In the poem "Lines", Wordsworth is revisiting a place he had been five years before. In his opening description, he draws a picture while he is retracing his steps: the rolling rivers, the "lofty" cliffs, the cottages, the orchards and a "dark sycamore" tree where he takes a rest.
On my most recent read in getting ready for this blog, the "dark sycamore" jumped out of the text. Is that a symbol of something? I thought. I am missing some obvious cultural references? Like any good English teacher now living in the internet age, I did a google search to find out the following questions. They are linked to my answers:
- What does a sycamore tree look like? (Leafs on. From underneath)
- Is it native to England? (Not strictly but grows everywhere.)
- Is it the same tree as the one in the Bible story with Zachheus? (Yes but the one in the Bible is probably a fig tree)
- What are other cultural references? (Lots of references but mostly after the poem was written: Sycamore Tree lyrics for Twin Peaks, The Tolpuddle Martyrs' tree, restorative justice program in New Zealand)
But get this! This academic paper, which was presented at a conference, is about the writing process and how teachers inflict the constraints of a Romantic view of writing that ultimately blocks our students from their own writing life. In the abstract, she writes:
"Students are asked to organize essays into orderly units that are as totalitarian as Romanticism can be. The thesis mandated is as overarching, as imposing, and as obscuring as that dark sycamore in "Tintern Abbey," from under which the poet speaks. Maybe teachers of composition need to be radically quiescent and not consciously hand down what they know, but encourage their students to render representations from under their own brands of lexical arbors"
At the heart of her paper she is questioning the assumptions of how we teach writing especially structures like the five paragraph essay with its "mandated", "overarching" thesis. Her bold assertion that essays are totalitarian may seem over the top but sometimes we need the drama of language to push out thinking. She could also be right. (Of course I can't help love this paper because she combines the concept of totalitarian with writing - perfect concepts for FFP - a course that combines Civics with English and Careers).
The five paragraph essay seems to be a sacred idea in the high school English classroom. That's what high school English teachers do....teach the five paragraph essay. And with (some) reason. It is a writing device to organize your thoughts. In organizing your thoughts, the structure becomes a scaffold to help build a line of argument. The formula is simple and simple to mark. What possibly could be wrong? Right?
Yet not every argument can fit neatly into five paragraphs. I began encountering the limits of this five paragraph essay in late high school and early university but I didn't know the next step. I felt like even questioning the five paragraphs was equivalent to swearing in church. As a result, I don't think letting the five paragraph essay exist as the only model of persuasive writing in high school is healthy or realistic to the future goals of my students.
But I can't not teach the five paragraph essay. It would leave students ill-equipped for the next grade. They would be missing out on the life changing, cultural experience of knowing and intimately understanding the five paragraph essay. How damaging!
Let me jest some more. Here is what I imagine. A note taped to the English department door (similar to Martin Luther's 95 theses):
Dear English Colleagues,
I can no longer teach the Five Paragraph Essay. It is a totalitarian concept the puts manacles on the minds of my students.
In political protest,
In search of true democratic existence,
But what do I offer up instead? I think the question really is, how to you unlock the potential of what the five paragraph essay initially stood for and how do you integrate that into the classroom. I also feel that I am just starting to understand how to mentor others into writing. So often I find the best lessons occur when a student and I are looking at a piece of writing and we rewrite while I "think aloud" my thoughts on what makes stronger sentences. Last Friday, I was editing a graphic design piece for a senior student's portfolio application. I had taught this student five years ago in grade nine. At that time he was a disengaged young man with hair in face listening to loud music sliding into class just as the bell would ring. On Friday, he hung on to every suggestion about grammar and stylistic tricks to make his copy better. It was directly applicable to his goals. For me it is always more interesting teaching and learning with a motivated student. How do you tap into motivation when you say to a class, "Okay class, now we will put engagement on pause as we cover our bases and teach you the five paragraph essay. You will need this some day." ?
The Cheerios are now crushed into tiny bits on the floor. The cupboard is completely emptied out of its contents. And A. was screaming her need for breakfast, I fed her and she is now in bed about to wake up. I need to publish this and move on.
In reflecting back on the five paragraph essay and where I am going with it in my classroom, I have come across a couple other teacher blog entries on the five paragraph essay. All worth a read.
Beyond the Five Paragraph Essay
Teaching Writing: Five Paragraph Essay is Not the Answer
Giving Credit Where Credit is Due: The Five Paragraph Essay
And finally, I just want to highlight that this blog entry was brought to you by a google search on a dark sycamore tree. Thank you Wordsworth. Thank you Google.