Rethinking Five Paragraphs
When I was a young high school English teacher, teaching the five-paragraph essay—introduction, three body paragraphs, conclusion—made sense. It was organized, easily understood by students, and (best of all) fairly easy to grade. And because I needed a philosophical justification for such a regimented approach, I never missed an opportunity to remind my students that the structure was actually derived from Aristotelian principles of logic. Who better than Aristotle to endorse your lesson plan?
Now, flash forward 20 years. In today's classroom, students slink down in their chairs to check incoming text messages on their cell phones. But the funny thing is that these text messages are often actually from their parents simply checking in throughout the school day. From play dates to prom dates, there isn't a more supervised generation than this one. But this hyperconnectedness comes with a cost: When do we hand over the reins? How do we teach kids to develop critical-thinking skills when we're doing so much of the thinking for them? If we're always connected to our kids, when do they learn to form their own opinions?
In answering these questions, I finally came to the conclusion that the five-paragraph essay just no longer serves kids in the 21st century. After all, it also does too much of the thinking for kids. Instead of allowing a writer to decide how many paragraphs best support a controlling idea, the five-paragraph essay demands—and limits the writer to—three.
And not only were my students complaining that they found the structure too constraining, but so were the very college professors I'd be turning them over to when they graduated. In fact, on its website the College Board explicitly recognizes the limitations of the five-paragraph essay on the grounds that it "fail[s] to engage the reader." In the supersaturated market of 21st century discourse, what could be more important than teaching our students how to grab and hold a reader's attention? I knew I'd have to free them to write the way real writers write in magazines, editorials, and even blogs.
However, we can't just tell our students not to write a five-paragraph essay; we have to actively teach them out of it. Toward that end, a few colleagues and I developed an approach that seeks to do just that: move writers beyond the five-paragraph structure toward a new, more flexible blueprint that mimics the way professional writers write. We call this new type of essay the Jumping off the Text (or JOT) essay.
The text in this case is anything that raises our "writer's eyebrow"—a concept from literature, a key finding in biology class, even a YouTube video everyone's talking about. Using these provocative texts as springboards, students summarize the interesting features of the text under scrutiny and then launch a provocative, rhetorical question or statement about the concept. Instead of giving away the goods in the first paragraph via the three-part parallel thesis, we save the most provocative point for the end—what is sometimes called a "delayed thesis."
Using The Great Gatsby as a springboard text, for example, one of my students asked, "Has it now become possible for people to actually repeat the past as Jay Gatsby once wished?" He then explored the myriad ways recent presidential candidates were recycling the ideas of past presidents such as Kennedy, Clinton, and Reagan. Ultimately, he concluded, "Maybe, instead of imitating past leaders, our politicians would be better off revisiting an even older idea: know thyself."
This approach takes time and effort, and we've had to develop many templates and models to scaffold the skills kids need to be successful. But the payoff is worth it; these essays are fresh; original; and, frankly, more fun to grade. Of course, I still have to train my kids how to use the five-paragraph essays for standardized tests, but now more than ever, in this world of Facebook and Twitter, our students need to learn the crucial notion of audience. In other words, five-paragraph essays can serve a student well in certain timed-writing situations. But understanding how to craft a message for different audiences requires an elasticity of mind and fluidity with genre that can't be achieved by a fill-in-the-blank approach.
Freedom can be a little scary. Kids sometimes even panic when they are told they can decide how many paragraphs their essay needs. It can be shocking for them to find out that, yes, sometimes a paragraph has only three sentences. But once they begin to craft work that is engaging, inventive, and modeled after the 21st century discourse they see all around them, kids develop a style and a voice that is truly their own. And as Aristotle once noted, "Change in all things is sweet."
Kate Glass is cofounder of 21stcenturyteaching.org, a foundation dedicated to the creation and promotion of literacy tools for educators. A 20-year veteran of the profession, Glass teaches AP Language and Composition, humanities, and other English classes at Buffalo Grove High School in Buffalo Grove, Ill.
ASCD Express, Vol. 5, No. 23. Copyright 2010 by ASCD. All rights reserved. Visit www.ascd.org/ascdexpress.