Monday, October 20, 2014

FIVE paragraphs does not equal five pages...

As an English teacher writing lesson plans on a weekend and realizing that Monday is the logical time to visit the next required career essay from her freshmen Info. Literacy students, I was naturally more than excited filled with dread at the prospect of this latest goal for first period Monday morning.  Somebody, somewhere, decided that the "perfect" formula to teach writing is the Never-popular FIVE PARAGRAPH essay.    




It seems so simple:  Introductory paragraph, three strong supporting paragraphs, and a conclusion.  What happens, instead, is that  kids count to five, and stop.  No matter what is in their heads, they are FINISHED at five paragraphs.  This year, I have encountered an even more perplexing phenomenon.  The question, "how many SENTENCES makes a paragraph?"  

"Seriously?  You are a freshman in high school and you want to know the numerical formula I will accept for a paragraph?  You write until you have given all the information you need to give, in a relevant and engaging manner,"  I responded.

"How do I know what is relevant?"  I should have seen that one coming, I guess.  There was no mention of engagement.  So back we went to the basics.  It was then that I realized that going back to the basics is what killed the notion of advanced writing. 

The conversation is even more frustrating for educators when there is a page limit established for a project.  "FIVE PAGES?  How the heck do I write a full page-long paragraph?" 

"Perhaps you write more than five paragraphs...."

"BUT HOW?????"

In the instant nature of twitter and texts, minimalist writing is now the norm.  Of course we are all struggling with the LOLs and CUL8trs, and most kids understand that being cute and writing in textspeak doesn't cut it for formal writing.  What they seem to have missed is the distinct connection between research, writing, and actual thinking, and started teaching a formula that takes the notes from a pre-constructed graphic organizer and translates them into sentences.

Several years ago, Ray Salazar wrote a blog entry entitled If You Teach or Write 5 Paragraph Essays, Stop It!  Truer words have never been written.  Ray's argument is sound, and his formula for success is worthy of consideration by every writer everywhere.  Encouraging kids to put their research into historical or scientific context, questioning cause-effect relationships, and reacting on a personal level, although NOT IN FIRST PERSON, should be a goal of every teacher requesting writing assignments from their learners.

I've mentioned before in this blog that Common Core seems to be lacking the goals or time (or standards) to explicitly teach thought and thinking skills as part of the current generation's education.  Sometimes the implicit needs to be more explicit.  Especially when it comes to written expression.  Somehow, we as educators are responsible (or must be responsible) for finding the time to overcome this oversight.

We can do it, yes we can!  It may mean that we need to ask students to find a meme to express what they truly feel about the topic they are researching, and sketch it on their graphic organizers, but the formula for success is all about thinking, formulating an opinion, and supporting that opinion with analysis and research....

and not using the words I or YOU in the process.