Another artifact from this year is a standard five paragraph essay on the Global Age which covered four large and important periods-the Enlightenment, the Renaissance, the Scientific Revolution, and the Reformation. In a regular year, I would’ve spent a whole week on each of these periods, but due to time constraints we could only briefly touch on them. Without enough class time to cover each, students were assigned to write an essay on a period of their choosing. The students were responsible for doing the research, however most of that came straight from our class notes and extensive outside research was not required. The standard five paragraph essay is used by teachers to introduce students to essay writing. For a lot of student’s it’s their first introduction to writing that forms an argument and defends it using evidence. Most high school students will likely see some version of it as they move through high school and into college.
This format has its fair share of critics, with some teachers arguing that it is too formulaic, so much so that the students don’t actually learn anything from it, “while it may appear to teachers that they are accomplishing something by stressing the formula, they are merely looking for a topic sentence, counting the examples, looking for transition words” (Brannon et al., 2008). In this line of thinking writing becomes a formula for success on the SATS and not an expressive form of communication, the latter being the goal for most English teachers. There is also concern that, because of the formats association with standardized testing language and writing styles, it promotes a deficit understanding of education: "A deficit understanding labels the language of low socioeconomic students as a problem, often marking them as ignorant. The deficit model labels these same children as remedial or even having learning dis-abilities. This model is largely responsible for placing minorities or children of the poor in remedial classes. The deficit model gives these children worksheet drudgery and formulaic writing that will occupy the students into passivity (Brannon et al., 2008)."
I agree with the sentiments expressed above. The five paragraph essay is archaic and does not accomplish much of anything besides making writing a boring and unimaginative process. What’s more is this formula does not exist anywhere outside of the middle or high school classroom including in the books we require students to read. That being said it is still around because of the way education is structured. Stressing this type of writing draws success on standardized tests, leading to more funding for schools, and gets students better scores on their SATS, which is ultimately the goal for most of the students and their families. The problem is that it doesn’t inspire any creativity or imagination and even though some English classes are devoted to creative writing, too often that form of writing is overlooked. Writing becomes another formula or algebraic expression for the SATS, contributing to the notion that school operates in the same manner as a factory does.
In a perfect world, all of my students would fall in love with writing and leave my classroom to become authors, journalists, or acclaimed lyricists. However, given the constraints placed on teachers by administrators and school districts, the best we could do in our virtual classroom was to get them to write good five paragraph essays. This project started out with students working on an outline that was meant to be converted into their actual essay later on in the process. The outline was provided via Google Slides where we could see how students were forming sentences and how their research was coming together.
Learning my lesson from not providing enough structure in my first assignment, each of the five paragraphs has its own slide and each of the slides provides the students with sentence starters to guide their writing. There are also instructions on how to create thesis and topic sentences which is where most of my students seemed to have issues in terms of the writing portion of this assignment. The amount of structure provided here does bring up some issues, especially in light of the criticism spoken about above. My fear is that in an effort to provide students with support I’ve taken away an opportunity for them to do some critical thinking of their own. If they don’t need to learn on their own how to begin a topic sentence and I do it for them, are they really learning? This brings up a challenge to the idea of a student centered classroom, did I provide this structure for my own benefit or for the student’s benefit? Did I make it easier for myself to get through this monotonous process by writing a small, but significant part of their essays for them? The answer here is no, but I may have inadvertently taken something away from student’s ability to think for themselves. A proper answer to this question, “how much structure is too much structure?”, will have implications for my future classroom.
I have attached as an artifact Alex’s outline for continuity purposes. I believe keeping up with her progress will reveal whether or not the added structure did anything to help her. As you can see, Alex still went above and beyond in terms of length. She takes her work seriously and is one of the most responsive and enthusiastic students that I taught all year. Alex seems to benefit somewhat from the sentence stems, but as you can see she uses the same sentence starter for each topic sentence so they didn’t seem to resonate with her. This isn’t necessarily wrong, but it does lend itself to the idea that five paragraph essays are a formula and not proper expressive communication. It also suggests that as a structure it doesn’t inspire enthusiasm or creativity in my most enthusiastic student. As I gave the student’s feedback about their writing I tried to stress using the sentence stems as a guide. A few of the other students did mix them up a bit more than her. However, I would say overall and for students not as engaged as Alex, the sentence stems did provide them with structure that they lacked from the first small writing activity I assigned them.
Alex reverts to a conversational style of writing, as you can see in her opening paragraph that ends with “how about you, what do you think?” This phenomena, for lack of a better term, is repeated by many of my students and has become a topic of conversation among educators and linguists. Urban students, particularly African American students, place a great deal of social capital on folk-oral modes of communication such as short stories and conversational back and forth. These modes of communication often find their way into urban students' writing which then leads to academic issues because there is a disconnect between these modes and success in school, “this persistent utilization of oral forms of communication is generally considered a serious education problem, for presumably, it interferes with the acquisition of ‘acceptable’ writing conventions and standard language practices (Washington, 1996)” In other words, because urban students value other forms of communication over writing and because those forms find their way into their writing, they are seen as deficient students and since writing is deemed one indicator of overall intelligence they are seen as so to those who are critical of urban public schools.
This brings up questions that will have an effect on my future classroom. As an educator I refuse to believe that urban students are any less intelligent than their peers. I wonder, in a culturally responsive classroom, how can I honor my students' identities as users of many different forms of communication while teaching them how to be good writers? Is a good writer merely one who follows the formulaic writing practices like the five paragraph format? What do I want out of my students when it comes to writing, what does success look like there? I will attempt to answer these questions in a different section, so shelve them for now.
I want to turn now to the question of how to improve upon this project so that it follows my classroom vision of being student centered and focused on writing skills. I have already mentioned the question concerning the proper amount of structuring so I won’t spend too much time on that here. This was a fair amount of writing and I wonder if the students would have benefited from a few more smaller assignments before getting this one. The World Religions Project that was assigned before this project did contain some writing, but as discussed it was not as structured as this. One good thing about this essay is that students were able to choose what period of the “Global Age” they wanted to write about, so I don’t wouldn’t change that aspect of this project. One issue that does come up and which may have been exacerbated by the virtual classroom, is that the research aspect of this project was a little constrained. The students weren’t required to do any research outside of the information that we provided them on our slides which made it more manageable for us the teachers. This may have been helpful for us, but the students missed an opportunity to work on their research skills.