Sunday, January 6, 2013

English and English Education in the Tower of Babel, Part 2: The Dread Five Paragraph Essay and Teaching Expository Writing

They are bad words: Five. Paragraph. Essay.

Last year, I assigned three full-length expository or persuasive essays to my honors students per semester, and two to my regular-level students per semester. That was about all I thought we could do in a year, and the grading still nearly crushed my spirit. I began to discover that my students almost routinely wrote one very good "body" paragraph, along with several less-good ones--something of a waste, it seemed. But then I figured that even these "summative" assessments could have a "formative" component: in other words, I could assess my students on their ability to write an organized and thoughtfully argued paragraph, while still having them practice writing an organized and thoughtfully argued essay, a skill to be mastered next year, or even further down the line. People learn how to write slowly by emulation, feedback, repetition, and coaching, and when you have between 28 and 35 students in each of 5 classes, that kind of work turns into formulas all too easily. If all a student is expected to do on, for example, the Illinois State Acheivement Test, or the ISAT, is to write a "three-part response," then that is what we will teach. And we have terrific formulas, and mnemonics, as I noted above. Here are some more:

For an introduction:
A. Attention Grabber
B. Background information
C. Claim

For a body paragraph:
P. Point
E. Evidence
E. Explanation
E. Evaluation

But here's the kicker: when I was teaching my first class of AP literature students a couple of years ago, and I wanted to prove to them that these formulas were Useful to Know in the Real World, I was able to point to any number of editorials in the Chicago Tribune or Chicago Sun-Times that look exactly like this. I was also able to point to one of the chapters of my dissertation, which as a five-page introduction, but still follows the ABC formula:

A: intriguing Anecdote, followed by a "close reading" of the anecdote.
B: Background of what other scholars have thought about the problem presented by the close reading of the anecdote, and why they're wrong about the problem (in the "Little Red Schoolhouse" style of the University of Chicago, this is called "stasis/destabilization").
C: Claim: my "take" on the problem.

In the two pedagogy courses I took for my English PhD, I was told again and again how silly the writing instruction in high school is. When I took the University of Chicago's course called Pedagogies of Writing, they were very intent on insisting that the "stasis/destabilization" introduction was extremely different from the "inverted paragraph" introduction. Likewise, they hated the words "topic sentence" like they were the work of the devil, but they used the words "paragraph-level claim" or even "point sentence" as if these were new inventions.

In Pedagogies of Writing, the instructors were really brutal toward high school English teachers, which, as a Once and Future high school English teacher, I found insulting. They actually showed us a graphic organizer from a Nebraska high school and everyone had a huge chuckle about it! They also showed us a sample essay from a student who had been taught the inverted-pyramid formula for an introduction. The essay was about Beloved. The introduction started with a generalization: Life is full of choices. It then went on to explain that in the novel Beloved, Sethe has a choice about whether to murder her baby or not murder her baby.

I certainly hope that this student never knows that his or her essay is used in this way to teach this course, year after year after year. So little teaching of writing goes on, even in freshman intro courses, that students are more often than not left to their own devices (in this case, literally: the rhetorical device of the inverted pyramid, general-to-specific, which, in this one case, turns out to be quite bathetic). By the time they get to some colleges, students are expected to show up already knowing how to write the way their professors want, or else they are given just one writing course, taught by an exasperated English professor, in which they are told that everything they learned in high school is hopelessly, worthlessly, wrong. It's deflating to the students, to say the least.

The worst part is, high school teachers combat the superiority complex of English professors by giving their students arbitrary rules: "don't use 'I.'" Use "transition words" like however, moreover, thus, and--be still my soul--in conclusion. I have taught my students, more than once, to begin an essay of literary analysis with the phrase "In [author]'s [novel/play/poem] [name of novel/play/poem]...."e.g., "In Richard Wright's novel Native Son..." Gag me with a chainsaw! But it sure is better than seeing something like "In the book Native Son by the author Richard Wright he says..." Where we could be teaching rhetoric, we teach formulas that look like rhetoric.

