Yes, I Am Going to Defend the Five-Paragraph Essay

Five Paragraph Essay PictureSo this has been bouncing around in my head for a couple of weeks and had I been more of a timely blogger, I would have written about it already, but there’s that whole “I’ve got to teach all day” thing that sometimes gets in the way of blog posts.  Anyway, I was on Twitter and (to give credit where credit is due) Justin Tarte posted the picture at right, which said “Now is the time to stop treating the five-paragraph essay as the Holy Grail of education.” Obviously, it got retweeted–that’s what the Twitter sheeple do–but I found it to be pretty well off the mark and for a few reasons.

First, I’m not so sure that anyone ever thought of a five-paragraph essay as a “Holy Grail” of education.  Maybe it’s just the way I define “Holy Grail” and maybe I’ve seen Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade one too many times, but to me the Holy Grail is the great lost object or goal, one that may never be found but that one strives to find or achieve.  The five-paragraph essay is far from that; if anything, it’s a minimum standard of writing, something that is more of a base than a goal.  If there is an inappropriate Holy Grail of education these days, it has to be the idea that every teacher everywhere will get 100% of their students to pass a standardized test, despite the myriad issues that both teachers and students face year in and year out.

Furthermore, if you look at the structure of a five-paragraph essay, some of it makes sense.  The average five-paragraph essay breaks down into an introduction, three body paragraphs, and a conclusion.  If you change five paragraphs to three parts, you still have a decent model for a basic argumentative or analytical paper: state your thesis, present your proof, conclude.  It’s not completely foolproof, but I have found that taking students beyond the five-paragraph model is made easier by understanding of how the model actually works and showing what you can do with it.  So if there’s a problem with the five-paragraph essay in this regard, it’s probably a result of the user and not the actual tool.

Finally, having taught a number of students who are either low-level or lazy, the five-paragraph essay provides a sound structure for improving their writing.  Yes, me calling students “lazy” sounds like I’m being disrespectful toward them, but many of those I have taught are so task-oriented and get so focused on the quantity of their writing rather than the quality that telling them that they need a specific number of paragraphs in their essays actually causes them to do better work.  If I were to say that you should write in three parts or write however much you think answers the question or prompt, then I would get back a few paragraphs or maybe even only a few sentences, which at that level is definitely not enough to fully address the task at hand.  When a student is starting below his or her level more structure is needed to bring him or her up to that minimum, and the five-paragraph essay provides that structure.

This model for writing is not foolproof by any means; few things ever are.  However, its age, ubiquity, and misuse does not equate to obsolesence, and while newer approaches to writing are always welcome, simply scrapping the old is as misguided as considering it to be some sort of false ultimate goal.


From the Bookshelf: Beauty: When the Other Dancer is the Self

“Earthrise,” taken by astronaut William Anders from Apollo 8 on December 24, 1968. Image courtesy of Wikipedia. Used because I needed a picture here and there’s that line in the essay about a “world” being in the author’s eye. Plus, this photo is an all-time fave.

Very often when I’m figuring out what to teach, I find myself going outside of the classroom English textbook. In this feature, I take a look at those reading selections.

When I choose reading material for my advanced English class, I try to strike a balance between finding things my students may like and relate to and things with literary merit. Around this time of year, we read and discuss essays and short stories that center around the idea of identity, and one of my favorite essays to talk about is Alice Walker’s “Beauty: When the Other Dancer is the Self.” A story of overcoming childhood trauma, Walker wirtes about how she was badly injured by a BB gun her brother fired when she was a girl (yes, “you’ll shoot your eye out”) and the effect that had on her self-perception through the rest of her childhood, into adolescence, and even into adulthood.

It’s a layered piece, as she makes points about how we look at people based on their physical appearance, what that does to how we look at ourselves, and looks at its everlasting effects. Walker expresses how she hates her eye and even rages against it, cursing it as if it’s not simply a physical trait but as the major antagonist in her life. In fact, it’s so much of a villain that she seems to see a problem more than anyone else (people tell her that she “hasn’t changed” as a result of the accident). Eventually, things improve. The scar on her eye improves and … well, she becomes Alice Walker.

