My first five paragraph essay that I remember writing was on the word “square”. I was in 9th grade Honors English and the assignment was to pick a word, go to the Oxford English Dictionary, and write a five paragraph essay on that word*.
Introduction with thesis statement. Three body paragraphs, including topic sentences. Conclusion. I earned a C. I never got Cs.** I can’t remember why I got a C. But I was determined to never get a C again. And I became a master essay writer. I learned the rules. And I actually loved to learn to love to write essays, usually in a modified five paragraph format. I was an essay writing machine.
Intro. Thesis. Topic Sentences. Details. Analysis. Conclusion. Repeat.
And I admit it…I LOVE teaching five paragraph essays. This is not edgy teaching, but old-school teaching at it’s very best. I can make kids think they are writing masterpieces when they write a five paragraph essay. I love writing all over essays with my purple pen and I can help them become better writers. And I think it’s a handy skill to have in college. I couldn’t have napped as much in college if I didn’t have that formula mastered. And so, I was planning on starting a five paragraph essay with my grade 8 humanities students as a summative assessment on the World Religions unit. I was ready to go, confident in my knowledge of how I teach writing and why I teach it that way.
And then I went this week to hear Chris Betcher speak about creativity in schools while he was visiting YIS. Chris suggested we engage students by giving them choices***. We have to think about what we really want them to learn and combine that with giving students choice about what to learn and how to present their learning. This is real-world learning. And then I read my teaching partner, Alex, write about getting rid of his old understanding on rules in writing. And both made me think about what I was doing with my grade 8s. Then I threw out the old, comfortable, safety blanket that is the five paragraph essay.
- You must come up with a question about religion that you are interested in researching and allows for analysis
- There must be least 250 written words and a thesis statement. These words do not necessarily have to be in paragraph format, though that is an option.
- You must include specific evidence to support your thesis statement. Evidence can be visual or written.
- You must show analytical skills (how does the evidence help answer the question?)
- You must turn in your research log and a bibliography
- You can do an essay. For an essay to reach top levels, you would have to write more words than the minimum 250 words (500-750 words)
- You could do a hybrid essay and multimedia (for instance podcast/voicethread/animoto/poster)
- You could do a multimedia presentation that has written word sprinkled throughout the product
And in actuality, this is a hell of a lot harder to do than teaching a five paragraph essay, for both me and my students. I want my students to analyze, be able to create a thesis statement, and do quality research. I really hope this assignment will allow them to do that. I am already regretting putting in the 250 word minimum, because I am worried they will stop thinking and working as soon as they hit 250 words. But I am getting some really fantastic questions: What role does religion play in education? How is music used in Christianity, past and present? How do different religions justify the existence of a god or deity? These are much bigger questions than what could be fit into a typical five paragraph essay. ****
I am nervous about this. I am worried about how this will be assessed. I’m unsure if this is really preparing them for high school*****. Should I have done this type of assignment with a less controversial unit of study? Is this age appropriate? Am I giving up a traditional teaching method that helps my students just for the sake of doing something “cool”? What are earth will they actually turn-in? But despite all my worries, I believe with this assignment, I have started the long goodbye to the five paragraph essay.Pictures used by permission from Creative Commons, Square Packing, cropped by oragami_madness
———————————*I have absolutly no idea why I picked the word “square”. I am pretty sure I quoted Huey Lewis and the News **I have always been a nerdy overachiever. ***This is where the tech can play a role. Web2.0 tools can help students create, research, & publish. But note, the goal is never to master the tool, but to create something. And I recognize it’s odd to have the tech part of this COETAIL post be in the footnotes, but I’m comfortable with that. **** They can write an essay if they want. That might be the way they choose to present their learning. If I didn’t allow them to write an essay, then I would be limiting their choices, something I am trying to avoid. *****Note, high school is not real life. To cite the old argument, I have never written a five paragraph essay in real life. But I use the skills. And it sure was helpful to know how to do it on the AP History exam.