Sunday, February 8, 2015

Thinking About the Five Paragraph Essay Structure and Moving Beyond...

I came away from NCTE with many lasting impressions, and one of them has been about how to teach students the structure of an essay. I work with elementary teachers. Their students are just learning how to develop an essay. Our curriculum pushed teachers in the direction of five paragraph essays--an introduction, three body paragraphs, and a conclusion. The structure is predictable, even formulaic, and gives young students a scaffold for their claims, reasons, ideas, and evidence. 

Over the NCTE weekend, I had many conversations about essays. Have we demolished the beauty of essay with a simplistic hamburger template? You know the one--a top bun for the introduction, the cheese, tomato and meat for the body paragraphs, and the bottom bun for the conclusion...  During a wonderful NCTE14 presentation, Embracing Complexity, Katherine Bomer reminded us that Michel de Montaigne invented this genre of writing as a way to push off depression and that essai means trials and attempts. It's more about errors and trials by fire. Have we forgotten that an essay should really be a journey of thought and an exploration of ideas?


But here are a couple of techniques I have found that have helped me to break out of the cheeseburger:

1. Once they have an understanding of essay structure, teach into the power of intentional paragraphing. This essay, Delaney, is an older sister's tribute to her younger sister. When I sat down with this child, I complimented her tight organization. I also complimented the parallel structure she used. How many fourth-graders understand the power of repetition? I've earned chances, because of her. I've learned how to handle struggles, because of the. I've been able to share my secrets, because of her. I've had a great and partnered life. Because of her. WOW!
This child understands the power of repetition, commas, fragments...I took it one step further and showed her a mentor text that had just a one sentence paragraph.

"You can do that?" she asked.

"Why couldn't you?" I asked.

"Because paragraphs are supposed to have more than one sentence."

Exactly. And because she knew the rule, I was comfortable teaching her to break the rule.

"If you wanted one part of this paragraph to really jump of the page and stop your reader, what would it be?" I asked her.

"Because of her." She didn't even have to think about her answer.

She made those three words their own paragraph, and read the difference for yourself.
Version 1, without the new paragraphing

Version 2 with Because of her highlighted in its own paragraph

2. Encourage students to use exploration phrases in their paragraphs. By these, I mean: 
I wonder
Could it be?
What if?

These phrases lead to deeper thinking that sometimes, the organizational structure of the five paragraph essay restricts. If an essay is really an exploration of an idea, these thinking stems may lead to a-ha moments for students. If an essayist gets to say, "Wow, I didn't think of that before!" that's exciting!

Some of the difficult decisions that teachers must make involve when to remove rules. These decisions cut across subjects. When do we know that students understand the mathematical rationale behind a problem so that they no longer have to explain every step of their thinking? When do they understand sentence structure enough so that we can teach them the power of sentence fragments or run-ons? When do they automatically make inferences, develop theories, and visualize what they read so that they no longer need to jot and track their thinking while they read?

As with so much new learning, we have to master rules before we break them, but be on the hunt for the students who have mastered the structure enough to digress. Then, their writing can really gain power!

Enjoy the rest of your weekend,

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