By Tim Dewar
My older daughter has written her first five-paragraph essay for school. In the language of the Common Core, and since she is in fourth grade, it was an opinion piece. The topic? Should students have more or less homework? She argued for less with a tone best described as “Duh” by a colleague who read the final version. My wife and I kept our hands off of her drafts, letting her teacher dictate the process, classmates provide response, and the red and green squiggles of Google Docs do the editing.
The assignment, taking just over a week, was not particularly painful for her. She likes to write, often purchasing notebooks as souvenirs when turned loose in a gift shop. She once told me her best subjects in school were “writing, reading, and paying attention. I know ‘paying attention’ isn’t a subject, but if it were I would get an A in it.” And apparently she had paid attention to the classroom teaching. Her paper earned her a “16/12.” Above scale, off the chart.
Living in Words
So why am I not thrilled? Because I know what is coming. Umpteen more versions of the same paper. For the next 8 ½ years. The topics will change (Four-day school week? Paper or plastic? School uniforms?), but I fear the process will change only in one significant way – her reaction. This opinion piece demonstrated not only her achievement in a new form, but also the joy she finds in writing. Her fluency as a writer comes, I think, from lots of reading and her comfort with using language to do tasks she sets for herself. She has seen lots of authors do lots of neat things with words. They have made her laugh and cry, giggle and gasp, and have transported her to distant times and places, including far past her bedtime. And she wants to do those things, too, with postcards to friends, notes to her sister (and less often, her parents), stories starring her toys, dolls, and lovey friends, further adventures for book characters (fan fiction!). The same week she wrote her opinion piece for school, she produced a nine-page magazine, News For Everyone, with craft ideas, poetry writing suggestions, a short story, a non-fiction informational piece, and an advertisement for a local play.
See, it is not just reading that has kept her up too late. She is just as likely to choose to write before going to bed as to read. Those notebooks from the gift shops? Filled. Some started off as diaries, later to become illustrated adventures. Others are pages of lists, including favorite words. Still others are filled with secrets that must be hidden from parents’ eyes (and sister’s, too!). There are many pages of starts and beginnings, wild middles, that then run out of steam. Loose-leaf notebook paper gets tied with yarn to make “books.” This is a child who lives in words, her own and those of authors.
As she explores this world of words, she takes risks, seeks new pleasures, revisits familiar favorites. But all the time she is setting the course. What makes her a strong writer is not her mastery of the five-paragraph structure, but her interest and courage to try to do new things with writing. I worry that the string of poorly conceived opinion, and later, argument essays that my daughter (and her classmates) will likely be assigned will diminish the interest and eliminate the courage. I fear that when we do this, we not only do not help non-writers become writers, but we teach those students already in love with writing that we must not know the first thing about writing or writers. How can we if we are just teaching forms? Or worse, we teach them that writing isn’t about the joy and struggle of finding what one has to say. Instead, writing is some kind of game with the teacher as rule-maker and opponent. Writing will become this rote filling of a template that someone else devised. It will become work, rather than play, a drudgery of finding evidence and inserting transitional phrases in the right places.
Five Paragraphs and Three Types
The five-paragraph theme structure is often advocated as a scaffold for writers, something that supports beginners until they are ready for more sophisticated forms – See, for example, here and here . English Journal published a spirited defense, written in five paragraphs no less, from Kerri Smith. Forty years prior Duane C. Nichols articulated the form’s features in the same professional journal. These on-going professional discussions about when and how to introduce, then wean, students from relying on this formula assume that writing is the acquisition and mastery of forms. If this were true, couldn’t my daughter with her “16/12” be certified as having mastered the five-paragraph essay? She could get a card for her wallet or a badge from Google Drive or something so that the next time a teacher asked for her to express her thinking in an-intro-three-body-paragraphs-and-a-conclusion, she could just flash her badge and say, “Sorry, I’ve got better writing to do.”
Our challenge is to teach our student writers that writing is this amazingly powerful tool for shaping the self and the world. While this has never been easy, the current educational landscape makes it more difficult. The Common Core standards are often unfortunately, and incorrectly, understood to define writing as three “types” – argument, informational or narrative (see Writing Standard 10, Appendix A, and Arthur Applebee’s “Common Core State Standards: The Promise and the Peril in a National Palimpsest”.
College, career, and life readiness requires much more than knowing prescriptive forms for each. I want my writers to be able to recognize a situation that requires writing, have a variety of processes and tools at the ready, and the courage to write. With that, writers can change the world.
Tim Dewar, Ph.D., is the Director of the South Coast Writing Project at the University of California, Santa Barbara, where he teaches undergrads, credential candidates, and grad students, drawing on his experience as a secondary English language arts teacher, research, and, most importantly, the expertise of writing project teachers.