Best of the 2016-2017 School Year: Structure as Mentor Text: How Can We Organize Ideas Beyond the 5-Paragraph Essay?

It speaks volumes that three of our top ten posts in the 2016-17 school year explore the issue of abandoning the 5-paragraph essay in favor of structures that are more organic and authentic and favorable to our young writers. We have Tricia to thank for sharing all of her thinking around this issue. In today’s post, she delves into a magical form called the CFC, brought to her attention by a University of Oklahoma professor. As is the norm in Tricia’s oh-so-generous posts, she supplies an in-depth explanation of this concept, along with copious examples and bonus mentor texts at the end. Dig in!

A few weeks ago, I came across a post on the Teaching and Learning Forum on the NCTE website. The conversation centered around the usefulness—or the lack of usefulness—of the five-paragraph essay. Comments varied, with many teachers chiming in with their thoughts, both fervently for and against the form.

I spent the first five years of my career teaching 9th and 10th grade. During that time, I focused my writing instruction on the five-paragraph essay. And I was good at it. I mean, really good at it. My students, through much practice, could put together a thesis statement with three reasons, write the three body paragraphs with corresponding topic sentences, and a conclusion which restated their main ideas (in case those ideas weren’t already clear).

Not surprisingly, years later when I started teaching AP Lang, my juniors walked into my classroom in September unsure how to write an essay using any structure other than the five-paragraph form. Students’ first assignment is an “essay of introduction,” which they read to the class during the first week of school. I deliberately withhold any directions regarding structure, length, or format. How students respond can be quite telling. Over the years, I’ve observed two general outcomes: 1) students either wrote in the tried-and-true five-paragraph essay, or 2) students wrote with little attention to structure and turned in the dreaded one-long-paragraph essay. In the latter case, it seems that without being told how many paragraphs to write, students weren’t quite sure how to use a thoughtful paragraph break.

Over the course of the year, however, my students learn many other methods for organization. We study the classical Aristotelian structure—introduction, narration, confirmation, refutation, and conclusion—as well as the Rogerian approach. After reading and studying various real-world mentor texts, students begin to read like writers and write like readers.

But this year, I think I may have stumbled upon an approach to rule them all. 

Which brings me back to that post I read on the NCTE Teaching and Learning forum. Amidst all the responses for and against the five-paragraph essay form was a comment from Geoffrey Layton, a professor from the University of Oklahoma. Layton argued for teaching a form that is commonly found in many professional essays. Here is how he explains it:

The form is a statement of a “Commonplace,” supported by a “First Glance” and contested by a “Closer Look.” The “Commonplace” is a statement of “what most, or many people, probably believe about a topic” and becomes the assumption (or enthymeme) on which the subsequent argument will be based. An examination of a broad range of essays written by and for both academics and the general public begin with such a commonplace. A “first glance” is then used to support the commonplace, which solves the problem that plagues many essayists, even academic writers, when they assume that their naysayers aren’t competent rhetoricians. Finally, the “closer look” advances a differing but not necessarily an opposing or “agonistic” opinion. In other words, this form – a commonplace supported by a first glance and then contested by closer look – is a formula for advancing knowledge, the goal not just of the academy but all writers everywhere. It is what makes the essay such an enduring and necessary form.

The moment I read Layton’s response, I knew he was right. This form—the Commonplace, the First Glance, and the Closer Look—is a form I have seen over and over again in essays from the New York Times, New Yorker, The Atlantic, and so on. This year, I started to teach this form explicitly to my students, and the “CFC”–which quickly became our shorthand for this structure—is now one of my students’ favorite go-to methods for organizing their ideas.

Have you heard of the CFC-The reason the five-paragraph essay has maintained its dominance in schools for so long is because of its clear structure. A clear structure, of course, is important in essay writing. However, when students sit down to write a five-paragraph essay, they too often start by thinking in terms of structure rather than thinking in terms of ideas. In other words, students’ ideas are crammed, retrofitted, and limited so that they can fit into five neatly organized paragraphs.

What I appreciate about the CFC, on the other hand, is that it requires students to leadwith their ideas. In order to effectively use this structure, students must ask themselves what is a common understanding or assumption about this issue? To answer that question, students need to have a sense of audience. Students then need to think about how that common understanding is supported at first glance by evidence. Finally—and most importantly—students must take a stance of curiosity and ask is that really true? Perhaps a closer look reveals that it is not. From this point on in the essay, students must look closer, dig deeper, and question generally held (but often not closely examined) beliefs.

