Monday, June 19, 2017

"Mind-Forged Manacles"

This is the title of seventh chapter in Bruce Pirie's Reshaping High School English.

It strikes at a topic that has fascinated me for many years now: the "academic" essay - OR - the five paragraph theme.  Here are some resources focusing on the fiver paragraph theme debate.

At one time, I toyed writing my MA thesis on this topic.  And I did.  Kind of.  More on that later.

What fascinated me about the five paragraph theme (or thesis / support model) is that it almost killed me as a writer.  And I think it's a major reason why so few students enjoy writing.

Here is how it killed my love for writing -

When I began teaching at LHS, I had to have students write a traditional, one paragraph essay.  This format was borrowed from the five paragraph theme format - topic sentence, three supporting sentences, and a concluding sentence.

That led nicely into the five paragraph theme format - introduction (with a three pronged thesis statement), three supporting paragraphs, and a conclusion that restates the thesis.  I know I am overly simplifying this, but without much in the way of guidance, that is how I taught writing for the first three years of my career.

I recall modeling this format in front of my class.  I was writing about my most embarrassing moment.  It was an essay called "Many Happy Returns . . . Not!"  It was about a horrific event that occurred in my final high school football game.  To make a long story short, I was on the front line of our kick return team.  As the opposing team kicked off, I turned and began to spring back into position to set up our front wall to block for or kick returner.

But there was a problem.

The kicker - somehow - managed to kick the ball directly at my head.

I was oblivious to this, of course, as my head was turned as I sprinted fifteen yards back to set up the front wall.

Then it felt like someone knocked me upside my football helmet - or kicked a ball right at the back of my head.  To make matters worse, the ball perfectly ricocheted off my helmet right back into the hands of the kicker!

That has probably never happened again.  Probably never will.

Nevertheless, I had the perfect moment to write about for being embarrassed.

The problem: I was conditioned to write in the five paragraph theme format.  So instead of engaging my audience, I gave a cliched intro (and don't deny it.  If you've written a five paragraph theme - and if you were a high school student having to do it - the main purpose of your intro was simply to get it over with and to have the thesis statement in the right spot) and ended it with a thesis statement, something along the lines of "Getting kicked in the back of the head was embarrassing for me because I was doing my job as a blocker on the kick returner, I was totally unaware of what was happening because my head was turned but the whole field saw the event unfold, and the final result was that it basically cost us any chance of getting back into the game."

Then I went about crafting three supporting paragraphs and tossed in a conclusion that restated my thesis, and I was done.

When I reflect back on this, I realize something else: I stopped writing.  Why? Because the five paragraph theme killed my love for writing.

Real writers don't write five paragraph themes.  In fact, who really does?

And that is one of Pirie's chief arguments against it as a form.

Does it exist in college?  All of my major research papers were far longer than just five paragraphs.  Pirie notes, "none of us would claim to have earned university degrees in English by writing five-paragraph essays."

Where did the five paragraph theme begin?  It began as a tool in early academic circles to quickly gauge student understanding.  A teacher of 35 students in grammar school could quickly assign a five paragraph theme and grade it the same night and return it.  Check the thesis.  Make sure the topic sentence relate to the thesis (in order, mind you).  Then make sure the supporting paragraphs support the topic sentence.  Then wrap it up in the conclusion.  Easy.

Yet.  Somehow the format grew (like a damn weed I might add).  Pirie notes that it mostly spread in American high schools for some reason.

Now, I do have students write a couple five paragraph themes.  But they are boring.  Students rarely enjoy them.  I enjoy correcting them just because they're easy, and I can return them quite soon.

I do believe, though, that supporting a thesis is worthy.  But is that the only reason we teach the five paragraph theme?  Is that the only format that reasoning and support can be structured?

Pirie notes, that the structure of any essay is vital.  But the structure of a five paragraph essay - and how it's a cookie-cutter style recipe for thinking and writing, is really harmful, for structure  "is so important that you're not really writing unless you are doing it, and giving students a fill-in-the-blanks structure robs them of the very work they need to be doing if they're ever going to figure out how to shape ideas into words and words into ideas."

I recall this same thing happening to me my junior year at BSU.  I had to write a thesis/support essay for my Shakespeare class.  I chose to write about Romeo and Juliet, namely Friar Laurence and how he is confounded by fate at every turn to help Romeo.  What I did was do a ton of exploratory writing (up on the second floor of the beloved AC Clarke library) that led me to understand the character better and how Shakespeare was using fate to confound him.

Then I took all that sloppy exploratory writing and reformatted it into a thesis/support format.

I was one of the lucky few who stumbled upon the importance of exploratory writing when it comes to eventually writing a thesis/support style essay, for when you read one it makes it seem like it all flows naturally . . . as if the author just pulled the thesis statement out of his *(! and then naturally went about supporting it.  When the opposite was true (at least for me).

It always seemed a shame for me to dump all those pages of exploratory writing into the recycling bin and then just turning in my 8 page paper.

But I learned a valuable lesson: the thesis/support paper is one of many forms.  In a method class I had, I was encouraged to blend genres and styles.  I recall writing a response to a chapter to a book we were assigned.  I opted for the format of writing down a question I had from the text and then answering it right below it.  I also recall writing two essays for one paper (I don't know why I did, but I did).  Then I decided to embed the second essay inside the first one.  My methods professor loved the format.  I didn't know it at the time, but I had stumbled upon a format that would drastically impact my writing: the braided essay.

I saw the shortcomings of the thesis/support format my senior year in my World Religions class.  My teacher, Mr. Schnable, was a huge fan of the thesis/support format because of its clarity and precision (and easy with which it can be graded I'm sure).  I came up with a great thesis.  It was clear and precise.  Then I began supporting it.  The problem? I ran out of steam by my third point of the thesis. The last three pages or so were trash.

But when Mr. Schnable returned it, I saw the miracles sight of 100/100 excellent job scrolled at the top.  I think the first 2/3 of the paper were so strong that he didn't bother reading the rest - other than my works cited!

Lesson learned!

So I have slowly worked my way away from the thesis / support format.

Now some students and colleagues state that the five paragraph theme is a must to get students prepared for the rigorous demands of college writing.

I'm not opposed to that.  But I would just ask, is the five paragraph theme the only way to teach students how to support their findings and evidence?

I had a student, Ashley, who attended MSUM.  For a philosophy class, she asked her professor if she could take some creative liberties with the format.  The professor said yes.  Ashley told me she was going to tweak our braided essay format some for the final paper.  Instead of having a generic thesis / support paper, she had two philosophers engaged in an ongoing dialogue (which she invented based off her research - and which she dutifully cited too).  So philosopher #1 would write a letter to philosopher #2 in which he'd broach a topic and give his thoughts on it.  Then Philosopher #2 would respond with his thoughts and so on and so on.

The professor loved it so much she asked Ashley if she could make a copy of it for future use in her classes.

There are other ways to assess thinking and support.

They just are more difficult to assess than a simple five paragraph theme.

But that difficulty is outweighed in the originality and voice and style of the essays themselves.  Not to mention the thinking that goes in to them.

I often here people say, but I earned As in college from my professors using the thesis/support format.  I even wrote my MA thesis that way.

And this is true.

But . . .

My thesis won an award because of its originality, voice, style, and variety of format.

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