Thursday, July 10, 2008

I still don't think the five paragraph essay is the work of Satan

I took a course on teaching writing this last spring. I'm pretty sure I was the only one in it that still supported using the five paragraph essay and did not want to have Tom Romano's babies. I had to do blog posts for that class too. If you want to read more about my thoughts on essay writing, see how embittered I was, or make fun of me, here are two posts that are probably most relevant:

Multigenre Writing
My Rant Continued

The second one is funny because the people that commented thought I was entirely serious in my post.

Anyway, I'm still going to say that the five paragraph essay is a must. I agree with the article that it has a poor name. Because, for the last time, just because it's called the five paragraph essay, does not mean it has to be five paragraphs. In terms of academic writing, I still don't really know what or how you would teach it without using the five paragraph essay format. While I do think that multigenre projects are valid, they are not the same thing, have the same purpose, nor reach the same goal as an academic essay does. When people argue for other ways of teaching writing, their answer is always the vague "there are other ways to teach writing that are creative." The problem with this answer is the five paragraph essay is not stifling, perhaps formulaic, but the students are still able to fill in their own thoughts in an organized manner. The second problem I have with that response is that I am still not getting specific examples or methods of teaching or ways of writing. And finally, when we are teaching academic writing we should not be especially concerned in how creative the students are. If that's what we're after, we should be teaching a college creative writing course.

The second answer I hate getting is how the five paragraph essay forces competition in grades. I think this is a matter of perspective. When I grade my papers, I don't look at subjective things, like creativity. While I think that makes a good writer and the paper more enjoyable, my main concern should be that the paper making a point in clear and logical way. This is the goal in high school. For some schools, that goal may be even lower. I hate grading on creativity; it's too subjective and not all students are creative or want to be creative in writing.

Finally, and I know this is going to piss everyone off, I don't care what anyone says, if you're doing academic writing, you are still using the five paragraph essay format. Maybe it's not as simplistic and has grown and developed, but it's still going to have an introduction with a thesis. It's still going to have supporting evidence paragraphs for your thesis and you're still going to have a conclusion that sums up your paper. If we're looking for a little mix up in the paper writing, we could make students do an experiment and research project and have them write an APA style paper. Kidding, kidding.

Anyway, I do agree with the article when it states that the five paragraph essay is a victim of poor naming. It gets a bad reputation for being extremely rigid and stifling creatively. I also agree that it shouldn't be used for everything. I think you can incorporate creative writing projects and other multigenre projects into the curriculum. But I don't think these things should ever replace or dominate over the five paragraph essay because I still strongly feel that multigenre projects do not provide skills for the general population's success. We still need to keep in mind as English teachers that we are teaching high schoolers skills that will be useful to them in the future, and very few of them will be professional writers, or even want to go into a profession remotely related to that.


  1. Just so you know, you are not the only one who does not hate the 5 paragraph essay. I don't have major problems with it either. You've done a good job here of identifying the pros, cons, and best methods of evaluation. In addition, I don't plan on having Tom Romano's babies any time soon.

  2. One key point that Pirie makes regards the goal of writing. Sometimes the FPE might meet the need of assessing what you want students to do: make a distanced, authoritative argument. But if we assign students writing to make them think more deeply about something--which I would argue is the goal of writing at least sometimes--the FPE is not going to cut it. I am happy to say that as I reach this high point in academia, I do NOT have to write as if I know all the answers and am completely right all the time. Yes, I have to write somewhat formally, and definitely in an organized way, but…

    Anyway, like you say, we don’t have to throw out the FPE. Neither do we have to assume that its alternative is just some touchy-feely, fuzzy creative writing. Reread Pirie if you want some more alternative suggestions (he does offer a few, and does not mention the esteemed multigenre paper). I also agree with what was said in class—that there are few places in the “real world” where we ever use writing like the FPE.

  3. The Hokey Pokey, as written by W. Shakespeare...

    O proud left foot, that ventures quick within
    Then soon upon a backward journey lithe.
    Anon, once more the gesture, then begin:
    Command sinistral pedestal to writhe.
    Commence thou then the fervid Hokey-Poke,
    A mad gyration, hips in wanton swirl.
    To spin! A wilde release from Heavens yoke.
    Blessed dervish! Surely canst go, girl.
    The Hoke, the poke -- banish now thy doubt
    Verily, I say, 'tis what it's all about.