Take this example:

  • A commonplace assumption is that our school education often provides our most valuable learning experiences.
  • After all, at first glance, we spend many years in formal schooling and billions of dollars on funding our public schools.
  • But are schools the only place that we can get a valuable education? If we take a closer look, we see that we can learn much outside the classroom.

The CFC structure I’ve outlined above is essentially the set-up of New York Times columnist David Brooks’ wonderful essay, “The Other Education”. Here is the opening of that piece:

Like many of you, I went to elementary school, high school and college. I took such and such classes, earned such and such grades, and amassed such and such degrees.

But on the night of Feb. 2, 1975, I turned on WMMR in Philadelphia and became mesmerized by a concert the radio station was broadcasting. The concert was by a group I’d never heard of — Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band. Thus began a part of my second education.

We don’t usually think of this second education. For reasons having to do with the peculiarities of our civilization, we pay a great deal of attention to our scholastic educations, which are formal and supervised, and we devote much less public thought to our emotional educations, which are unsupervised and haphazard. This is odd, since our emotional educations are much more important to our long-term happiness and the quality of our lives.

Likewise, the CFC appears in the marvelous long-form essay, “The Upside Of Being An Introvert (And Why Extroverts Are Overrated)” by Bryan Walsh in Time magazine. Here is an excerpt from early in the essay:

Simply being an introvert can also feel taxing–especially in America, land of the loud and home of the talkative. From classrooms built around group learning to open-plan offices that encourage endless meetings, it sometimes seems that the quality of your work has less value than the volume of your voice.

And as if the world weren’t slanted enough toward the extrovert, study after study has made sociability seem like a prerequisite for good health, right along with low cholesterol and frequent exercise. Very shy and introverted people have been shown to succumb more rapidly to diseases like HIV and to be at greater risk for depression than their extroverted counterparts. In schools, it’s the bolder kids who get attention from teachers, while quiet children can too easily languish in the back of the classroom. “Our culture expects people to be outgoing and sociable,” says Christopher Lane, an English professor at Northwestern University and the author of Shyness: How Normal Behavior Became a Sickness. “It’s the unstated norm, and against that norm introverts stand out as seemingly problematic.”

But that unstated norm discounts the hidden benefits of the introverted temperament–for workplaces, personal relationships and society as a whole. Introverts may be able to fit all their friends in a phone booth, but those relationships tend to be deep and rewarding. Introverts are more cautious and deliberate than extroverts, but that means they tend to think things through more thoroughly, which means they can often make smarter decisions. Introverts are better at listening–which, after all, is easier to do if you’re not talking–and that in turn can make them better business leaders, especially if their employees feel empowered to act on their own initiative. And simply by virtue of their ability to sit still and focus, introverts find it easier to spend long periods in solitary work, which turns out to be the best way to come up with a fresh idea or master a skill.

Walsh begins with the commonly held belief that being an introvert is often seen as a negative quality, especially because at first glance, America is a “land of the loud and home of the talkative.” Walsh includes additional evidence to support this commonly held belief, such as statistics about the physical benefits of being an extrovert and the societal prejudices against being an introvert. However, a closer look reveals the “hidden benefits of the introverted temperament.” From this point on, Walsh’s essay digs deeper to examine those benefits.

If you aren’t convinced yet, here are five benefits to the CFC:

Structure. While the five-paragraph essay is structured, it is a structure that is limiting. The CFC, on the other hand, offers a structure that is a meaningful starting point for students as they write and explore a topic.

Large and Small Scale Organization. Speaking of structure, the CFC can offer a method for global organization where the entire essay is loosely organized into these three parts. But it can also be used as a smaller craft move within an essay. Take, for example, this paragraph from “The Case for Teaching Ignorance” by Jamie Holmes in the New York Times:

People tend to think of not knowing as something to be wiped out or overcome, as if ignorance were simply the absence of knowledge. But answers don’t merely resolve questions; they provoke new ones.

Above, Holmes uses the CFC to pivot from some background information earlier in the essay to his claim that teaching ignorance has value.

And below, in Kathryn Shulz’s Pultizer Prize winning feature essay—“The Really Big One” published in The New Yorker last year (and among my absolute favorite essays of all-time)—the CFC is alive and well:

Most people in the United States know just one fault line by name: the San Andreas, which runs nearly the length of California and is perpetually rumored to be on the verge of unleashing “the big one.” That rumor is misleading, no matter what the San Andreas ever does. Every fault line has an upper limit to its potency, determined by its length and width, and by how far it can slip. For the San Andreas, one of the most extensively studied and best understood fault lines in the world, that upper limit is roughly an 8.2—a powerful earthquake, but, because the Richter scale is logarithmic, only six per cent as strong as the 2011 event in Japan.