But formulas are a useful teaching tool. Teachers call it scaffolding. A scaffold is a temporary structure that is used when another structure is being built or repaired. What has to come next is the dismantling of the scaffold, to be sure, but it's the old you-have-to-learn-the-rules-before-you-can-break-them argument. I sort of believe this argument. When I taught theory, I found Audre Lorde's formulation "The master's tools will never dismantle the master's house" extraordinarily useful for teaching the various Marxist/subaltern--postcolonial, feminist, and African American--versions of poststructuralism. But I also always pointed out that word "dismantle" to my students--Lorde's claim is a fallacy. If you want to dismantle the master's house, you must either use the master's tools, or move at a frustratingly slow and careful pace with more rudimentary tools--for example, you can remove a screw with pliers, but it is much easier and faster to remove it with a screwdriver. But Lorde, herself an academic as well as a poet, didn't want to destroy the master's house. She wanted to live in it on her own terms. She had to learn to write like them before she could claim to write like herself.

I am also a firm believer that the relentless teaching of expository writing kills the love of writing in students, much like the relentless teaching of explication kills the love of reading--a Writicide to go alongside Kelly Gallagher's Readicide, if you will. The great majority of the high school students I have taught love to do things with words--they freestyle, they rap, they text, they chat, they gossip. The key is to harness this energy and creativity to the pursuit of improving their writing. It's a bare, biologically verifiable fact that teenagers are  going to be obsessed with themselves. So we let them write about themselves endlessly. And I would rather read 150 mediocre personal essays than 150 mediocre poetry explications any day. But that's because I love teens and their problems don't bore me.

I see so many articles and Facebook comments from my friends who teach in other environments that go along the lines of this one, with the attendant hand-wringing on both sides about how high school students aren't giving high school teachers what they want, and high school teachers are not giving college freshmen what they need, so the freshmen aren't giving the comp teachers what they want. I used to feel this way, and I still go nuts, in my own way, about the your/you'res and the their/there/they'res and the "In my honest opinion I think thats" of this world. (I borrow a tool from my senior high school teacher's box, thanks to whom I learned what a comma splice was. I draw a little spiral in these sorts of mistakes. If the student doesn't learn the error, the spiral gets bigger the next time. I don't remember what my former teacher called it, but I call it Ms. Barton's vortex of despair--my despair at your not having learned this simple rule or redundancy.)

Of course it's fun to laugh when a student misspells a word and, in so doing, creates an irony that is hilarious. Doesn't everyone do this all the time? When we publish the mistakes of those students, and get a good chuckle out of them, why are we laughing? At the incongruity of the error, for sure. But isn't some of the laughter also designed to mask our own anxiety for not teaching them how to spell a key vocabulary word? Or to congratulate ourselves on our own superior knowledge?

When I first started teaching high school, with absolutely no training, I would spend hours writing and revising elaborately written essay questions--usually multiple options for a single assignment--only to receive essays that were all plot summary. The first time this happened, the disappointment was devastating, and the tedium of grading only made the devastation worse. Eventually, I figured out better ways to teach writing in order to get my students to write the way I hoped they would, which was, of course, more like me. When I taught college students at U of C, I went to their Center for Teaching and Learning and found out more about what teachers call "alignment" of assessment and teaching.

But it was only when I took some real courses in education, when I got my M.A.T. a couple of years ago, that I discovered a whole other world of literature and habits of mind that could make me into a better teacher of writing. Most of the writers of my favorite books about teaching have been around for awhile--since the late 80s, in some cases, when I was learning to write as an elementary school student.

The new Common Core State Standards still, like the old standards, emphasize and expect expository writing with clear claims and supporting evidence and so on. But the shortcuts will stay the same. And CPS's new "Performance-Based Assessments" also expect the same, as well as a graphic organizer that must be completed in order to earn full credit.