But as she relates toward the end, there is a lingering sense of something wrong, which rears its head when her young daughter innocently looks at her eye:

One day when I am putting Rebecca down for her nap, she suddenly focuses on my eye. Something inside me cringes, gets ready to try to protect myself. All children are cruel about physical differences, I know from experience, and that they don’t always mean to be is another matter. I assume Rebecca will be the same. But no-o-o-o. She studies my face intently as we stand, her inside and me outside her crib. She even holds my face maternally between her dimpled little hands. Then, looking every bit as serious and lawyerlike as her father, she says, as if it may just possibly have slipped my attention: Mommy, there’s a world in your eye.” (As in, “Don’t be alarmed, or do anything crazy.”) And then, gently, but with great interest: “Mommy, where did you get that world in your eye?”

I first read this during the fall of my freshman year of college. I think that I remember appreciating it but in the haze and blur of that first semester, didn’t cherish it. When I came across the essay in an anthology a few years ago, I reread it, remembered what I liked about it, and assigned it. What amazes me whenever my students read and discuss it is that because it is so layered, there are different discussions almost every time. You can look at it from the perspective of a woman, someone who is black, someone who has suffered a trauma, someone who has been a victim, or someone who has triumphed over adversity.

This year’s classes took time on the point that Walker makes about how kids can be cruel toward one another and had a serious discussion about that cruelty, and by extension, bullying. I got to see how both boys and girls have a different perspective on the cruelty of other kids; moreover, I got to see the girls in the class completely school the boys on what it really is like to put up with their peers’ crap. In fact, at one point, one of the girls laid into a guy across the room, saying, “You really have NO idea what it’s like. You can’t just ‘ignore’ it or ‘get over it.'” And his statement hadn’t come from any sort of meanness, but from the naivete that comes with being a teenage boy. Granted, we didn’t have some sort of movie moment where everyone walked out of the room smiling at one another while Simple Minds played, but I could tell (or maybe I’m just projecting here, but I thought I could tell) that the class had come upon the answer to that age old English class question: “Why are we reading this?” You know, aside from the fact that I could use it to show them what a well-crafted essay looks like and how a writer can find and use literary devices (symbolism, metaphor, allusion, etc.) in real life. Which, when you think of it, is why we assign the literature we assign in the first place.

For the love of longhand

Starting tomorrow, some of my sophomore classes are writing their last essay of the year. It’s a persuasive essay and it winds up serving as an informal pre-assessment of sorts for their eleventh grade teachers–since persuasive writing makes up most of the eleventh grade curriculum, after all is said and done, I collect the pieces and pass them onto the junior English teachers. Granted, I’m letting my students write about whatever they want and their eleventh grade teachers will work them toward mastering the art of answering a writing prompt on the forthcoming state exam, but I think that it’ll be a halfway decent indicator of where they are going in.

They’ll be writing the essays in longhand, and what’s funny about this to me (and probably only to me because I’m one of the only people who finds this type of stuff “funny”) is that it’s not due to some pedagogical stance or effort to prove that old-school educational philosophy is alive and well. It’s because this is testing week and I’d have a better chance of finding Jimmy Hoffa in the auditorium storage closet than an available computer. Ergo, pen … meet paper. Although I have to say, having been a “writer” since I discovered my voice (and for a brief time, my muse) in a high school creative writing class (I say “writer” because I don’t have enough published credits to my name), I have written many a first draft in a spiral-bound notebook. In fact, I still have the green spiral-bound notebook with “Creative Writing Journal, Tom Panarese Period 6” written on the cover in Sharpie, which I used in the fall semester of 1994 in that creative writing class as well as every notebook I’ve filled since. Doesn’t make me a writer, makes me a hoarder.

Anyway, while there have been times that I have found writing in longhand inefficient, there are many times when I savor the chance to sit down with a pen, my latest notebook (and maybe my iPod) and a cup of coffee and spend some time working on … whatever I’m working on, especially since they are very rare moments in my very busy life. That anyone can have the chance to slow things down and get into his own head as a writer is a great chance. Granted, what’s inside my own head scares me sometimes, but at least I get that chance.