Just north of the San Andreas, however, lies another fault line. Known as the Cascadia subduction zone, it runs for seven hundred miles off the coast of the Pacific Northwest, beginning near Cape Mendocino, California, continuing along Oregon and Washington, and terminating around Vancouver Island, Canada.

Notice how Shulz begins this section (which is actually the narration part of the classical argument structure) with what “most people in the United States” first associate with fault lines: the San Andreas. Shulz then shifts to take a closer look at the fault line of more pressing concern—the one found a few hundred miles north in the Pacific Northwest.

Authenticity. As I hope I’ve shown in the example above, the CFC can be found in many professional essays and mentor texts.

Focus on Reasoning. To pull off the CFC, students need to think through the assumptions behind commonly held beliefs. Then students need go further—to consider opposing or alternative views to those beliefs. They learn to ask questions and look at an issue by taking another stance. They learn to be curious.

Motivating. When I asked my students what they thought of this structure, one student replied, “I like it because it makes me feel like I’m proving someone wrong. I’m taking something that a lot of people believe and showing them how it’s not that simple.” Rather than write an essay that simply answers why I’m right (isn’t that what all five-paragraph essays do?), the CFC asks students to consider what if we’re wrong?

Of course, all this said, the CFC isn’t always the best organization for all types of arguments. Students need time and practice experimenting with many different types of organization and then choose the one that best fits their ideas.

What do you think of this method? How do you help students find a way to structure their ideas? Please share your thoughts in the comments below, or connect with me on Twitter at @triciaebarvia.

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As a bonus, here are a handful of additional essays that also use the CFC form in some capacity:

Ask Moving Writers: Mentor Sentence Mini-lessons

 

Hi, Beth!

Thanks for asking. As you know, mentor texts can be incredibly powerful tools to help students see the beauty in our language—and studying mentor texts at the sentence level can help students see what happens when we gather the best words in the best order.

I almost always use mentor texts to teach craft at the sentence level. We start each day with a notebook prompt, and I often use brief excerpts from essays or novels that illustrate thoughtful sentence crafting. 

When I use mentor texts to teach at the sentence level, I focus three different elements: diction, syntax, and punctuation.  Continue reading

Best of the 2016-2017 School Year: Thinking About Mentor Texts for Literary Analysis

Whether we are teaching poetry or memoir or literary analysis, the requirements for mentor texts are the same: they must be accessible and relevant for students, and they should be richly crafted. And while poetry and memoir texts are ubiquitous, many of us struggle to find literary analysis mentor texts that are developmentally appropriate and engaging for our students. In this post, Rebekah gives two ways of thinking about the mentor text search for literary analysis that will leave you eager to get your hands on some of the great analytical writing out there.

 

When we are choosing genres to teach in workshop, one consideration is always at the forefront: is this real writing? Is this writing real writers do? Can I find authentic examples of it out in the world? Generally, if the answer is “no”, we don’t teach it.

With one notable exception: literary analysis.

In our mentor text explorations, we have yet to find an example of pure, academic literary analysis roaming around the real world. And yet, we acknowledge the need for students to work in this genre.

Screen Shot 2015-04-24 at 9.56.45 AMBut, maybe not for the reasons that you think.

In many — maybe most — high school English classrooms, literary analysis is the primary mode of writing. It’s the whole shebang. There are many reasons for this, but I think the most potent one is simply this: it’s tradition. It’s what you and I did when we were high school English students. And we enjoyed it. And we were good at it. And that’s why we became English majors. And then English teachers.

But literary analysis is one star in a vast universe of analytical writing. The traditional high school English classroom makes it the sun.

While you won’t find a literary analysis feature article in The New Yorker, analytical writing is everywhere. Political analysis of the 2018 Presidential election. Personal analysis in essays and memoirs.  Sports analysis. Analysis of Furious 7 and Mad Men. And, yes, in its way, analysis of literature in book reviews. Analysis is everywhere.

So, in our view, students should be writing analysis — lots of it — but analysis of all kinds, not just literary analysis. The skills are the same. And if students can skillfully analyze their favorite movie and the effectiveness of the new iPhone and the significance of an important event on their life and the theme of a poem, they will be fantastic, well-rounded  analytical writers who are much more prepared to enter the real world of writing than those students who have only written essays about literature.

