by Tricia Ebarvia
This article was originally published at movingwriters.org.
“What do you think about when you hear the word essay?”
A moment of silence. Some confused looks. Others, blank stares. A few, smirks.
It’s late afternoon, September, last period. My AP Lang class and I are in the midst of finishing up our discussion of Joan Didion’s wonderful essay, “On Keeping a Notebook.” It’s a relatively small class: twenty-one mostly juniors who come together at the end of each day to read, write, talk, laugh, and yes, learn. It’s one of those classes that—less than a month into the school year—has already started to feel like a writing community.
“I like to start the year with ‘On Keeping a Notebook’ for a few different reasons,” I tell students. First, I explain, we’ll be keeping our own notebooks throughout the year. Our notebooks are the building block of our writerly lives, and I encourage students to use their notebooks beyond our classroom walls. For Didion, a notebook was a place to remember how it felt to be her. 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. It’s yours. Don’t let it be a place that only has writing prompts from Mrs. Ebarvia.” (Side note: Talking about myself—or my teacher-self—in the third person is becoming habit, I fear. I wonder what it means.)
We also read Didion’s essay because it’s simply a beautiful piece of writing. I find that many high school students often need to be reminded that English is a language art. We could all do better to notice the beauty found in the words we encounter. As my students and I have discovered over the last few days, Didion is a master of the great sentence—a sentence whose structure and parts, language and rhythm, are crafted in such a way that gives the ideas clarity and grace.
“Finally,” I say to students, “We also read Didion’s piece because it’s a wonderful example of an essay.”
And that’s when I ask my question, “What do you think about when you hear the word essay?”
A moment of silence. Some confused looks. Others, blank stares. A few, smirks.
After a moment, the first hand goes up. “Five paragraphs,” one student says.
Encouraged, more students offer responses: “Structured.” “Rigid.” “Intro, body, and conclusion.” “Thesis statement.” “Argumentative.” “Research.” “Formal.” “School assignment.”
I then ask, “How much of what you just said describes Didion’s essay?”
Not much at first glance. Yes, it does have structure. And yes, her essay has an intro, body, and conclusion. But Didion’s essay is neither five paragraphs, nor is it rigid. Not in any way. It uses a first-person point-of-view, it shifts and moves, wonders and supposes. It’s the type of essay that Katherine Bomer so eloquently describes in The Journey is Everything:
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.
When I ask a follow-up, “What’s the difference between Didion’s essay and the ones you just described?” a student says, not-so-quietly, “It’s well-written.”
His classmates laugh. They know he’s right.
Their responses aren’t unexpected. During our discussion, I admit to students that I’ve been guilty of (over)teaching the 5-paragraph essay. I also tell them, however, that the longer I teach, the more I realize that some of my former teaching practices weren’t always best practices, though I didn’t realize it at the time (former students: my apologies). But when you know better, you do better. Some students seem surprised to hear a teacher admit such a thing, but it’s all about having growth mindset, right?
Every year, when I ask students to tell me what they know about writing, they almost always recite a list of rules. They tell me how they were taught to never start a sentence with because, how the thesis statement always goes at the end of the introduction, how thesis statements need three reasons, how first person isn’t allowed in formal essays, how paragraphs are 6-8 sentences long, and on and on. When students find out later that these rules aren’t really rules at all, they feel offended. As perhaps they should be.
I’m not sure we—and by we, I mean me, too—are very good at teaching writing as a way of thinking. That writing is a way to discover what we think as much as it is to express what we know (or think we know). After all, the etymology of the word essay is attempt. An essay is a way to test and tease out an idea. Yet too often we teach essay as being about an answer—often, the answer. We get ahead of ourselves. Even the scientific method, for all its dependence on facts and evidence, isn’t really about the answer. It’s about answers, plural. It’s about getting closer—through repeated observation, approximation, and experimentation—to a deeper understanding of the world around us. Only then can something become a law, like gravity; otherwise, it’s all hypothesis.
Shouldn’t that be how we approach writing, how we frame essays? As a way of getting to an answer, perhaps one of many, in order to better understand the world around us?
Instead, I’ve been guilty of sending the message—directly and indirectly—that students need to have the answer when they write. That they must prove, beyond all reasonable doubt, that the conch is a symbol of civilization in Lord of the Flies because of three very specific reasons outlined in a thesis statement found at the end of an introduction.
Much has already been written about the limitations of the 5-paragraph essay form. In particular, I’d suggest looking up what college educators Paul Thomas and John Warner have written on the topic. While I suspect that many readers of this blog have already moved beyond the 5-paragraph essay, I admit that I have only recently begun to break free of this form. As another school year gets underway, and before we settle back into tried-but-not-true practices, I thought I’d share how my own thinking about the 5-paragraph essay form has been challenged and how my practices have shifted, finally, to writing in the wild.
