This semester I have been thinking about, reading about, and looking up alternatives to the five paragraph essay. I feel that I’m at a good point in my learning to take stock of what I’ve discovered and invite some feedback.
It probably comes as no surprise that I have become disenchanted with the five paragraph (or 32-sentence) essay. Why? I believe that thoughtful writing is a critical skill that we teachers have the opportunity to encourage our students to develop. I do not believe that every piece of thoughtful writing can be expressed in five neat paragraphs: introduction, three arguments, and conclusion. I believe that the structure of writing should emerge from the ideas and assist in expressing them, rather than strong-arming them into a neat format that, coincidentally, is easy to mark.
Five-paragraph essays are tidy; emerging thinking is not. I wonder if by relying on formulaic writing we are insulating ourselves from the messiness of teaching students how to develop and express an opinion? Teaching a form is relatively easy: a couple of fill-in-the-blank forms go a long way to completing the lesson. Encouraging students to develop and express their ideas is entirely different.
So in the upcoming days, I’ll examine alternatives to the five-paragraph essay that I’ve encountered. Some of these alternatives I’ve tried out in some fashion; some I haven’t yet.
Here’s what’s in store:
- Collaborative essays
- Scripted dialogue
- Reading narratives
- Multi-genre papers
- And what I’m calling “The Organic Essay”
One final note: Many of you will recognize Bruce Pirie’s fingerprints all over this series. It would be hard to overestimate the impact that his writing has had on my own teaching practice. If you haven’t read his Reshaping High School English or Teenage boys and high school English, I cannot recommend them highly enough. (If you’re an Ontario teacher, you can borrow a copy from the Ontario College of Teachers library — if I don’t have it out at the time, of course.)
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