At the same time, I’m grateful for technology. I was able to write this post via WordPress in one fell swoop, without having to retype it, and published it right away. When I was in high school in the early 1990s, I would have never had the opportunity to do that. But it also took me about 45 minutes to write something that probably should have taken maybe half an hour. Because I had seven tabs open on Chrome and kept switching over to Twitter and Facebook whenever a (1) appeared next to the site’s name in the tab. Then there was an article I needed to read about Jon Cryer making Superman IV, I discovered a podcast about Saved By the Bell, and had to subscribe to the brand new Two True Freaks podcast feed. In other words, as much as I love what technology has given me in terms of both efficiency in writing as well as inspiration, I will say it slows down my process because I get incredibly distracted. So here’s to longhand, may it never die. Although I will say that there is a downside to the old method–this post was originally supposed to be about something entirely different, but I left my notebook with the draft in my classroom.

From the Bookshelf: Essays, Identity, and My So-Called Life

Angela Chase (played by Claire Danes), the main character of My So-Called Life (image courtesy of

Very often when I’m figuring out what to teach, I find myself going outside of the classroom English textbook. In this feature, I take a look at those reading selections.

One thing that I have always enjoyed about putting together lessons about short works such as essays and short stories is being able to link several pieces that seem disparate through a common theme. Teaching sophomores, I look for themes that might be relevant to their current lives and then search for works reflect that theme in myriad ways. Identity is a favorite of mine. At 15 or 16, you’re at an age where you are discovering more about the world and might even be questioning a bit as well. Your identity, you discover, is malleable.

Morever, this idea is a near-universal concept. Set aside outdated fashion or melodramatic moments in Rebel Without a Cause or The Breakfast Club and you still have a protagonist or protagonists struggling with the changing idea of who they are. There are bits and pieces of these themes in the essays I do from Kick Me by Paul Feig, which starts the unit, as well as a piece by David Sedaris called “Us and Them,” which on the surface is a wacky neighbor essay but beneath the surface is an exploration of how we build the identities of other people in our own minds based on preconceived notions and perception.

Alice Adams’ short story “Truth or Consequences,” which is about a girl dealing with the minefield of middle school and the cruelty of the mean girls; and Alice Walker’s essay, “Beauty: When the Other Dance is the Self,” where she contemplates her scars and how they affect her outlook on the world, both touch on this theme as well. Adolescence is a time when we tend to be more self-conscious and hopefully self-aware.

Granted, these essays were pretty easy to pick. I was choosing them for an advanced English class full of AP-bound students and they rarely shy away from something that is out of the ordinary fare. In fact, they tend to be pretty patient with my “throw it against the wall and see what sticks” approach to reading material. Which is cool because I try not to worry myself too much about these things–sometimes a piece resonates, sometimes I chuck it and move on. I mean, I killed a research project halfway through last year because we weren’t feeling it, so a reading selection is no big deal. For these essays, I did what I could to vary the approach to discussion too, using a combination of student-led “read and leads,” teacher-led lecture/Q&A, and the fishbowl, which is always pretty popular. It resulted in some great moments. “Truth or Consequences” for instance, perplexed the four guys in the fishbowl because they couldn’t understand why girls would are one another to flirt with and kiss a scrubby kid. Then, one of the girls in the class tagged in and said, “Teenage girls do that.” It spurred a conversation about how there is this cruelty that exists in between your ‘tween and teen years, a theme of discussion that spilled over to the talk of “Beauty …” as well as the closer for the unit, My So-Called Life.

A little personal disclosure here, which is the same disclosure I gave them when I introduced the show: My So-Called Life (MSCL), the teen television show starring Claire Danes as sophomore Angela Chase, aired during my senior year of high school. I have been a fan for the last eighteen years and have been a member of a close-knit group of fans via a listserv since 2000. So I know the series like the back of my hand and consider it to be one of the most realistic depiction of teenagers on television, especially for a time when the predominant teen television series were Beverly Hills, 90210 and Saved By the Bell (in reruns and the “New Class” version, anyway). MSCL’s pilot episode ties into our essays thematically right from its first lines:

So, I started hanging out with Rayanne Graff, just for fun. Just ’cause it seemed like if I didn’t, I would die, or something. …Things were getting to me. Just how people are — how they always expect you to be a certain way. Even your best friend. …Like, with boys, like they have it so easy. Like you have to pretend you don’t notice them noticing you. …Like cheerleaders. Can’t people just cheer on their own? Like to themselves? …School is a battlefield for your heart. So when Rayanne Graff told me my hair was holding me back, I had to listen. ‘Cause she wasn’t just talking about my hair. She was talking about my life.


