Like many people, I’ve been trying my hand at freelancing here and there for extra income over the past few years. In my case, it’s nothing glorious – just writing (or rewriting) web content explaining the benefits of regular eye exams, how a reverse mortgage works, or where Eddie Murphy’s net worth ranks him compared to other actors or comics.
For English or Social Studies teachers (especially those frothy AP types), the Holy Hand Grenade of rapport-killers is the Five Paragraph Essay. Come out in favor, come out opposed, or simply mention it in passing, and off the rest of us will go. Only Wikipedia and Teach For America have achieved similar infamy for their ability to produce pseudo-intellectual chaos and mutual hostility, online or in the teachers’ lounge.
Honestly, you’d be better off bringing up religion, immigration, or abortion. Fewer emotions or deeply entrenched convictions in play that way.
I arrived at the testing center nervous, but ready to dive in. I remember a locker for my personal belongings, and some guidelines I had to read. Then came the clipboard.
“Read and copy the following certification of something or other IN YOUR OWN HANDWRITING and sign and date at the bottom.” I hadn’t planned on this – a long list of formalities I’d have to copy in a foreign script before I’d even be allowed to begin the actual test. The timed test. The one determining if the past two-and-a-half years of my life had been worth it. The one potentially ruining everything. The one I was already worried about, despite weeks of stressful preparation. The one for whom the clock was already ticking.
In an academic context, argument isn't a bad thing at all. In fact, it's crazy beneficial. It's how science is supposed to work - great minds doing research and writing papers primarily so other great minds can criticize and question everything about them and explain why they're flawed or incomplete. It's our preferred format for difficult legal questions, whether determining the constitutionality of a company policy or trying to figure out if you actually stole that car before or after the body was stuffed in the trunk.
And it's how history and its interpretation(s) get sorted out. At least, that's how it's supposed to work...
If you ever want to have real fun, start talking about the 'correct' way to teach writing with any group of teachers. For serious fireworks, try it with AP History folks after you've all had a drink or two. Better you stick with safer, less provocative topics like abortion, religion, or the validity of comic books and superhero movies as cultural touchstones.
A few weeks ago, State Superintendent of Public Instruction Joy Hofmeister tweeted something about cursive being part of the revised ELA standards. Being me, I responded semi-snarkily about Morse code or quill pens or such. It was friendly, but I was oddly annoyed in a way I wasn’t quite ready to confess.
Although it is an imperfect beast and its overuse can be limiting, or even harmful, the “5-Paragraph Essay” should not be so unfairly maligned. It provides useful scaffolding for students learning to support logical arguments rather than ramble about their impressions and feelings, promotes clarity and focus for students as they attempt to formulate and support those arguments, and offers the security of structure and a type of ‘safety net’ for young writers not always certain how to best proceed.