Thursday, September 25, 2014

The Five Paragraph Essay

If you google: Should we dump the five paragraph essay? you will see mostly a list of articles saying that yes, we should. You will see a few defending it. You find a lot of articles where college professors bemoan this essay form taught in so many high schools, claiming they have to teach their students all over again how to write.

I am on the dump-it side of the equation. Lots of people have different reasons for this, but I have one and only one reason:

Who wants to read an essay where the writer first explains what they are about to say, then explains it, then says the exact same thing in a conclusion?



They are boring. puts together what they think are the ten best news articles from 2013. For my writing class, I took the first paragraphs from five of those articles and put them in one document. Each one looked something like this:

They had promised to try everything, so Mark Barden went down into the basement to begin another project in memory of Daniel. The families of Sandy Hook Elementary were collaborating on a Mother’s Day card, which would be produced by a marketing firm and mailed to hundreds of politicians across the country. “A difference-maker,” the organizers had called it. Maybe if Mark could find the most arresting photo of his 7-year-old son, people would be compelled to act.
Where is the thesis statement in this article? Where is the clear explanation of everything that will follow? I think we can say from this paragraph that this article will be about gun control, but we don't know what it's going to say.

Not only that, but this paragraph throws us right into action. There is no history given here, no recounting of events so we know where we stand. This paragraph starts right with Mark Barden going down into the basement to find a photo. Every one of the ten articles begins with action. They also begin with a question or questions. From this paragraph, I want to know if Mark Barden found that picture. If it made a difference. I want to know who he made that promise to. I want to know which politicians listened and which politicians did not. I want to know more about Mark Borden. There are a lot of things this paragraph makes me want to know, and that's why I keep reading.

The five paragraph essay does not lend itself easily to questions. It is difficult to provide mystery in such a confining form.

I think the five paragraph essay is taught to give students a rudimentary structure to follow. I think it's taught to keep them focused. I think it's taught because it is easy to grade.

Rubric: Thesis statement? 4. Supporting paragraphs? 3. Conclusion? 2.  Grade: 3.

Why do we teach forms of writing that don't mirror anything we do in the real world? Why do we teach forms of writing that will—without question—bore these students to death so that they hate to write?

Too many kids hate to write, and it is the fault of the people teaching them what writing is about.

This, by the way, was my students favorite of the five paragraphs:

Remember that crazy story about the dude in Mississippi who mailed ricin to Obama and then tried to frame some other dude in Mississippi for the crime? Well, as Wells Tower discovered when he traveled to Tupelo and started poking around, the story is a thousand times crazier than you thought.

No thesis statement here, but there sure are a lot of questions...

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