In my previous post, I summed up arguments for and against the five-paragraph essay as an assignment. You might have gotten the impression that I think the FPE needs to be staked through the heart and buried at the crossroads of Boring Assignment Avenue and Stunted Critical Thinking Skills Street (rough neighborhood). You would be correct.
Let me pause for a moment, though: I decry the FPE because of the way that it is used, overused, and abused in k-12 education in America. There may be teachers who teach writing effectively using the FPE in small doses, in moderation, in ways that emphasize real learning instead of merely having students go through the motions and fill in the blanks. If that were always the case, we wouldn’t have a problem. But we do.
My first-year college students frequently come to me having done FPEs to death. In some cases, when they think of the word “essay” it is precisely the FPE that comes to mind, because that is all they know. Excessive focus on standardized testing doesn’t help matters, since the FPE is commonly seen as a solution to the problem of how to approach the writing portions of standardized tests. These students have been on a hamster wheel their whole educational careers, spinning along on the same narrow track.
Then those students get to college, and…
…That happens. (I really hope that hamster is ok. It has to be, right? No one would put a tragic hamster suicide-by-wheel up on YouTube. I have to believe that.)
I’ve had students tell me about high school classes in which their instructors not only created FPE outlines for them to follow, the instructor told them what to write about in each of the three body paragraphs. In Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Freire calls this the “banking” model of education, and decries what it does to students:
It turns them into “containers,” into “receptacles” to be “filled” by the teacher. The more completely she fills the receptacles, the better a teacher she is. The more meekly the receptacles permit themselves to be filled, the better students they are.
You could also call this the “vomit” model of education. Tell students things. Have them vomit those things back to you. Repeat until graduation, and never trouble yourself about whether students can create new knowledge, transform knowledge, or even begin to formulate questions about what constitutes knowledge or the known.
There are many reasons why the vomit model of education is so prevalent in the US, and although I don’t have time to go into them now, I don’t think individual teachers should shoulder most of the blame. Teachers mostly do their best in a bad system.
But still. These (hopefully) bright-eyed eager beavers show up in my class, ready to swallow whatever I give them to read for precisely as long as they need to until they can haphazardly spew it back out and return it to me in that handy little puke bucket, the five-paragraph essay.
My goal as a teacher, in first-year composition, is to flip that bucket upside down and drop kick it across the room. (Metaphorically.)
I do that by assigning students a five-paragraph essay on the five-paragraph essay. I know. It’s diabolical.
In the very first unit of the course, I have my students read and respond to several articles offering varying perspectives on the FPE — usually the same articles I mentioned in my previous post. This helps them get acclimated to the types of writing in academic journals (like English Journal), and gives them practice writing both concise summaries of, and detailed responses to, the arguments of others.
Then they have to craft their own stance on the FPE, and argue that stance in a FPE, with all the traditional constraints. They have to introduce the topic in the intro and list their three main points in a thesis statement at the end of the intro, argue those three main points in the body paragraphs, and sum up their argument in a concluding paragraph. Students are expected to use examples from their own experiences as students in addition to details from the readings to support their arguments.
That’s not all! In addition to writing the five-paragraph essay on the five-paragraph essay, my students write a cover letter addressed to me, telling me about the experience of writing the five-paragraph essay on the five-paragraph essay. Specifically, I ask them to reflect on how the restrictive format helped or hindered them as they tried to give shape and voice to their argument.
I’ve done this unit several times now, and the results are consistent: the five-paragraph essays tend to be pretty lousy. Because students see upsides and downsides to the assignment and want to address both, they struggle to write a coherent “list” thesis. Their arguments are simplistic. They struggle to incorporate both their own experiences and evidence from the readings. They all sound more or less the same — using the voice students adopt when writing for school.
In stark contrast, the cover letters are tend to be interesting, expressive, vivid, and much more well-written. They are a genuine pleasure to read, and I learn a great deal about my students by reading them. The organization often falters, as students struggle with the decision to write a more linear narrative or employ some other sort of structure, but the writing tends to be much stronger at the paragraph and especially at the sentence level than in the essays, so I have much to praise as I try to highlight for each student the strengths as a writer he or she is bringing to the class — the strengths we will build on.
Together, we’re able to use this experience to consciously gather up what good has come of the student’s prior experiences as a writer, and discard what is no longer useful. Students notice the invisible training wheels that have been weighing them down, and begin to dismantle them. It’s a process. But this assignment is a good start.
Interested in adapting this assignment for your own classroom? You can find a much more detailed unit overview, a sample assignment sheet, and the slideshow I used to present on this unit at NCTE 2013 on the resource page here.