove its wrongness, and provide other formats that would change the teaching of writing for middle school and high school teachers. This would ingrain a newness of ideas into the fresh pages of curriculum guides. I wanted to change my pacing guide, change my department’s mentality, and change the way that I view the concepts of my own instruction. I wanted to change the world. Perhaps not changing the whole world, but the world that views students as unable to write creatively and with substance. I fully commit to the idea that the five-paragraph form is not effective, and I wanted others to see that and feel the same passion that I have against its canon. I must also consider in the same breath that I could be wrong.
Before I tell you about my epiphany of being half-wrong (because who admits when they are fully wrong?) I need to tell you where this post idea starts from originally. The five-paragraph form does not sit right with me because it views students as lacking. Ruby Payne’s Deficit Model helps explicate this by pointing to a rationale of viewing students as lacking in knowledge, ability, socioeconomic status, income, and race. By viewing our students as deficit, we instill in them that the “correct format” implies that they are inherently wrong and now they must learn to comply with the correct outlined format. If you stray from this model, you are not getting it right and if you are not getting right, you really have failed at this thing we call education in the first place. We are all boxes and bullets in the end, aren’t we? While I strive to go against the canon that asks my students to form a five-paragraph outline and that elaborates on a three-point claim or position statement, I have to ask myself, am I promoting an atmosphere where I am encouraging the perspective of “lack” or am I meeting my students where they are? It is my duty as an educator to help my students at whatever point they are at-whether third grade reading level or eleventh-and try to help progress their knowledge of content in English and in life. This is more than an issue of suppressing their creativity.
Instead of rallying against the five-paragraph prescription, I think I need to admit that I don’t know if it is so wrong or not. Beginning in elementary school, the five-paragraph canon can be used for first learning to organize argument and evidence. This format is then used throughout middle school grades, high school and into post-secondary education to fall back on a guide as to how to construct the basic essay. It is a common language that we all speak because it is an easy, common language. The format calls for an argument in the form of a three-point claim statement at the end of the introduction, the explanation of the three points, and then a summarization of the argument in the conclusion. When initially teaching students how to formulate an argument on the page, a format that they can “plug and chug” easily equates to an understandable guide when you are learning a new concept. When teachers use this format in pedagogical strategy, they implement an outline that students must follow because they demonstrate a need to fill in the gaps. While this form is best used in teaching anchor essays in standardized testing environments as a genre in itself, this concrete form does not meet the needs of all writers and leaves little room for creative development for the individual writer.
However, my struggling writers love this format because it is concrete. The five-paragraph form is like a loyal dog-you know it will always be there for you to look at you longingly when you are in doubt with your pen and paper and don’t know what to do. In the same breath, understanding this outline begins to setup the reasons why I don’t necessarily hate the five-paragraph form and why I also loathe it for its damnation on creativity. I have seen it take my sixth graders writing and establish a foundation on the basis of helping students form arguments, create purpose through ideas, and then elaborate on these ideas with the aide of sentence starters. I have also seen this format be abused by both teacher and student that want to plug and chug information into a prescriptive format and annihilate any idea of self-efficacy and ability concerning the ability to integrate resource and insight into their own claim. It is a love-hate relationship considering student achievement that has evolved to one of satisfaction in dissatisfaction. I know that my students have a greater ability to be creative, but the gaps between my lower students and my higher students creates disconnect that rejoined by the five-paragraph form. This structure provides a platform solution to reach all of my students no matter what with a common language.
This is where my ambivalence enters. Instead of quoting eight sources on the importance to allow students to think creatively and to co-exist with their own education, I have to admit that the five-paragraph form is an oppressive creativity-consuming beast. I think I am ok with that in some moments. Teacher discretion is at its most important when faced with the choice of using prescriptive formats that venture outside of the template to instill a love of writing in each student that can use this format and see another method as a possibility. Having once been a child, I learned to walk before I ran. Having been a student of the five-paragraph form, I can’t say I have been hurt too badly. I turned out okay, and I fully expect the students in my classroom to do the same. After all, learning to love writing should be the message conveyed to students-no matter what form or format is used to demonstrate its importance. I believe students have to know the rules in order to break them. I also believe that sometimes structure and formula is needed to teach struggling writers first, and then they can learn other methods of putting thought down on paper.
1. I know I will continue to give writing frames to my struggling writers. I like being able to provide a "road map" of sorts to students that do not speak the language necessarily of academic writing. This is a language barrier that English teachers must deal with in the classroom. Struggling writers need more scaffolding for understanding the complex language that is academic writing. All writers can use frames as a way to unlock a new skill.
2. I am revisiting Moving Writers post right now about the "Teachable Alternatives to the Five-Paragraph Essay because I love the methods the she brings up in the post. I like the idea of teaching them now that you know the five-paragraph essay, you can also understand there are five parts to the Aristotelian method. Picturing the looks on their faces makes me get excited. Excited enough to grab a notebook and plan some lessons-in July. I will continue to teach alternatives to the five-paragraph form in seventh grade. Perhaps also I could speed up how this is taught in sixth grade and make sure my sixth graders know their options before they leave me.
3. I will continue to read and research on the form. Kelly Gallagher in The Best Interest of Students: Staying True to What Works in the ELA Classroom states, "An argument is much more than a claim followed by three reasons. Arguments that are shoehorned into five-paragraph structures are actually weakened by the artificiality of the structure itself. The lameness of the structure diverts the reader's attention from the argument itself" (96). I agree with him on this. Kelly goes on in his book to talk about mentors for effective arguments. If there is anything that is revamping my writing teaching it is the use of mentors. I look to mentors to highlight diversity in teaching and also exemplar papers to help my writers think like...well, writers.
Writing Mindset Reflection: What are your thoughts on the five-paragraph essay?