Where does this leave us on the mentor text issue?

Like all genre studies, we give students real-world, hot-off-the-press examples of analysis — showing them that the skills they are learning to make a claim about a piece of literature are the same skills that professional writers are using to analyze all sorts of things in the world around them.

Our requirements remain the same — our mentor texts should be accessible and relevant for students, they should be well-written, they should be rich with craft. Continue reading

Mentor Text Wednesday: Revision

Mentor Texts:

Poetry In Action from The New York Times Book Review

E.B. White on Why He Wrote Charlotte’s Web, Plus His Rare Illustrated Manuscripts via brainpickings.org

Strategies Used:

  • Revision

Background:

Aside from noting a few things that popped into my Twitter feed, I haven’t done very much work this summer. July is largely mine. However, the idea that I’d start to meander back into teacher mode in August was always there. I’d do some planning, and resume my regular writing here.

So, imagine my joy as August began, and a clear choice for my first mentor text post of this school year rolled across my Twitter feed. I’m sure a lot of you saw it, as it was retweeted by various members of the Moving Writers community. The New York Times Book Review published an awesome mentor text set – poets’ annotated drafts of their work. I was really excited by this.

I was also reminded of something I had seen long ago at a workshop – an early draft of Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White. I remembered loving the idea of showing my writers that draft of White’s, and my excitement around this Times post was much the same.

This was a readymade mentor text set to facilitate the discussion around revision! Continue reading

Ask Moving Writers: Information Writing That’s NOT “The Research Paper”

AMW Karla (1)

Dear Larken,

On a recent trip back from Texas, we sat behind a couple of teenagers who were having the most incredibly mature, well-rounded, rich conversation about everything from politics to travel to education. As the plane prepared to land, and their conversation came to a close, the 15-year-old boy said to his new plane mate: All education needs to do is teach kids to love learning.

Our hearts leapt out of our chests and sunk at the same time. This statement was so hopeful and profound and somehow freeing, yet it also implied a failure on our part as educators…

How do we teach kids to love learning?

In three words: keep it real.

Make it authentic.

Less like school.

More like life. Continue reading

Best of the 2016-2017 School Year: Ten Ideas for Notebook Time

This post by Karla is kind of like a really great Oprah episode in which everyone walks away with an amazing goody bag. YOU WIN A PRIZE! YOU WIN A PRIZE! EVERYBODY WINS A PRIZE! Yep, everybody’s walking away with ten amazing notebook time invitations that you can use with your students in the first weeks of school. It doesn’t get much better than this.

10 Notebook Time Ideas (1)

Recently, my seniors competed in a state-wide writing competition, and to aid in inspiration and help launch their writing process, I presented students with unique and exciting, low stakes writing opportunities. After reading my students’ writing contest pieces, I was reminded once again of the importance of time spent journaling—of the freedom and release of a writer’s notebook.

Before we get to it, if you haven’t already checked out Tricia Ebarvia’s recent post on her three go-to writer’s notebook prompts, you should definitely do that now.

No, no…now! It’s that good. In her post, Tricia shares not only her favorite strategies to get students writing, but a thoughtfully curated list of resources as well.

The Moving Writers gang has published a wealth of notebook time ideas, of which I find ever inspiring. Check out more Notebook Time posts here.

So in the spirit of throwing my notebook time hat in the ring, here are 10 novel and inviting prompts that can get your students writing. Sure, most of these strategies are high on the fun-factor, but all of them should help your students find a seed of an idea that they could nurture into a mature and developed composition. Continue reading

In Pursuit of Meaningful Feedback

Hi, Elizabeth!

First, thank you for asking this important question! We know how important it is to find ways to give meaningful and timely feedback to students. But we also know how limited our time is—there are only so many minutes in a day, in a class, during prep periods, after school, before school. Finding time for effective feedback is the holy grail of English teachers everywhere. 🙂

Second, just a warning that this response is much longer than I initially intended—but when it comes to feedback there is just so much to say! I’ll be going into my 17th year of teaching this fall, and in those years, I still haven’t found the answer when it comes to giving effective feedback. But every year, I think I get a little closer. So much of teaching is just a series of relentless tweaking, here and there, to make our practice just a little bit better from one moment to the next, all in the service of our students.

This (long) post is a result of all that relentless tweaking. Continue reading