I just wish that K-12 ed and English ed would actually sit down and talk to each other about the kind of writing they want to see, and how to get there, because I think we do a lot of un-teaching when we could actually be doing re-teaching or scaffolding, also known as "spiraling." I think we laugh because we feel out of control. But maybe, with a little bit more communication, we could spiral writing instruction into control.

Maybe, but no promises, I will write future posts on how English teachers teach writing and grammar. I think my friends who are English professors or trained as English PhDs might have something to gain from knowing about things like the 6 +1 Traits of Writing....just like one of my friends told me that "I do, we do, you do" (aka gradual release of responsibility) is very useful for teaching college students.


  1. I'm a big fan of mimetic learning, as I am a fan of mimetic everything; but is there as much a problem with throwing students into the mimetic deep end in high school as (I would argue) there is in college. That is, at the UofC, we'd get first-year students and they'd be hit with Foucault, Derrida, etc. right out of the gate. And so, naturally, some of the first papers were always trying too hard to sound like something that was too far from what they were familiar with. Is the solution to ramp up, present peer rather than iconic models, or what? (I hope the answer isn't to help them express their unique voice--ugh--but at the same time I hope the answer isn't to make them uncomfortable with their own voice.)

    1. Ben,

      I think the force of your question (dread WBM word) is that of the pace of learning. This is obviously always dictated by some sort of compromise, whether tacit or explicit, between teacher and student. I think the problem is that many teachers who are less experienced or less trained in pedagogy get it in their heads that they can dictate the pace of learning, which leads to the usual responses to dictatorship: pain, depression, rebellion, and/or mimesis. You'll recall our discussion about WBM and "getting in the mix." That's a notoriously Hopkins (and U of C) style of teaching: throw them in the deep end and see if they can already swim. But a lot of people end up drowning, metaphorically, wouldn't you say? The key word in your question is the ramp. How steep or shallow a ramp does someone need before they can start swimming in the deep end? In my teaching philosophy, it's up to the teacher to provide the ramp, and to be as transparent as possible with the student about their place on the ramp, how long they might need to use the ramp, and where they can expect to get to. I guess that's because I'm not a teaching Darwinist.

    2. "A lot of people end up drowning." Or, for some of us, learning to dog paddle furiously in a way that serves them in the moment, but becomes woefully inadequate in deeper waters. The first habit I learned in grad school was to translate my vague, intuitive, not-always-wrong first responses into something that sounded like (but wasn't) fully-formed thought. This habit got me positive reenforcement but became an impediment to learning pretty quickly. But how are you going to abandon it when looking dumb is a sin?

      As for the students, I keep giving them real-world examples, but I try to explain that I'm not doing it for them to imitate, just to see what the form _can_ look like. But honestly, it often just confuses them. In my experience, if they don't understand why they're doing something, they feel like their class time is getting wasted, and that makes them incredibly frustrated. So I'm re-thinking it, or re-framing it, or something.

    3. Amy, thanks for your thoughtful responses! It sounds like you are being an awesome teacher for your students, which doesn't surprise me in the least (if looking dumb at the U of C is a sin, then you must be in U of C heaven now, since I never saw you looking any way other than brilliant and fabulous at the same time.)

      Keep using real world examples, and have the students identify what they see. If they can point to it in someone else's writing, then they are on their way to being able to use it.

      I may have mentioned this to you before, but I think you would like Bloom's Taxonomy of understanding. It seems as if every time I hear from you, I learn that your students are able to define everything but identify nothing. Bloom explained this by pointing out that identifying is one step harder than defining, and doing is the hardest of all. You can check it out here:'s_Taxonomy

  2. I wrote against the 5-paragraph essay last May on the White Rhino Blog. You can check out my view here:

    1. I actually read your blog post in a department meeting. We both worked at the same school, at different times! I enjoy reading your blog. Thanks for reading mine!

  3. Upon rereading your piece, though, Salazar, I would take exception to your claim that the basic organization is "bad writing." It's not the most beautiful or subtle kind of writing, but it's very easy to read and write this way quickly, which some people need to be able to do--lawyers and doctors, for example. Now, we might not want our students to grow up to be lawyers and doctors, but if it's what they want, then we should teach them how to written the way lawyers and doctors write. Because so many kids only have one chance to impress an admissions committee with their writing.

