Monday, September 30, 2013

Funeral for the Five-Paragraph Essay

Friends, Romans, 8th graders, lend me your eyes…and common sense. From a young age, adults instruct us not to hate. Yet, some things affect us so deeply that we are challenged to find the words to adequately define it. The word hate rises from the steam of our boiling blood and is exhaled in one hot breath and explodes.

The term five-paragraph essay boils my blood.

Taught at the younger levels to help children see the parts of a composition as one sees a hamburger, it does little to draw adolescents any closer to the real-world writing they need in their lives.  The five paragraph concept was developed by a teacher over fifty years ago and has lingered over many decades for two reasons: it is easy to teach a part-part-whole structure, and it is easy to grade.

I’ll agree that breaking things down into parts is an effective teaching method. The method carried me through a coaching career that started in middle school, moved to high school, and then through college. I succeeded teaching young men to play a specific position by breaking everything down into parts every day long before the larger plan was executed.

However, the time comes for people to move on from the parts. Entering the 8th grade, students should be challenged to no longer lean on the five-paragraph essay because it will do more harm than good to their writing. Too often, students come in being trained to ask how many words or how many paragraphs they need to write. Focusing on the number of words or paragraphs one needs to write does little to make someone think about and develop their writing.

Five paragraph essays can both constrain writing and dilute writing. What if I can express my point, powerfully, in two hundred and fifty words? Writing an additional two hundred and fifty does not guarantee any deeper thinking--more words does not equal more meaning. Conversely, what if my chosen topic is focused and vast? What if five paragraphs just isn’t enough to allow me to find meaning, make connections, and show the reader why something matters? Sometimes, the restrictions we build as teachers can prune a student’s potential too closely to the bud.

Young writers need the skills for deeper revision. Focusing on the numbers (words or paragraphs) drives writers to worry about milestones, not message.  Good writing is not incumbent on hitting five hundred-words or any other marker. Yet, some adolescents remain distracted by these markers.

I would rather read two hundred words that says something.

I would rather read eight thousand words that says something.

So, I apologize to you if you came here expecting me to praise Caesar, not bury him. You will not find any trace of the five-paragraph essay out there in the real world or in my classroom, for the five paragraph essay is dead.

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