The five-paragraph essay is likened to learning the foundations of structure and organization critical to being able to write other organized pieces. There may be merit to this, however learning how to write something no one reads anymore may only serve to rust and crumble authenticity.
Might I offer some suggestions, or additions to the five-paragraph essay, especially for secondary students?
Consider these sites/links as mentor texts as well as powerful places to publish essays. Use examples of the essays written here and challenge students to compare their essays to these.
Some close reading/close writing ideas:
Read for anecdotes: these may be strewn throughout the piece, or used in the beginning to provide humanity and context.
Read for truth (personal truths), opinions (things that strive to persuade) and facts (quantifiable data)
Read for thesis (claims)– but more importantly, read for ‘what question the writer is ‘answering’ — identify what prompted the piece, and what happened before and what might happen after is critical to consider the context of any essay.
Identify where the author broke away from the standard “five paragraph essay” and where she may have taken some key pieces for organization — how does it begin? How is it concluded? What points are made in the middle?
In the conclusions: analyze how the conclusion stacks up with leaving the reader with the desired outcome, whatever that may be. Does the conclusion provide wisdom, more questions, a summation of ideas? How? Why or why not?
These sites allow for curation and dialogue. Challenge students to find pieces that bounce against one another, the claims and counter-claims of 21st-century discussions. We are not sitting around dinner tables anymore, we are sitting in a web of ideas, and sometimes we are the prey: in this day and age, it is critical to not gloss over what is fake news, but to empower our students to consider and weigh the entire issues at stake. It is a monumental task but may mean life or death. Hyperbole? Not when others are reading conspiracy theories and threatening lives. Even if this isn’t factual–consider that some do believe it, and act accordingly.
While reading through her presentation, what caught my eye was the idea that ancient stories or ‘campfire stories’ are nonfiction. Campfire and ancient stories are something I’m very familiar with, having created units on early human story telling for 8th grade, that ties in with the World Studies history. At least I thought I was an expert, but according to Beers and Probst, campfire stories are non-fiction. I asked for clarification, and Roth’s interpretation of N&N Nonfiction makes sense: those stories were meant to inform. Yes, they were. They were origin stories, creation stories, explanations for the beginnings and the endings of things. That makes sense. But–and here is where I ran out and clicked on the book link to buy it–I can imagine teaching the context of genre and how genre shifts with new knowledge is going to be critical.
But before a rush to judgment, I will be reading with a lens that my personal theory is not all campfire stories were meant to inform. Or rather, humans didn’t need to hear and share stories with pure entertainment and escapism value. Nonfiction connotes such dryness for me, and that’s wrong. And I am going to check my bias, because more likely than not, my students believe stories as if they were factual, and it’s time to deconstruct that notion. Think about it: urban legends, social media comments, texts –they are not meant to entertain, but to state opinions as facts.
I remember when introducing Greek/Roman mythology trying to put it in context for students, and dancing around a theological line: these gods and goddess died because no (human) believed in them anymore, but at the time, the cultural belief system was as strong as any current religion today. Some students, occasionally, would suggest we bring back Zeus and Hera.
Perhaps there is another word, a portmanteau, that integrates fiction and nonfiction: truthiction? Stories intended to inform but are based on limited knowledge? Maybe I’ll leave that one up to my students next year to discuss and decide. Yes, I think that’s best.
Here is a better idea: if stories are meant to inform, enlighten, or motivate, then perhaps a unit on civic engagement is in order:
For years, (and I am not being hyperbolic) I found that no novel, no news article, heck, not even a cereal box would cross my path without my examination of every word in close detail of where and what and how and when some text passage would spark my EUREKA! LOOK AT THIS CHARACTER RELATIONSHIP TO SETTING! This happened long before I heard the term ‘close reading.’ Annotating, discussion points, questioning, digging…on and on. The (over) analysis of literature, news, history, politics, religion, movies, poetry– and yes — cereal boxes, no longer came to me with just the need to read [say this in a Top Gun voice of ‘I feel the need for speed’]. I didn’t need to read for myself, I needed to read through every students’ brain that came into my classroom.
My best conversations about narrative are always with my husband. But even now, I sometimes tell him I don’t want to analyze what we’re watching, which probably hurts his feelings. I don’t blame him. We did manage to enjoy this anthology’s selection of True Detective, and if you say one word against Vince Vaughn’s performance we can’t be friends anymore. I did have one scuffle with a friend over her inability to appreciate the sad, sweet frosting that is The Grand Budapest Hotel, but I’m not married to her, so I let it go.
But you see how this goes, right? That what we love and share is as close to our hearts as anything can be? And if we love reading, and then must dissect it, masticate it, and regurgitate for others to find the path…then…(don’t worry: I’m going to get to a good place with this).
