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Much has already been written about the limitations of the 5-paragraph essay form.
First, I explain, we’ll be keeping our own notebooks throughout the year.
“I like to start the year with ‘On Keeping a Notebook’ for a few different reasons,” I tell students.
I created more handouts, more step-by-step instructions, more templates.
Fit your ideas into this fill-in-the-blank, I encouraged them.
And generally, they produced writing that fit the criteria I outlined. A common argument for the 5-paragraph essay is that it can be a useful tool for students to organize their ideas. We all need help when we are learning something, especially something as complex as writing. One, most students never move beyond this single tool.
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To counter this, we tell ourselves that we’ll just teach other types of writing alongside the 5-paragraph essay.After all, I had other things to worry about, like reading all the books I had to teach and managing a classroom of skeptical teenagers. It’s much easier to check if a student’s essay fulfills a template than it is to approach each student essay as its own unique piece of writing, with its own form, structure, purpose, and voice. When students don’t understand something, I try to remember that it’s not only their first time learning something new, but my first time, too. I’ve been thinking a lot about something I heard educator and author Will Richardson say at a conference last spring (and in this TED talk).To approach writing instruction sans formula is messy. Last year, when I decided to try a different approach with my ninth graders, there were many days I went home feeling like the worst teacher in the world. As one of my mentors often tells me, “Be forgiving. Richardson argued for urgency in our approach to the challenges schools faced.As she points out, “We forget all too soon the things we thought we could never forget.We forget the loves and the betrayals alike, forget what we whispered and what we screamed, forget who we were.” Thus, I encourage students, “Don’t wait until class to add something to your notebook. Don’t let it be a place that only has writing prompts from Mrs.No wonder when I started to teach 11th and 12th grade students that they struggled with writing and thinking beyond what the teacher required.They relied on the teacher to tell them what to do and how to do it.It’s the type of essay that Katherine Bomer so eloquently describes in These are essays in the wild, unbounded by rules and regulations, and we know that creatures are happier and more fiercely beautiful in the wilderness than confined in a zoo, like Rilke’s poor panther, who loses his vision of the world, grown weary from constantly passing by the “thousand bars” of his cage.Rather than conforming to the cage bars of any formula or template, these essays are driven by curiosity, passion, and the intricacies of thought.My own inexperience in teaching students to write sans formula was reflected in the writing they produced. A band-aid may be an easier short-term solution, but it often only covers up the real problem.In the United States, we’ve done a good job at doing the wrong things better, Richardson pointed out.