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The Five-Paragraph Essay

May 17, 2012

Teacher Musings:
There was a time when I was proud to say that I could get my urban high school students to produce five-paragraph essays.  I had all the tools: the graphic organizers, the sentence starters, the outlines that told them what each sentence should have, etc.  I really thought I was doing the right thing, preparing my students for college, getting them to be good “academic” writers.  Part of me knew that I didn’t write five-paragraph essays in college, but somehow I thought this essay that *everyone* taught was a mystical stepping stone (regardless of the fact that I didn’t remember it ever helping me step towards anything).

When I first moved to Boston I bragged to a colleague about getting my students to write these essays, and she quickly shushed me and told me not to let our boss hear that.  I was a bit flabbergasted, until I started hearing more and more about “beyond” the five-paragraph essay.  The more I learned the more I realized I had been doing my students a disservice on multiple levels.  Firstly, I wasn’t making them do the thinking, since I was “guiding” them rather than having them work through their own process and purpose (see my post “Chaos Theory” for more on this).  Secondly, I was having them write in a form that not only stifled their thinking but wasn’t really going to help them step anywhere.  I could elaborate on this more, but instead I will refer you to a fantastic post I read this week entitled “If You Teach or Write 5-Paragraph Essays–Stop It!”  In this post Ray Salazar explains the limitations on the five paragraph essay and offers (and models) an alternative way of thinking about writing.  I am totally on the same page with him, and reading his post validated the way I have shifted my writing instruction in the past few years.  Now my student’s focus on investigating audience and purpose, and considering multiple organizational structures for their writing that can help them achieve their purpose and reach their audience.  I use a number of common strategies for this, including modeling my own writing process, reading and examining mentor texts with my students and giving students lots of choice in topic, process and product.  Instead of giving the outlines I have them develop outline options depending on their purpose.  I still provide sentence starters, but I also have them chose which ones to use instead of spoon-feeding them each sentence of a useless essay.  And, as a result, they are making true arguments in their writing instead of parroting three disjointed “points” in their three body paragraphs.  So, read Ray’s post – and if you are teaching the five-paragraph essay, stop it!  Or at least comment and tell me what value the five-paragraph essay has that I might be missing.

Yummy Stuff:
Mexican food is one of our more common go-to meals, and that usually involves some refried beans!  As part of our families cost-savings plan, we rarely buy cans of refried beans, and instead we make a delicious version using one of my favorite cooking ingredients – beer!  We had these the other night alongside salsa-rice and grilled onions and peppers.

Refried Black Beans - with Beer!

  • Servings: 4-6
  • Difficulty: easy
  • Print

3 cups of cooked black beans
1 bottle of beer
1 TB of olive oil
1 TB ground cumin
1 tsp chili powder
1/2 cup yellow onion, minced

1) Pour beans in a medium sauce pan over medium heat.  Pour in the beer and mash the beans a bit with a potato masher.  You want some texture – your goal is to mash up about half the beans (or whatever consistency you prefer).  Let this pot cook while you prepare the seasoning.
2) In a separate saute pan, heat the olive oil over medium-high heat.  When the oil is warm, add the cumin and chili and cook for about 30 seconds.
3) Add the onion to the spices, stir to coat, and cook until tender (about 5 minutes)
4) Add the onion and spice mixture to the beans and stir to combine.  Stir and mash the beans for a couple minutes, and then just let them sit and cook.  A crust will form after another few minutes.  Stir the crust into the beans, and then let them cook so another crust forms.  Do this a few times – or as much time as you need to prep other parts of your meal.  Then, serve ’em up!

From → Beans, Dinner, Writing

  1. shannon permalink

    Thanks for this post! I stick with teaching them the formulaic writing because otherwise it’s completely disjointed…but, at the same time, I know how stunting it can be. By the way, I came across your blog through some sort of weird teacher vegan search- I, too, am an English Teachin’ Vegan (in socal).

  2. Thanks so much for the comment Shannon!! I definitely know the feeling of needing structure for student writing – as I let go of it I still haven’t totally found a way to make sure that all students recognize when their own writing is disjointed – and then revise accordingly.

    And it is so cool that you are ALSO and English Teachin’ Vegan! I started my career in the Bay Area (and actually grew up in CA). I would love to know what things are looking like with the CA school system these days.

  3. Having taught upper elementary for a while, I have been a teacher of English and have seen many English teachers. The ones who gravitate toward guiding students in their discovery of reading and writing find their way past the structures and rules that can be used to provide structure and support without stifling creativity and authenticity but rarely do. There are other teachers who are drawn to teach English because they perceive great beauty and security in the rules and structures. These teachers connect well with students who also see the world that way, but they often fail to reach the students who do not. Indeed, they often label these children as poor English learners and even refer them for evaluation.

    So it is wonderful when I read of teachers who recognize the place for structure but also seek teach beyond. I found that when I had students focus on audience and purpose and either gave them or allowed them to find an authentic audience and purpose, their writing became so much more because they were heavily invested in it.

    • I totally agree with this comment – thank you for pointing it out so eloquently! As a student myself I did see the beauty and security in the structures, which is one of the reasons I was a “good” student. This means that it has sometimes been hard for me to see the world through other lenses, but the more students I have the more I am learning to teach others who are *not* like me. I think this is a common issue for teachers in all content areas. As a mentor I have met many other teachers who became teachers in part because they liked school and were good at it. The ones who then go on to be effective for all kids are the ones who realize that they are not teaching themselves, and instead must see the world of school through new eyes.

      And I also love reading student writing where they had choice in audience/purpose!! It is always so much better and more interesting (and therefore fun instead of painful to read) than formulaic writing!

      Thanks for the insightful comment!!

    • Thanks so much for sending this link! This was a great article and gave me some great ideas. I especially appreciated the last paragraph – I think that shifting my goals (for my students, and for me) from “writing for change” to “writing for personal growth and change” has helped us all grow more. Thanks for the recommendation!

Trackbacks & Pingbacks

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