Undoing the Five Paragraph Essay Zombies

I feel that by the title of this post alone, you all will understand what I’m talking about.

Students today have the five paragraph essay format drilled into their brains to the point of writing paralysis. They are five paragraph essay zombies.

The five paragraph essay structure is essential for survival in the public school world of high stakes testing, especially in New York City. All Regents Exams require one to two essays for which you can receive the maximum points possible with a simple five paragraph essay (if done well, mind you). Therefore, students who have undergone a lot of test prep come to community college with the five paragraph essay as their only writing skill. In some ways it is helpful: The five paragraph essay structure is a good *conceptual* structure for all writing. In anything you write, you need

1. an introduction

2. a thesis/argument

3. a body of your writing that explains your points, plot, topics

4. a conclusion

However, the challenge comes when trying to explain to the students that an introduction is not a paragraph. That a thesis is not a sentence. That a body of an essay is not only three paragraphs. That a conclusion is not a paragraph.

This can be very hard for the students to get.

I have found that when I explain this to them, they nod and seem to get it, but then their writing looks NO different. They fall back to the five paragraph essay structure because it’s comfortable and easy. I get that. I like easy, too, but taking the easy route isn’t how you get better at something. You have to experiment.

So I started using model texts. Actually, I used ONE model text over and over this semester. The essay, “Why ‘Model Minority’ Doesn’t Fit” by Diane Yen-Mei Wong. (I just spent about 10 minutes online trying to find a link, but no luck. It’s in this book: Models for Writers, 7th edition. These are great books with short essays for any of you who teach writing. I have been using the same xerox copy of this essay for YEARS, but I just ordered this book because I have a fear of losing my one copy.)

First, we used this essay in class as content for our immigration unit. We had just read the novel Girl in Translation, but we hadn’t talked about the idea of the model minority yet and how the protagonist, Kim, falls into this stereotype. This is a great short essay to introduce the model minority concept and the complications of such a racial stereotype. We read this, discussed, and applied to the concept to the novel we had just finished.

Then, when their next essay was due, we re-read this essay. We read it once aloud for content and summarized the points in a quick recall exercise, and then I asked the students to find–with a pencil–the introduction, thesis, points of the argument, and the conclusion. They could work in pairs. This was hard for them because while her essay follows the five paragraph essay order (intro, argument, body, conclusion), they are not simple paragraphs or sentences to be found. They are much longer.

Next we dissected the essay together and annotated it with a pen, marking that:

The introduction is a narrative story and is four paragraphs long, not a paragraph, and is a narrative story.

The thesis is one paragraph long, not a sentence.

The points of the body paragraph are about two paragraphs long per point, not one paragraph long.

The conclusion is two paragraphs long, one paragraph that refers to the introductory narrative, one paragraph that refers to her argument.

In their next and last essays for my class, they had to use this format: start with a narrative story introduction (at least two paragraphs), have an argument paragraph, explain your points in two paragraphs each, conclude with a referral back to your narrative introduction for one paragraph and then a paragraph that summarizes your argument.

And they did it! The first essay attempt with  this structure was okay, but the last essay–after a year of work to make them cognizant of their tendency to lean too heavily on the five paragraph essay structure–they were no longer five paragraph essay zombies.

I’m going to try to do this earlier in the year this coming year when I teach freshman. I literally got them to do this on their last assignment of their freshman year. I was proud, but it would have been nice if it had happened sooner.

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2 thoughts on “Undoing the Five Paragraph Essay Zombies

  1. Can you recommend novels for my 101 class next year? I was thinking about Sherman Alexie- Absolutely True Diary of a Part Time Indian, Matthew Quick- Silver Linings Playbook or Sorta Like a Rock Star, 0r ‘The Art of Racing in the Rain”

    • hey monica! sorry for the delayed reply–last semester slayed me. i LOVE absolutely true diary. what’s your 101 class’s theme? i don’t know the other texts you mentioned, but i have also taught Girl in Translation by Jean Kwok with much, much success. if you can guide me more re: theme, i can give you some ideas. thanks for reading. 🙂

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