After doing conferences and getting final drafts for their second essay, I am surprised by how well my comp students are doing. I think the majority of them* are now to the point where they can take a strong basic side in an argument and write a nice clear 5-paragraph style essay. If you are horrified by the fact that we are halfway through the semester to get to this point or that I consider this adequate to pass comp 101, then so be it. In spring I had students who were on round one million of 101 and still couldn't figure out how to capitalize anything or to write complete sentences. I think I lucked out and got a good batch this time of students who have some basic smarts or training** and can grasp a new writing style with some models.
Ok ... so what next? One nice thing about switching to a new comp reader and handbook (besides sample essays for them to look at) is that the handbook came with an instructor's guide, mainly of instructions for how to build a syllabus, but also with some suggested assignments, which were helpful. But one thing that irked me when I reread it today was how so many of the instructions told you to not teach the "formulaic" 5-P essay or that topic sentences didn't have to be at the beginning of a paragraph (making me feel crappy for beating structure into their heads) and then the sample paragraph or bit of writing they had for us to bring in to class was a perfectly formulaic paragraph. Humph.
It made me think about why we teach the 5-paragraph essay at all. First of all, I think it is necessary at a particular developmental stage. When I worked at that for-profit k-12 tutoring center in their writing program, I mainly
worked with middle-school boys who hated writing and may or may not have had ADD. Their inability to understand essay structure totally meshed with the developmental stuff the center trained us on: they were just incapable of thinking very abstractly or structurally (the kids a bit younger than them were totally unable to really understand "people" in the abstract, that there were groups of people out there in the world who the kids didn't know and who didn't think or act anything like the kids) and you needed a strong framework that you could beat into their writing. You also needed a strong checklist because the boys hated writing and sitting still and making them write was a constant battle of: "Write a sentence. No, 'I ran' is too short. Write three paragraphs of five sentences each and each sentence has
to be at least 10 words. Sit down. Sit down. I will count every word! Focus back on your paper." When you get students tell you a sentence has to be this long or a paragraph has to be this many sentences, you are probably seeing the result of beating a bare minimum amount of effort into them, effort that they have then incorrectly understood the point of. (Quality
, or grades, don't motivate at this age --- not if their parents eventually felt they needed to bring their kids to the tutoring center.)
And man, that was my spring class! Two sentences is the minimum! You need more than that in your paragraphs! Stop hyperventilating; yes, you can
write a whole four pages! Just try!
But I think the other reason we over-rely on the 5-P essay is because it can
be taught. And it can be assessed
. I used to fret and worry about whether you could actually teach writing for the longest time, that whole "writing can't be taught/you just pick it up on your own," debate, not seeing any improvement in my classes, until I got good at teaching the 5-P essay. Now I can take students from unorganized crap to clearly organized simplistic thinking. But this comes at the expense of the actual content and development of their ideas, which get a little cramped and lopped-off when squished into the 5-P mold. And it is easy to grade on a checklist because you are looking for clear parts in a clear order and everything must be in a specific place for it to count. Makes grading faster, too. No wonder the SAT writing section and all sorts of essay testing services grade to that format, to say nothing of the poor overworked high school teachers. It takes a lot longer to think about whether this point that might be the thesis here in paragraph two is actually a worthwhile stylistic choice to build up slowly to the thesis --- and often takes reading the essay twice before making a single mark on it --- than to look at the end of the first paragraph and then the first sentence of each following paragraph and check it off.
And my students seem to like it (with one exception) because writing is hard and it's reassuring and fairly pleasant to follow a formula instead of the trackless desert of blank paper. After reading several models and doing a workshop on a three-point thesis and peer reviewing two separate student groups, they pretty well have a grasp on what a three-point thesis should look like. The exception, of course, is that I want four-page essays from them and the 5-P essay doesn't stretch quite that far, so they often get stuck on what they should do to add a paragraph to the structure.
So now that they have been familiarized with this structure (I'm not going to say "mastered" yet), I am stumped. How do you teach students to go beyond the 5-P essay? How do you tell them "here's a rigid and constraining formula you have to use" and then go to complete structureless freedom? How do you go from a simplistic one-size-fits-all --- ooh, Procrustean works even better there --- to, "you should let the content and purpose of your various writings determine their form." Once again I am back to "can you even teach students to write?" Sigh.
I mentioned to my officemate that I was getting really strange penultimate paragraphs --- sometimes completely off topic, sometimes two separate conclusions, sometimes "background" that was so obvious it was clearly padding, and my officemate mentioned the point that the 5-P essay is too short to follow blindly. "I wish I had some other sort of essay structure to teach them that was, like, one level up in difficulty from the 5-P," I said. "Like what, the ... 8 paragraph essay?" she snorted. "Yes, totally! That's it!" There's a huge jump from simple structure to complete freedom in writing, and so much variety in my anthology's text they hardly work as "models." What I want is some sort of semi-flexible form my students could both copy and tweak, so that we don't have to regress to complete structurelessness when I push them to complicate their analysis and extend their papers.
Can somebody please invent this?
* I have quite a few that didn't bring drafts to peer review or have had "troubles" getting in the final draft and who are never paying attention during class. If they're not mentally there I'm not counting them as part of my class.
** I have a couple who took honors English but haven't been asked to write an essay for two years. And another who said he went to a bad school: "man, I cut class almost every day and still I got Bs. I didn't even show up!" But I have a lot who were very familiar with the whole concept map-outline-draft-revision thing.