And we see that decision–to hang out with the girl who is “from another crowd –affect everyone around Angela, from her best friend Sharon to her parents. The assignment that went along with this was a worksheet, but before you cast me into the Sarlacc with the other teachers you condemn for using worksheets, I have to say that it’s a sheet that’s devoted to a lot more critical thinking and evaluation than “Were you paying attention?” For instance, there are questions like …

  • [Opening quote] is the first we hear of the voice-over that serves as Angela Chase’s inner monologue and narration for the episode (and most of the series). In the same way that essays and stories we have read had introductory sections, how well does this serve as an introduction to the show and how does it compare to the introductions of the essays we have read?
  • Describe how Angela and Sharon’s confrontation in the girls’ room is set up and how it pays off, then make a prediction for the future of Angela and Sharon
  • What is the most shattering moment for Angela in the episode and what, if any moments can you compare it to in what you’ve read so far?
  • Consider the theme of the episode, the title of the show, and how that contributes to the universal theme of all five pieces we have read.
  • Based on the episode and its ending, where do you think the show goes from here? Make a prediction for at least two of the characters.

Answers ranged from the passive “I’m just getting this done” to the thorough, especially on questions that evaluated the characters and had prediction. I didn’t know whether or not any of them had seen the series before but I have to say that they were pretty accurate as far as their predictions went–one predicted that Rayanne might OD at one point and another predicted that Sharon, who is pretty shunned by Angela, will mend their relationship in the future. Overall, it seemed to resonate fairly well. Sure, there was the crowd that didn’t seem to be paying much attention, or didn’t seem to care either way, but a few students actually asked to watch more episodes … and even though I was sure they simply wanted to watch more TV in class, I directed them to Netflix, where they can stream the entire series.

Not to go too far patting myself on the back here, but it is kind of fun to see the results of your own resourcefulness, especially when it works. What’s also fun is as much as I always enjoy watching the show again, I enjoy it even more when watching it with the audience it was intended for. I got to see their reaction to specific moments and characters and had the opportunity to re-evaluate some things with my fellow listees because my telling them about a particular scene in the pilot prompted a pilot rewatch and chat via Twitter and Facebook. One of us–Cory–even got Devon Gummersall, who played Brian Krakow, to answer a question about why he was in a tree at the end of the episode (he Tweeted back that Brian basically has it as a happy place to avoid his over protective, micromanaging parents. It’s the type of piece that feels important in a medium that is often dismissed, and which speaks to the universality of what many of my students might actually deal with on a regular basis. Exploring themes of identity, perception, and the tribulations of adolescence is vital to literary education and I’m more than happy to do it.

But Trust Me on the Sunscreen


One of the hardest things to teach, at least I have found, is “funny.” Watching my fair share of stand-up comedy and having taught satire to English classes, I know how hard comedians and satirists work to perfect their craft (and if you don’t, listen to Marc Maron’s WTF podcast), and I also know that when you are trying to introduce something like satire–wtih all of its nuances–it often falls flat because sometimes students do not get hte jokes or even take the satire at face value, and if you have to explain said jokes, they aren’t really that funny anymore.

Such is the case with Mary Schmich’s 1997 op-ed for The Chicago Tribune  “Advice, like youth, probably just wasted on the young.” Schmich, her tongue firmly planted in her cheek, offers her audience a send-up of the standard commencement address. She begins by essentially stating her purpose, saying:

inside every adult lurks a graduation speaker dying to get out, some world-weary pundit eager to pontificate on life to young people who’d rather be Rollerblading. Most of us, alas, will never be invited to sow our words of wisdom among an audience of caps and gowns, but there’s no reason we can’t entertain ourselves by composing a Guide to Life for Graduates. I encourage anyone over 26 to try this and thank you for indulging my attempt …


She then indulges herself, offering advice that is sometimes witty but meant to reflect the trite sort of advice given to students who are sweating out on football fields in multi-colored polyester, waiting to go to the first post-graduation party. The one thing she insists that rings true is this piece of advice: wear sunscreen. Now, if this seems familiar to you as a reader, then you are probably familiar with the spoken-word song with accompanying music video, “Everybody’s Free (to Wear Sunscreen),” which was produced by Australian movie director Baz Lurhman, which adapts all but the beginning of Schmich’s piece into a fake graduation speech for the class of 1999. As he doles out advice, there is text, photography, and video animation that while it predates YouTube by about four years, still would probably go viral today because it uses elements not unfamiliar to today’s YouTube amateurs. In fact, this video kind of stems from Schmick’s piece going viral without her realizing it.

