Books That Move Us: Beyond the Five Paragraph Essay

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Today’s guest writer is Chasidy Burton, who teaches English to juniors and seniors in Nashville, TN. Chasidy loves to teach writing for the empowerment students experience with getting words on the page and the discovery of their own voice. She is constantly seeking to better her teaching practice, and she enjoys reading about unconventional approaches to teaching and literacy. Today, Chasidy shares about a professional development book that has shaped her writing instruction. 

How long does this need to be? How many paragraphs? How many words? How many pages? Then I ask, did Ernest Hemingway ever ask these questions? My response to my students when they bombard me with questions about guidelines and page length is not always well-received. I would love to unleash them and tell them to channel their inner “Papa”, but that just doesn’t seem to work that well with my students. I am usually met with blank stares and sometimes evil eyes.They want structure. They want a framework. They want a mold. Following the rules is so easy, but I have had trouble finding authenticity in my students writing. I don’t know about you, but if I have to read one more five paragraph essay detailing Hamlet’s three stages of indecision, I may spiral into madness like Ophelia and start passing out imaginary flowers. We need a change in my senior English class. And after reading Beyond the Five-Paragraph Essay by Kimberly Hill Campbell and Kristi Latimer, I am inspired to conquer my own fears of breaking a mold.

60 Second Review

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Kimberly Hill Campbell and Kristi Latimer focus on the fact that research proves that the five- paragraph formula hinders writers. Their book equips teachers with strategies, skills, and insight in teaching students how to write authentically and thoughtfully. The book is organized by skills ranging from combatting formulaic writing, to establishing reading and writing routines, to reading and writing like writers and explorers.

There are loads of activities that will stimulate students’ thinking and challenge students to approach writing not in a formulaic way, but through the use of model texts, scaffolded assignments, and creativity. This book uses  activities that are centered around literature, which helps the strategies and methods implement seamlessly into an established literature-based curriculum.

My Big Writing Takeaways

  • My students can expand their writing skills and writing structures through the power of narratives.

I am expanding my notions of the power of narrative voice. One of the lines that really grabbed my attention in this book was that “all students should have the opportunity to discover that their ideas matter and are worthy of exploration and shaping to meet the needs of readers – not a formula.” This struck me because for years I kept forcing my students into a box – a box that I didn’t really believe in. Why? I kept hearing teachers preach about structure. Yes, structure is important, but what if we start with the most important thing first? To me, it is the idea. The ideas are what I want them to remember long after they walk out of my classroom. Great thinkers, writers, and leaders rarely start with the structure. They start with the idea. I cannot recall one time when I read something and thought, wow, that structure really inspired me. Of course we know that structure matters, but I want my students to experience more than that.

This book inspired me to create more narrative writing opportunities for students — because students are more naturally inclined to begin with strong ideas in this genre, and teachers are less inclined to assign a structure.  Instead of spending so much time on form, we are spending more times on genre, purpose, style, and voice. So many writing conversations this year are revolving around what best fits their purpose. This book is offering me tools to create these experiences for my students.

  • Students are scared to take risks, but we can provide a safety net within our classrooms for them to experiment.

One of my fears as I am trying to move away from formulaic writing is trying to allow students to explore writing in unconventional ways. The book advocates that this doesn’t always have to look like an essay. Essays are MY comfort zone. Like most teachers, I always have that overwhelming need to control, and it is easy to control a five-paragraph formulaic essay, especially with a rubric.  Beyond the Five-Paragraph Essay has helped me create some “low-stakes” activities that get my students writing as a way to prepare for the big assignments.The appendices at the end of the book  have several examples of activities that can be modified for all sorts of texts. One activity that I really like is allowing students to create a soundtrack for a text. Students love movies, so this is a fun and creative writing assignment that I feel like is low-stakes to get them thinking for a more significant piece later.

This activity can modified in a number of ways, but allows a different take on the standard five-paragraph literary analysis, and students enjoy it!

My students are scared of writing – I am too most of the time. Mine have trouble finding any authenticity in the formulaic models and so do I, but that is what we lean on because we haven’t tried anything new. This book allows teachers to begin to slowly implement creative changes that can lead to those bigger changes – the ones where we really see students’ writing shine –  we are longing for. These small changes allow for those moments.

  • Exploration can and should be a framework within our writing classrooms.

When I think about what inspired me to become an English major and ultimately an English teacher, I always come back to the words. How the words were arranged on the page. How I felt after reading the words. How the words had the power to shift the world a little. Exploring words and ideas are the roots of thinking, and students need a place to establish roots. There is a chapter in the book titled “Writing to Explore” and I love this notion. Exploring is fun. Exploring is dynamic. Exploring is empowering. Exploring can be scary.  If students are just expected to fall into a mold when writing, they lose their voice. This chapter begins with questioning techniques and then describes different types of essays such as exploratory essays, formal journal entries, mini-essays, focus essays, question essays, and collaborative essays. These descriptions of how these work in a classroom has been essential for me as I attempt new strategies. They are easily adaptable, and allow students the opportunity to explore ideas without the confines of a rigid structure.

  • Unleashing The Power of My Sofa in My Classroom

I read this book over the summer but some of these ideas really made sense to me when I began conferencing with students about college essays. I am fortunate to have an office in my classroom with a nice comfy sofa. My seniors come in and conference with me while sitting on the sofa and this is where I hear about the most candid details of their lives. For some reason, that sofa creates an atmosphere of sharing and truth. The conversations this year have ranged from difficult parent relationships, to eating disorders, to depression, to insecurities, and ultimately how to write about these complex issues. These kinds of ideas don’t fit into a formulaic model. These issues are raw, blunt, and vulnerable. As my students talk, I keep finding myself making connections to Hamlet, The Color of Water, or The Great Gatsby. As I continue to think about this idea, the Writing with Mentors chapter in this book keeps coming to mind. This chapter is divided into 2 sections, Literature as Mentor and Literature as Inspiration.  I love this chapter because of the overlap of utilizing the classic literature that I love and currently teach alongside more authentic forms of writing such as memoirs, eulogies, pastiches, letters, character conversations, business letters, interviews, podcasts, book trailers, and recipes.

As my students talk about their own insecurities, failures, and successes with me, I want them to see the connection between themselves and our literature. This chapter has given me some great ideas of how to implement these types of experiences within my current curriculum, all while offering my students an opportunity to foster their own writing voices – I want to hear the voices from my sofa in their writing in my classroom.

How I Hope to Use It

I am currently using this book in my classroom to begin to build a more legitimate writing workshop environment. Instead of assigning five-paragraph literary essays for them to complete at home, I am leaning more towards the ideas presented in the book – particularly the exploratory writing experiences. My students have already demonstrated a new energy about their writing experiences. Some are energized, some are frightened, some are always going to be apathetic. As I attempt to work towards more innovative writing experiences, this book offers a framework to get started. The ideas presented are clear and concise, which is allowing me to adapt my content easily.

Should You Buy the Book

Yes! I want to be a risk-taker in my classroom. That is a scary place to be at times, but this book is helping me find the courage to try new things.

What if I let things get messy this year? What if I feel liberated with my teaching and challenge my students to think like writers instead of students who write?  Beyond the Five-Paragraph Essay is helping me pursue this. So instead of wallowing in 85 essays that just sing the same old song, I am dreaming of unique voices singing their own songs.

Here’s a bit of inspiration. One of my students told me this semester that “it’s nice to know that our teacher cares about what we think rather than a rigid structure.” For me, that’s a victory.

So here goes. Leaving my comfort zone, but inspired.

 

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