Another place that’s mine to share when discussing books is a book club one of my dearest friends started. There are several members, mostly NOT teachers, which provides a refreshing place to discuss books. My friend’s turn to choose came up, and she thought a classic would be in order, so she shared her love, Pride and Prejudice. I went through a “Jane Austen” phase in my late 30s, having not read any of her work in high school. I loved them. I got them. And I saw connection after connection between her genuis of writing about social foibles in her time and the relevancy to today. Now, one of my friend’s friends asked her if it was okay to just watch the movie. I don’t blame her. The text was written in 1813, for Elizabeth Bennet’s sake, and it’s hard to make heads or tails out of it.
Take this passage:
“Pride, observed Mary, who who piqued herself upon the solidity of her reflections, “is…
Austen, Jane (2008-02-11). Pride and Prejudice (Kindle Location 216). Dolphin Books. Kindle Edition.
Translation: This girl likes her own opinions.
We all know this girl. The one who interjects into every conversation her personal wisdom and sage advice.
Am I sure that’s what it means? No. I didn’t look up Sparknotes, or talk about it, or have a scholarly discussion about Jane Austen. I JUST KNOW.
I promised someplace good with this. Some kind of wake for my loss of my reading life. A fête, perhaps.
But here is that slow-burn epiphany: I signed up for this. It doesn’t matter that my inner reading life is no more: I am a teacher now, and all that matters is that I help ease the path for reading, and making meaning, for students. Just like parenting responsibilities, teaching is a biggie. It’s not an avocation or hobby. But unless I get back my own engagement in the conversation with students, it’s going to feel like work. (It did last year, but last year was fraught with a dearth of imagination and abundance of negativity, lack of scope, lack of growth mindset, and just plain bad manners. I can’t abide bad manners.)
But that was last year. This is now. I still love to discuss ideas: ideas from books, movies, graphic novels, politics, media, and world events, past, present and future. As long as I show students that close reading is just a tool to help make reading easier–easier to access the ideas–then it’ll be okay. Close reading, and my internal dialogue and connections with writers’ craft, still delights and engages me, and makes me feel smart and confident. I want my students to share in the same gift.
I have no issues or concerns with the author or article. What I’m digging into is this: why read at all?
When I pose this to students, I can gauge their level of maturity in their responses:
Immature: Because the teacher made me.
Mature: “Oh, Mrs. Love, The Hunger Games is SO GOOD – I read it all weekend and couldn’t put it down (this comes from both girls and boys). Do you have the next book? The next book? The next book?
I worked as a barista at a well-known world-dominating coffee establishment while I was working on my master’s. The cash register went to a symbol system, with codes, etc., and most instructions for the layout of the shop were “idiot proof.”
Be cautious, people: are we making the world so ‘idiot proof” that we marginalize ourselves even further.
I”ll just keep talking away – telling students that everything, and I mean darn near everything, is improved in my life because of my rich reading life: food, experiences, travel, time with family, conversations, know-how, confidence, friendships, choices, and any social interaction, writing, creating, crafting, developing, and breathing – it’s all better.
I will stay married to my husband for as long as we both shall live. Yes, we made altar-born promises, but what gives us the stamina is really this: no one is as interesting or as insightful as I find him to be. He is inquisitive, and questions/seeks answers. I have learned more about the core of teaching , the heart, of Language Arts from him than just about any resource or expert. If we are watching a movie, even it’s a silly ‘no brainer’ like Point Break, we have so much fun dissecting and anaylyzing the antagonist friendship between Johnny Utah and Bodhi. We were flipping through trailers the other night, and when it came to the final two Harry Potter movies, I must admit I got a little misty–my son asked why, and I said it’s because I read the books. (He and my husband were reading those together, but time got away from them. Probably because we were watching Point Break.) Here’s where it gels: we need each other to talk about what we’re seeing, and feel safe to question/discuss our world around us. Questioning texts/media is not an adjunct to critical thinking; it is critical thinking.
One of the more successful lessons a few years back was having students write their own questions about the books they were reading. But teaching the art of ‘questioning’ comes first. It’s all part of Bloom’s, Costa’s, and a myriad of other resources. A caution: try not to dismiss the foundational ‘knowledge’ step while climbing up the taxonomic mountain. Students will adjust the pace of their critical thinking climb, but knowledge is an important step.
“The main character of this novel is named Hannah.”
“Okay, now you’ve defined the word — now explain it in your own words, and develop some comparing words and some contrasting words. Remember our ‘cupcake’ versus ‘brocoli’ comparison.”
“Mom, do you know how straws work?” Well, we learned in Science class about air pressure…”
“Cinderella was really kind of a doormat, I mean, why did she take that kind of abuse from her stepmother and stepsisters?”
“A fable’s purpose is really to use personification to describe common, universal human traits, while a fairy tale really uses magic and human wishes/desires to empower children.”
“Let’s combine what we heard in the newspaper story and our novel–what would our perspective be, combining these main ideas, in an original story?”
“I really love this painting you created based on that poem; it really speaks to me.”
Finding a variety of questioning resources is as easy as stubbing your toe on a coffee table; it’s the pain afterward that’s bothersome. Students who begin to have those enlightened moments while questioning texts are the reason I teach, to stay with for the long haul, because someday they and their partners in life may be analyzing Point Break. No need for marriage counseling.