For years, I taught the 5-paragraph essay to my ninth-graders. And I was good at it. I think one reason I taught it for so long was because it was all I ever knew as a teacher. Let’s face it, teacher preparation programs don’t generally do a good job at teaching writing instruction. I went to the University of Pennsylvania for my graduate program, and while I learned a lot about education as a whole, two methods classes aren’t enough to teach anyone about what it really means to be a writer or to teach writing to others. As a young, new teacher, I welcomed the structure—yes, the rigidness—that the 5-paragraph essay offered. 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.
The 5-paragraph essay was also easier to grade. 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. To approach writing instruction sans formula is messy. Really 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. My own inexperience in teaching students to write sans formula was reflected in the writing they produced. Their writing was messy. I questioned myself. I wondered if I made a mistake.
But when you know better, you do better.
“Baby steps,” my teacher-friends tell me whenever they sense my frustrations. And they have a point. Even a small step is a step in the right direction. 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. As one of my mentors often tells me, “Be forgiving. Not just of students. That’s easy. Be forgiving of yourself, too. Change is hard.”
Yet sometimes the only way to fix something broken is to just get rid of it. 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). Richardson argued for urgency in our approach to the challenges schools faced. 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. For example, we might make improvements to standardized tests, but we don’t question enough if standardized tests themselves aren’t the problem. Instead, we make incremental changes to things that don’t work. What if we just did the things that actually work?
And so it is with writing. For a long time, I used a Band-Aid approach to teach writing. When students had trouble adhering to the 5-paragraph structure, I scaffolded my instruction to make it easier for them to follow. I created more handouts, more step-by-step instructions, more templates. Fit your ideas into this fill-in-the-blank, I encouraged them. No wonder when I started to teach eleventh- and twelfth-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. And generally, they produced writing that fit the criteria I outlined. I became the victim of my own success.
A common argument for the 5-paragraph essay is that it can be a useful tool for students to organize their ideas. I don’t disagree that students need tools. We all need help when we are learning something, especially something as complex as writing. But there are a few problems with this approach. One, most students never move beyond this single tool. To counter this, we tell ourselves that we’ll just teach other types of writing alongside the 5-paragraph essay.
This suggestion, however, has never felt right to me. It seems like a good compromise: we’ll keep the 5-paragraph essay and just add other types of writing. But what looks like compromise is just more work—more work doing something that 1) may be ineffective, and 2) most teachers simply don’t have time to do. In practice, we prioritize the 5-paragraph essay and if we have enough time (which we never do), we tell ourselves we’ll teach other forms of writing (which we really don’t).
Then there’s this argument: “Students can’t even do the 5-paragraph essay, so how can they do other types of writing?” This reasoning assumes that the 5-paragraph essay is a prerequisite to more complex forms of writing. I would argue that it’s not. In fact, I would argue that there are many people who go on to become competent writers without mastering the 5-paragraph form (I myself was never taught this way). If anything, I would argue—as others have argued here, here, here, here, here, and here—that the 5-paragraph essay actually inhibits writing development for many more students that it helps.
Here’s an example. Just a few years ago, when I was still knee deep in teaching the 5-paragraph essay, a colleague suggested that I give students the opportunity to choose their own topics, to come up with their own thesis statements instead of writing essays in response to the prompts I’d already created. I thought about it but decided against it. Why? Because whenever I’d given them choice in the past, students would come up with topics that did not easily fit into the 5-paragraph and prescribed thesis statement structure. What they wanted to argue—however complex, authentic, or interesting it might have been—didn’t fit the form.
But this process is precisely the opposite of what should happen. Students’ ideas should determine the form, not the other way around. I also wonder if we inadvertently put students struggling with writing at an even greater disadvantage by withholding more complex forms of writing until they have mastered a not-so-complex template.
Still, some might argue that learning the 5-paragraph essay is just a stepping stone. At the heart of this argument, however, is that the 5-paragraph essay is easy. And for some students, maybe it is (but if it’s easy, isn’t that a problem?). But one could also argue that the 5-paragraph essay isn’t easy at all. It’s not easy to fit complex ideas into a simple structure. In fact, it’s quite hard. Which is why students either have to make their ideas simpler or find another form. I’d rather students find another form.
But students still need a tool, don’t they? For years, I taught the 5-paragraph essay because it was the only tool I knew. But why not give students a better one? Or many better ones? Requiring students to master the 5-paragraph essay structure before moving on to other forms of writing is like asking a carpenter to master the hammer before moving on to a wrench, screwdriver, or level. If a carpenter wants to build a house, we don’t tell her that she can only use a hammer. A carpenter doesn’t waste time and energy building a house with only a hammer when there are better tools available.
