My Understanding of Essay, Then…
I did my student teaching in a classroom where all students were handed a hamburger graphic organizer and were taught to fill in all parts of the burger if they wanted to create a “good essay.” The kids seemed bored as they dutifully wrote sentences to fit inside of the graphic organizer. Their essays were lackluster, but they followed the formula, which was supposed to help them do better on “the test..”
When I began teaching personal essay in my own classroom, I was insistent that all of my fifth graders had three body paragraphs to support their thesis statement they wrote in the introductory paragraph because they were supposed to write five-paragraph essays (which I’ve now come to realize is an artificial construct). After a couple of years of teaching personal essay, I got better at helping students collect a variety of information (e.g., anecdotes, quotations, observations, statistics) to help them prove their thesis statements. Students would cull through their patches of thought folders for each of their “body paragraphs” on drafting day. They’d toss aside evidence that didn’t support their topic sentence. Then, they’d string all of their patches of thought together into one body paragraph. As a result, many students’ body paragraphs went on for a page or two since each paragraph contained a variety of information that proved their topic sentence (which was one of the three supports for their thesis).
As a New York City public school teacher, I attended Calendar Days hosted by the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project. In November 2004, I attended a session preparing NYC teachers to teach personal and literary essays to students. While the personal essays were five paragraphs and the literary essays were four paragraphs, it was the first time I ever heard someone talk about essay in ways that made them seem — dare I say it — fun to write. I soaked up as much as I could from that day of professional learning and taught my students to embrace essay writing without the use of a hamburger chart. All of my students collected patches of thought to prove a claim, which helped them produce essays about topics that were meaningful to them as people. They may have still been formulaic, but my students were invested in their writing.
My Understanding of Essay, Now…
Through the years, I’ve come to understand that essay writing is writing to think (Hoagland, 1976). Michel de Montaine was a philosopher who wrote in the countryside during the French Revolution. He called his attempts at writing essaying (or trying). In French, the word essais means trial. To write an essay is merely an attempt, or a trial, at exploring a topic.
It can be challenging to wrap our heads around essay being more than something that has a thesis statement one is trying to prove to someone. If we adopt the original meaning of essay in classrooms, then we are going to be able to teach kids to develop ideas on the paper that reflect their thinking about a topic.
Katherine Bomer offers a working definition of essay in her book, The Journey is Everything: Teaching Essays That Students Want to Write for People Who Want to Read Them (Heinemann, 2016):
Essay writing is writing to think.
Moving Beyond the Five-Paragraph Essay Structure
It’s a big leap for a writer to shift from proving something using topic-centered paragraphs and concluding sentences to growing provocative ideas with complexity and depth.
If my 2020-self could provide some professional development to my early 2000s-self, I would encourage students to break from the five-paragraph structure. Just because two pieces of evidence are related doesn’t mean they should be in the same paragraph! Here’s a chart I’d share with my early-career self to help teach kids about reasons essayists use paragraphs.
Of course, like anything else, I’d tell my early-career self to make sure kids knew the rules before they broke them. That is, once a child understood paragraph structure, I’d encourage that child to get inventive with the way they used paragraphs in their essay writing.
So, how do we, as adults, move beyond the five-paragraph essay mindset?
I’ve come to believe it’s necessary that teachers immerse themselves in different kinds of essay writing. First, we have to find essays that move beyond the formulaic five-paragraph essays we’ve written and taught for years. Here are two places to look:
- The afterword of The Journey is Everything by Katherine Bomer contains essays written by adults. Some of my favorite essays to study alongside teachers from the afterword of Bomer’s book are “What I Want to be…” by Randy Bomer, “Querencia” by Georgia Heard, and “Tattoos: Marked for Life” by Deb Kelt. In addition, Bomer introduces readers to “Joyas Voladoras” by Brian Doyle in her book. It’s also an exquisitely crafted essay to read and study alongside teachers.
- Breakfast on Mars and 37 Other Delectable Essays: Your Favorite Authors Take A Stab at the Dreaded Essay Assignment edited by Rebecca Stern and Brad Wolfe contains a variety of personal, persuasive, and literary essays that can be used as mentor texts with students. The go-to essays I suggest for personal essay are “Raised by Wolves” by Sarah Prineas and “A Good Lie” by Laurel Snyder. For literary essay, I’m partial to “Princess Leia is an Awesome Role Model” by Cecil Castellucci and “When to Say No to Breakfast” by Brad Wolfe.
I advise immersing yourself in essay writing with the titles listed above prior to teaching an essay-writing unit to students so you can envision what the end product of a journey of thought essay looks like. As you’re reading, jot your favorite lines down. Note features you admire. Reread with different lenses. Then, talk with your colleagues — who also want to change the way they teach essay — so you can process essays you’re studying together.
Once you’re done immersing yourself in several essays, you can dive in and write one yourself. Or, if you’re studying with other teachers who want to move beyond the five-paragraph essay, then consider doing some shared writing with your colleagues. This will allow you to experience the way essay writers need to think (and write to explore) in terms of structure. In addition, it will give you a way to figure out how you might use shared writing as a launch point for doing writing-to-think work with your students. Once you’ve written a few shared pieces with colleagues, you can write your own essay, which you’ll be able to use as a mentor text with your students.
TIP: The first time you write an essay that reflects Bomer’s definition of essay (above), don’t think about standards, learning progressions, or the lessons you might teach. Pick a topic you wish to explore in your writing that holds meaning and value to you. Then, write about it, just as the authors of the above-mentioned essays did in their essays. It’s okay to try to do this kind of work and feel as though you’ve failed at it the first few times. That’s called being human. After years of being trained to write an essay in a formulaic way, it takes time to retrain ourselves to write differently. I promise you, as someone who has written a few non-formulaic essays, it is possible to retrain yourself to write an essay that is meaningful and provocative, but doesn’t necessarily win an argument in the end. I find I’m still doing things like making use of transitional phrases, but I’m no longer worried that every paragraph begins with a topic sentence, has three detail sentences, and ends with a concluding sentence.
There will be times in our students’ lives (e.g., standardized tests) when they will need to write formulaic essays that ask them to make a claim and prove it over the course of a few well-structured paragraphs. However, if we’re going to prepare students for those kinds of tasks, then it’s important to teach them how to essayer, or try, to grow new ideas and understandings in their writing. We have to push beyond the five-paragraph formula so kids aren’t doing formulaic writing. When we move beyond the five-paragraph essay, we free our students to “explore, explain, and express” (Bomer, 2016, 22). If we can teach students to think through an idea across several pages so as to come to a new understanding, then we’re teaching them a valuable life skill.
What thinking have you done about moving beyond the five-paragraph essay? What are you planning to read to move help you move beyond the five-paragraph essay with your students? (Next on my to-be-read list is Why They Can’t Write: Killing the Five-Paragraph Essay and Other Necessities by John Warner.) What will you do to take the next steps to change the way essay is viewed among your colleagues? Please share your reflections below.
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