My post is about essays

Teaching students to write an essay with an introduction, three topics supported by examples and a conclusion — the dread five-paragraph essay — quashes creativity, claims a Michael Winerip column in the New York Times. Teachers have no time to help students find their own voice; they’ve got to crank out essays that will earn a passing score on state exams.

In response, four letters to the Times analyze the merits of the five-paragraph essay. I think this one by Matt White is closest to the mark:

The five-paragraph formula is not ideal; it’s not even the ideal formula, but it’s better than nothing. So, too, with standardized writing tests. Let’s be honest: Because of the No Child Left Behind Act’s testing requirement, kids are writing more, the key to improving writing skills, because if they don’t, they fail the standardized test.

American society places great emphasis on individual liberty and intellectual creativity, but students can’t be great creative writers if they are not technically competent. Strong writers don’t need to use the five-paragraph formula; low-proficiency writers, and most school students, are better off using the defective five-paragraph formula than nothing.

I learned expository writing in high school by practicing the 3-3-3 paragraph, a precursor of the five-paragraph essay. We learned to back up our assertions with “concrete and specific” details. We didn’t much like it, but it taught us to think logically and write clearly.

In 2003, Will Fitzhugh of The Concord Review, which recognizes sophisticated history essays, reprinted an essay that received an “excellent” score on the National Assessment of Education Progress exam. Standards aren’t very high. The prompt asked high school seniors to discuss a book which should be saved for future generations.

Creating a literary masterpiece is most likely every writer’s dream, German writer Herman Hesse did so when he wrote Demian, the story of one boy’s coming of age.

Although this novel is not necessarily a blatant American classic, it does have many powerful traits and deserves to be read by any highschooler. In the sense of literary analysis, the novel is an excellent example of Jungian psychology, and serves to chronicle a boy named Emil Sinclair’s individuation, or the process of finding out who he is. High school is a wonderful time of self-discovery, where teens bond with several groups of friends, try different foods, fashions, classes and experiences, both good and bad. The end result in May of senior year is a mature and confident adult, ready to enter the next stage of life. Since Sinclair is going through much of what an average student might (troubles at school, falling in love) relating with and learning from Sinclair is an important aspect of the novel. The novel speaks of two realms: the dark half and the good half, and Sinclair’s early loss of innocence by stealing a few coins from his mother. Many students feel disheartened by the sudden realization that they are no longer children, and long for the ignorant bliss of innocent childhood. Reading about Sinclair s journey through the good and bad realms prepares students for the imminent good and bad experiences in life, and provides them with a hope for the future: that such experiences will leave them a mature and well-rounded adult, full of wisdom and compassion.

If one were to rid the world of books, Demian should be saved because of its profound impact on its readers. It is said that a book is a classic if people continue to read it decades after it is written. I see a classic as nothing more than a literary jewel, polished until society can gaze into it and see a perfect glimpse of itself.

Only the top 1 percent of essays receive the “excellent” rating. And, yes, Demian is not necessarily a blatant German classic.

About Joanne


  1. Linda Reese says:

    The problem with essays lies in the grading, not the writing. Any teacher worth her salary can teach the five paragraph essay or any other formula. But Texas has decided it doesn’t want a formulaic essay; in fact, its graders seem to mark down five paragraphs so we’re reduced to advising students to write four or six. If you’ve got a firm grading rubric, you’ve got a formula. If you don’t, you’ve got personal taste.

    Texas also introduced short written responses to reading passages to be completed within a lined box, but advises teachers their students will need to double up or write between the lines to get the highest score. How intelligent is that? In the real world, writing too long is just as wrong as writing too short.

  2. My problem is the assumption that the only type of writing one is to teach is the dreaded 5P. The 5P is a perfectly useful type of essay and is nicely suited to certain types of writing tasks, such as essay questions on tests. When you use it that way, the students do learn logical writing and how to back up their answers with concrete examples.

    However, it’s a lousy format for other types of writing, especially narratives, personal essays, long research papers, etc. Then one switches to something else. We use 6-Trait from K-12. Voice, sophisticated syntax, and being able to organize a piece according to the subject, length, etc. are all also important writing skills. Who would read Joanne if her blog had no voice?

    All these skills don’t emerge like Athena, fully developed from the student’s head, but they do come together in high school if writing instruction is coordinated from the earliest grades. In particular, sentence variety tends to run a little ahead of of mechanics, but that’s very logical and easily fixed.

    I like my students to be versatile writers — able to whip out a standardized test 5P in class while writing a 6-trait scored paper at home. I assume they can do this, and I’ve never been proven wrong.