  4. Thanks for reading, Melissa. The traditional five-paragraph essay is bad argumentative writing. It's unengaging. There's no need to read beyond the first paragraph because all the info has been revealed. I got an email from a former student who is now a lawyer after he read my post and he, too, discussed how useless the five-paragraph essay is. They didn't accept it in his program (I don't think this would go over well at UofC either). He told me about other forms his field used to present arguments and implications. This unengaging form is really only appropriate for expository writing and really only useful as a comprehension check. As I mentioned in the blog post, students who began their AP exam essays with this form rarely demonstrated mastery based on the AP rubric. As far as admissions application essays go, I also push my students away from this traditional five-paragraph form. There are narrative forms we can use. I added a post about this on my blog. The rudimentary form lends itself to timed, standardized essays. But Common Core will hopefully demand more of students than the ACT writing exam did. Unfortunately, that contributed to the popularity of the five paragraphs. Our students are capable of deeper thinking.

    1. Ray, clearly, I agree with you. But our students have the deck stacked very much against them in our educational system. And I'm sure you'll agree it's very hard to change the system. But values like "good" and "bad" writing are a social construction, just like race is a social construction. As I write above, most of my friends who are English professors would rather die a thousand deaths than bread a thousand essays on which students talk about how they feel. Because multiculturalism is dead at the university level, my friends are often unaware of how culturally loaded their expectations are, but if we want to prepare our students for those expectations, then I'm suggesting that using expository form as a form and teaching expository writing as a genre is a very useful life skill outside a university setting. We all have friends who have "made it" to high levels of our society without good writing training. But the answer is to train students better, not to make take a stand on the grounds of a cultural difference that is not felt universally. As for CPS's REACH system as a response to common core, those still seem like they demand a multi-paragraph, expository style, not a narrative style. The 11th grade reach assessment was clearly written by a drunk republican.

  5. This is great, Melissa. Thanks for writing it. Coincidentally, you posted this on the day I had to grade my first batch of papers. What a bloodbath. I sweated through weeks of writes and re-writes, peer critique, class discussion, lectures about stakes and hooks and flow. The resulting papers were awful.

    Guess what I assigned them this week? Haha.

    The plan this quarter is to do several variations on the FPE in a row, quickly - adapting the form to various genres, stretching and flexing it, but hopefully strengthening the basic form through repetition. I might be swinging the pendulum back too far the other way. But I am discovering that throwing vague, lumpy metaphors at them in the hopes that they will develop an intuition around writing just makes them anxious. (And probably just reenacts the trauma of having vague, lumpy theoretical terms thrown at me in grad school with no guidance whatsoever about how to use them.) At the end of the day they have to go home and stare at a blank piece of paper or computer screen just like I do. The format may be a crutch, but if it helps relieve their anxiety enough to loosen up their brains, it's worth it for now.

    Maybe the answer lies in showing how and why the scaffolding works, rather than just repeating it unto memorization? But honestly, for now, some of them just need to just memorize it. It seems like the most valuable thing about the 5-paragraph structure is that it sort of teaches them to make sense. It teaches them to make writing choices that may seem counter-intuitive (like putting the thesis in the intro, which I still believe is important to learn before you break it).

    Most of all it teaches them the difference between writing and reading, which is a lesson even the most advanced students need to learn. I have one student who has a lot of ability but is incredibly dense about this. She loves to write but has never learned to write a grammatically correct sentence or order her ideas. Every time I point something out to her, she fires back, "Yeah, I did that on purpose, that means XYZ." And I have to point out to her that if a reasonably intelligent reader (me) cannot understand it, then it doesn't matter what she thinks it means. The FPE is about learning to place the reader uber alles.

    I say all this, but I haven't gotten the next batch of papers back yet. Pray for me.