Around the time of the song’s release in spring 1999, the text of “Everybody’s Free” sans intro and author identity was making the rounds on the Internet via the old standby of an email forward (this was probably around the time when those things were still effective and not what your mother and only your mother seems to send on to her entire address book every chance she gets), and some versions of it attributed the text to Kurt Vonnegut–specifically, a speech he supposedly gave at MIT. I’m not sure who attributed this to Vonnegut or why that person thought he gave the speech at MIT; perhaps he or she thought it was kooky enough for a Vonnegut speech.

To his credit, Luhrman, who first read the piece via its viral incarnation, took the time to get permission from Schmick to use her text and she gets a songwriting credit on his album. Furthermore, the video reflects her tongue-in-cheek tone. The images are meant to make you chuckle, and the framing around the advice to wear sunscreen is obviously meant to be a silly overall point. And I’m sure that a number of teenagers got the joke, too, when they saw it on MTV (and this is another historical note: in 1999, MTV was still showing videos).

My students obviously got it when we read the piece and watched the video, and as I was covering it, I got the impression that they understood it for what it was intended–a chuckle over a morning cup of coffee and not much more. And the lesson I was using it in was a “one and done” anwyay: we were in the midst of a creative project where they could write and perform anything they wanted (I called it “open mic night”) and this was among a few selections that we read and watched as a way to illustrate how performance can affect a piece. It was also a good tool for a quick and dirty introduction to satire itself–because it’s not only obvious that Schmich is making fun of graduation speakers (and adults who dispense advice), but it’s relevant. My students may have even been to a few graduation ceremonies already but they more than likely will wind up listening to some adult dispense pretty useless advice at a ceremony at one point in their lives. So yeah, we can all laugh at it (“It’s funny because it’s true”).

As an interesting personal postscript to this, I am a card-carrying member of the class of 1999, having graduated from Loyola College in Maryland (now Loyola University Maryland) that May. Our commencement address was given by NBC News’s Andrea Mitchell, who did what too many people tend to do with stuff liket his–pass the joke on. I don’t remember too much of her actual speech, but I do remember her opening witha mention of the song/video (which was climbing the charts) and closing with the same “wear sunscreen” joke. Unfortunately, being that there is a law of diminishing returns on jokes, it was met with a half-chuckle and some quiet groans fromt he mostly hungover crowd. Mitchell obviously got the joke, although I am sure that there were plenty who didn’t get it because satire, like intelligence, can often be just wasted on the dumb.

From the Bookshelf: Literary Magazines

Very often when I’m figuring out what to teach, I find myself going outside of the classroom English textbook. In this feature, I take a look at those reading selections.

I think that there’s something about being an English teacher that makes me a hoarder.

Okay, that’s a lie because today I handed something out to my advanced English class that a high school teacher of mine had handed out nearly 20 years ago and I had saved. So clearly I’m simply a hoarder. Although I’ve also been to plenty of colleagues’ houses and apartments and seen stacks and shelves of books, which makes me think that maybe English teachers are a certain type hoarder.

Hoarders of the written word, perhaps?

Those last three paragraphs clearly make little or no sense and to be honest I was just trying to come up with a clever way to explain why I have so many literary magazines. You know, other than the fact that they’re from my high school and college days and I am either listed as an assistant editor or contributor. I’m sure that if you think back to your time in school or higher education, you’ll remember what your campus literary magazine was like: a collection of poetry, fiction, or non-fiction prose that was considered the “best” of what the school’s writing populace had to offer. There probably was even some sort of photography or artwork accompanying the writing. It came out every spring and you might have wanted to contributed but were maybe even a little intimidated by the talent represented (and then were amused to realize it was run by a crack team of editors who probably worked in a dank computer lab during what little time they had availble). But you remember being impressed by the abilites of your fellow students.