    (This example is a B-/C+ essay. The examples are vague and it has problems with word choice and organization. The writer has good sentence variety and good mechanics. Voice is so-so. )

  3. Mr. Davis says:

    RCC, excellent 5P comment :-). Thanks for concentrating on writing. After Reading and Math, it is the most enduring and valuable skill cpvered in school. Because evaluation of it is so objective, it has taken far longer for it to be rescued from the educational fads from the last 40 years. Can you recomend curricula we should be loking for in evaluating a school’s writing program?

  4. It’s like saying iambic pentameter and the sonnett is too hard, so do limericks instead for creativity’s sake.

  5. BadaBing says:

    First, master a formula. Then you can branch out. My kids would be all over the place with their essays were it not for some kind of framework within which to state a thesis and focus on supporting it.

    In the realm of poetry, kids like to write “free verse,” which is actually a mistranslated French term misapplied to English. Good poets don’t just slop words down on a page, making sure their verses run short of the margin. Theodore Roethke wrote structured verse long before he wrote “free verse,” and even his so-called “free verse” has prosodic dimensions. A good poet can write a sonnet or a villanelle, both highly demanding and confining structures that require talent and creativity to work within. In fact, the confinement of the form actually frees the poet to become more creative than if he were writing “free verse.”

    I do not think the 5P essay stifles creativity. A creative writer can work within any form, can excel within any form because his creativity transcends the form.

    Therefore, I think it is wrong-headed to toss out formulae because they are artificial or seemingly counter to creativity. Make kids follow the formula. Make them get it right. Once they’ve conquered it, they can move on from there. In my opinion, high school kids write better when they have to adhere to parameters.

  6. Richard says:

    Here’s an interesting link to an essay about essays. 😉

  7. DrtCrasher: Limericks are a combination of lines containing dactylic and anapestic feet arranged in a strict aabba rhyme scheme. How is that easier or harder than a Shakespearean sonnet? Green Eggs and Ham is largely written in iambs. Homer wrote in dactylic hexameter.

    Mr. Davis: I think writing instruction is the most important thing I do, and I’m starting to see studies that point to writing improving reading instead of just vice versa. I really like 6-Traits. It is flexible, it gives the teacher and students a good common language when evaluating work, and it focuses on the elements that make a good piece of writing. In addition to 6-Traits, I do a lot grammar instruction that focuses on the building blocks of complex sentences (clauses and phrases — can’t punctuate an appositive if you can’t find one!), I make my kids fix their own errors in their papers (I tie up about 20% of the points on a paper in making those corrections for motivation :)), and I teach using student work (ie. if I want to talk about introductory paragraphs, I put up 4 or 5 from that class on the overhead and use them as my examples). And I assign lots and lots of writing, which I think is the main thing. Everyone in the department assigns 7 – 10 essays per semester and we have a major research paper for each grade level that everyone does. Oh, and the kids self-assess their portfolios at the end of the year. I’m sure you recognize that all I’ve done really is pull the best elements of common Best Practice stuff into a curriculum that works for me. What are you guys doing that you don’t think is working?

  8. DirtCrashr says:

    I think limericks are easier than a sonnet because they are shorter and quick to the point. It helps that they fit right into a highschooler’s mindset so they emerge faster, which addresses the issue of immediate gratification. A sonnet is longer and has more structural steps to follow in order to come to some kind of completion, which tests a student’s patience and resolve.
    I believe it’s a big mistake to think of creativity as some kind of nativistic, Rousseian, spontaneous eruption – an unstructured and random event that simply somehow occurs – or that the Creative Arts are based in that kind of postmodern, discipline-free and anti-formulaic view. Actual creativity is a lot of hard work, and while often disguised as a mysterious force or an effortless expression of inspiration, it doesn’t do a student any good to maintain the false impression that there are no steps, work, or effort required to achieve a creative result.
    As a graphic designer and user-interface professional working as a creative, it’s absolutely impossible to avoid all kinds of formula and structure, from a client’s demands to the limits of display technologies, to the conditions imposed by various software. You have to know your tools, whether it’s a paintbrush or HTML.

  9. My most lasting memory associated with writing instruction in high school english classes is from 10th grade. We spent 12 weeks on Hemingway’s short story “Big Two Hearted River.” The teacher used this to teach us sentence structure. We were required to write 20 sentences using the same sentence structure, using the story as the topic or inspiration for our sentences. This went on and on for weeks. I really hate Hemingway to this day.

    I can write, but I owe much more to my college instructors than any high school teachers. It was clear that my high school preparation (even in all honors classes) was not as thorough as it should have been. All courtesy of great Houston schools (HISD).

    Most of my college students cannot write. Even if their grammar and structure are adequate (which is rare), they cannot build and defend a logical argument. And this is in business — where the writing is pretty concrete and straightforward.

  10. A good poet can write a sonnet or a villanelle, both highly demanding and confining structures that require talent and creativity to work within. In fact, the confinement of the form actually frees the poet to become more creative than if he were writing “free verse.”