Finally, there’s the much bigger problem with the 5-paragraph essay, one that I only really appreciated when I started teaching AP Lang a few years ago. It’s a problem of authenticity. As my eleventh- and twelfth-graders and I read examples of professional writing, as we read examples of argument in the real world, it became clear that 5-paragraph essays don’t exist out there in the wild. Instead, 5-paragraph essays flourish almost exclusively in middle and high school academic settings. And no, students do not need to know the 5-paragraph essay for college. Many college writing instructors loathe the form and argue against it. And while it may be true that standardized tests favor the 5-paragraph essay, I would argue that teaching to the test—while sometimes necessary—shouldn’t be the driving force of our pedagogy.
And so when one of my students said he associated the word essay with “school assignment,” his response was telling. Years ago, in Readicide, Kelly Gallagher warned that we were killing students’ love of reading with some of our practices. We faced—and still face—a fake-reading problem in our classrooms. I wonder if we have a fake-writing problem, too. Students may comply and complete the writing tasks we assign, but are they engaged? To students, writing is more about task completion than it is about meaning-making. But as Bomer points out:
When writing is taught as a formula, students fail to discover that their writing can truly engage readers. And they have little chance to fall in love with writing, to feel how fun it can be, and to see how writing can help them solve problems and figure things out.
When I first started to teach AP Lang, I found myself frustrated at having to unteach the 5-paragraph essay. And my students were frustrated, too. That’s when I began to wonder: if my students don’t need the 5-paragraph essay in 11th or 12th grade, then why am I spending so much time teaching it in 9th grade? Even in literature-based courses like AP Lit (which I have also taught), students need skills in writing literary analysis, not 5-paragraph essays.
So what can we do instead? Many educators—many far smarter than me—have ideas on alternative approaches. Paul Thomas, who has written extensively about this topic on his blog and for NCTE, suggests teaching students about genre awareness:
Foster genre awareness in students while interrogating authentic texts (and rejecting artificial writing templates). As Kenney details, writing templates may prepare students for artificial demonstrations of literacy (high-stakes tests), but they ultimately fail authentic writing and literacy goals. Published writing nearly never follows the 5-paragraph essay template, and the whole thesis idea is equally rare in published writing. Students as writers need to be eager readers who are encouraged to mine that reading constantly for greater genre awareness about how any writer makes a piece what the writer is seeking to accomplish. What is an op-ed? A memoir? Investigative journalism? A feature story on an Olympic athlete?
Other teachers, like Chicago educator Ray Salazar, suggest that if you must teach a form and give students a tool, then teach not the 5-paragraph essay but the classical Aristotelian argument structure. At least this is a structure that does live in the real world.
When I decided to stop teaching the 5-paragraph essay to my own ninth-graders last year, I took this approach. I called it the 5-part essay, which includes the introduction, narration, confirmation, refutation, and conclusion. It’s a form that asks students to think about the purpose of each part of the essay. It asks students consider audience. It asks students to weigh evidence. It asks students to determine how many paragraphs they need instead of how many paragraphs a teacher requires. Students still needed a tool, I knew, but at least this one could more easily transfer to other types of writing. In fact, one of my students said that she could see how this structure would have been helpful in writing her social studies paper.
Or if not the Aristotelian approach, then why not the Rogerian method? This is, again, another form of writing—really, of thinking—that exists out in the wild. Last spring on Moving Writers, I shared one version of the Rogerian method, what I called the CFC (Commonplace-First Glance-Closer Look) approach. It’s a form that can not only be applied to literary analysis, but also transfers to other writing contexts.
And speaking of Moving Writers, readers know that there is no shortage of suggestions and ideas for authentic writing experiences on this blog, not to mention Rebekah and Allison’s book Writing with Mentors. One of my favorites is Karla Hillard’s post, “The Narrative of Learning Essay: Personal Narrative Meets Literary Analysis” and the wonderful series, “Writing Workshop Transforms Literary Analysis, Too.” Let’s give students authentic mentor texts for writing analysis, let’s share with students what essays—out in the wild—really look like and ask them to join the conversation out there rather than confine them to lessons learned only in classrooms.
After going back and forth with many titles, I finally settled on “Writing in the Wild.” One, the title is a nod to not only Katherine Bomer’s work, but also to Donalyn Miller’s wonderful book Reading in the Wild, in which she argues for giving students opportunities for authentic reading experiences, and I suppose my ultimate goal is the same, but for writing.
I also chose “Writing in the Wild” because I realized that what kept me from moving beyond the 5-paragraph essay was something to be celebrated not avoided. Instead of limiting students to fake-writing assignments, one that may be easier to tame (i.e. teach and grade), what I really need to provide for my students are opportunities to write in the wild. It’s messy, to be sure, and I don’t know a single teacher who likes messy. But it’s the process of making meaning amidst that messiness where the important stuff happens—writing, and yes, thinking.