Teaching Writing: 5-Paragraph Essay is Not the Answer

“I just spent eight hours, bent over a table saw, cutting off the points of a picket fence. How ridiculous is that?”

The Husband is a high-end carpenter. For the last few months he has been working at our local theme park, Storyland, helping them complete their new ride. He was called into Storyland on Sunday for the final touches before the ride opened on Tuesday. What were those final, must-have final touches? De-picketing the picket fence that surrounds the new attraction and forms the queue. Of the hundreds of individual fence parts, none of them could have the pointy-top.

At one of the corporations other theme parks, a customer somehow fell onto one of the pickets and was seriously injured. The picket fence accident was simply that, an accident and it was a freak accident at that. To prevent this from happening again (and one can assume to limit future liability) Corporate Headquarters instituted a blanket, catch-all policy; no pointy picket fences at any of their theme parks.

Sound crazy? Insane? Unrealistic even?

It wasn’t the theme parks fault. It was an accident. Millions of homes around the world have picket fences. This accident could have happened anywhere. How is the decapitation of the picket fences going to prevent this from happening again in the future?

Educations version of the decapitated picket fence is the Five Paragraph essay. This form writing has become the schools savior when it comes to the teaching of writing and passing the high stakes standardized tests that are tied to No Child Left Behind and Federal and State funding dollars. The easy answer is the Five Paragraph essay. It has become the end-all, be-all answer.

As an Adjunct English Professor, I have fifty first-year composition students a semester. All fifty believe themselves to be horrible writers and enter the classroom thinking that this will be their most dreadful course in college. Great mindset to start off not only the course but their college career as well.

The first three-four weeks of my sixteen week semester is spent unteaching.

I need to unteach them that the five paragraph essay is equal to good writing. For most, if not all, of their education, the five paragraph essay has been drilled into their heads as the only way to write.

And why not? Five paragraph essays are easy to teach, quick to learn and even easier to grade. Oh, only four paragraphs minus 10 points. No thesis statement as the last sentence of the first paragraph and restated in the fifth paragraph, minus another 10 points. Five paragraph essay format matches up nicely to rubrics. Five paragraph essays are easy to create a checklist for completion.

Five paragraph essays sap the joy, pleasure and inherent (and positive) risk out of writing. In one high school English class I observed during my Masters program, every Freshman student had an entire six week unit devoted to the five paragraph essay form.

The Five Paragraph essay for does not address the underlying purpose that at the format is aimed to correct-how to teach writing. When writing is boiled down to a checklist, formulaic composition, why would students, writers and readers become invested in the piece.  That investment in the piece of writing it what demands the writer to bring the piece further; to spend more time and energy in the piece.  That investment makes the writer want the piece to be better; therefore, they work at it.  They struggle.  They draft.  They delete.  They start over.  The participate actively in the process of writing.  The ups and the downs.

When the Five Paragraph form is used, teachers are looking for the checklist components when they read, students are using the checklist as they write and they rarely, if ever, challenge the form and take a risk in their writing for fear of failure.

How can we ethically call this teaching of writing and the product quality writing?

The Five Paragraph essay is like that picket fence. Education has found and applied a quick fix that is supposed to solve all the problems with student writing. Just cut off the pointy parts of the fence, the challenging aspects of building student confidence in their writing, allowing the students to make choices and have ownership over their writing and helping when the students fail. Instead, use the Five Paragraph essay format complete with a can’t fail checklist. That will solve the problem of students not knowing how to write and teachers not knowing how to teach writing. Never mind those very most basic skills that go with writing (interest, ownership, confidence). Students don’t need those skills in the real world.

Just cut those points off. That way no one gets hurt. No one will take a risk or step outside of the conscripted guidelines.  Everyone will be protected and mediocre.

“You Sure Do Kill a Forest of Trees!”

With every course I teach, more and more students mention the use of paper in my courses. Yes, I teach college composition. Yes, we read, a lot and yes, we write even more. Reading and writing have always been associated with paper. The crispness of a brand new book. The crack of the spine as you open it the first time. The smell of the ink on the page.  My students; however, complain about the use (or misuse) of paper that my courses generate from course readings, vomit drafts, revision draft, clean drafts and more.  My students are generally green-conscious and they are not impressed with the reams of paper that are brandied about in my course.  I’ve heard my students and this year I am attempting to solve this issue.

This semester I am embracing technology as I never have before.  I am moving beyond Moodle, email and the like.  My two sections of composition will be paperless–paperless in terms of zero handouts from me (with the exception of the one-page course introduction with a QR code redirecting towards our course blog) and zero papers from students turned in.  Utilizing technology, students will complete a jot form from the course blog and upload all drafts of their papers.  Their papers will be automatically uploaded to my dropbox account.

Another challenge for me is to leave my widescreen laptop at home and use my iPad for my on-campus activities.  The iPad will allow me to utilze such great apps as Goodreader and iAnnotate to move the documents onto my iPad, provide the detailed and open-ended conversational feedback that I like to give to my students.  iAnnotate then allows me to e-mail the fully annotated file back to the student.  All on the iPad.

I am hopeful that this workflow flows (for lack of a better word).  I spent weeks (yes, weeks) reading, Googling, asking my small, yet growing, PLN on Twitter their experiences.  I bought apps for my iPad to try out and then regret spending the $2-$5 for an app that failed to live up to my expectations (yes, I admit they might have been abnormally high).  After a solid month, I developed a work flow, that with trial and error on my end, I believe will work.

I am anxious, unsure and wondering how this will work in the actual classroom (not just in my mind) and how the students will work with this concept and if they will embrace it.

It will be a long two months until I introduce this to my students this year.  But, I am hopeful.