My copies of Loyola College in Maryland’s two literary magazines: Forum (featuring non-fiction prose and art) and The Garland> (featuring fiction, poetry, and photography) spent the first decade or so after my graduation collecting dust either on a bookshelf in my guest room or in a box with the rest of my errata from high school and college. I probably would have forgotten about them had I not brought them into work last year because someone in the department was floating the idea of starting up a literary magazine and wanted some examples (it’s finally getting off the ground this year). I forgot about my copies of the magazines again until earlier this year when I was straightening up my classroom and found a copy of Forum from 1997.

My ego being what it is, I checked to see if it was one of the editions in which I had an essay published (it wasn’t–I simply was listed as “assistant editor” because I worked on layout), but then started thumbing through some of the essays inside and found one that actually went with a unit I was going to be teaching.

I ran off copies of and began jotting down notes about “My Father’s Music,” a piece that puts a very complicated and mostly strained father-daughter relationship (dad’s an alcoholic and yells at mom) in the context of the music that reminds the author of her father–specifically, Kenny Rogers’ “The Gambler.” The essay itself is structured in a very clear way, as she shows her father coming home on two separate occasions. The first time, it’s a happy moment–the music is playing, she’s dancing with her father, and her father dances with her mother. The second time, her mother gets a phone call and tells her that her father will be home late–he’s drunk and angry this time. I’m sure that more famous writers have composed similar stories–after all, an alcoholic father is a staple of both fiction and non-fiction–but it seemed that sharing a piece written by someone who was nineteen or twenty at the time made it easier to relate to.

Perhaps some of my students even related to it in a way that was relevant to their own lives, which was not the reason I picked it. I simply had wanted to use a piece written by someone around their own age so as to say to them “I know you always say you suck at writing but here’s the potential you have.” My students also seemed to have no problem getting critical about what they were reading. Later in the semester, after my advanced class read Elie Wiesel’s Night, I assigned a couple of pieces that would be the focus of a “fishbowl” discussion. One was an essay from another year’s Forum entitled “Auschwitz,” in which the writer discussed her own visit to the notorious concentration camp, which is now a museum in Poland.

Again, my intent was to show a fellow student’s/fellow teenager’s experience; again, it became something else in a way. “I think she’s a little self-absorbed,” one of my students said at one point. They then went on to have a discussion where they picked apart her style and her point of view as if they were workshopping her essay in a class. I’d never seen a group of students do that to reading before in such a thorough manner. Sure, we’d had discussions of why certain plot points in Life Of Pi worked or did not work, and we certainly struggled with Shakespeare’s idea of “comedy” in Twelfth Night; however, they were ready to more or less grade this. Maybe it was because the essay was a student piece not some presented with that booming Great and Powerful Oz voice of, “THIS IS CLASSIC LITERATURE AND WE SHALL DISCUSS IT!?” It was the kind of thinking that you dream about getting, and knocking the writer (or the concept of the writer) down a peg helped them get there and they probably felt comfortable tearing the piece apart because they were “on the same level” so to speak (although I’d love it if they tore apart any writer, to be honest). So for once in my life, my sentimental nature and need to save random stuff pays off.

Yet another defense of writing a paper

essay wordle

I created this particular wordle about essays using my advanced English 10 essay rubric (I might have added a word or two).

I was reading another post on “The Innovative Educator” the other morning and in tune with most of the other posts on that site, it advocates for caring about students and making their experiences meaningful. They are hard things to disagree with, especially when you want your classes to care as much as you do about their learning. But somewhere on the way to proving her point, the post’s author implies that a critical essay about literature is not a worthwhile task; at least it seems that those teachers who assign such tasks aren’t doing enough.

I guess the critical essay does sound a bit luddite and wouldn’t really be an example of a meaningful task because when students hand in a paper they are doing for me to grade and not publishing to a wiki or blog or anything for the greater world to see. After all, I am not a real audience for them, just an example of an outdated piece of a machine that ruins any shot they have at real inteligence. At least that’s the impression I got.

Let’s set aside those things and look at the issue at hand, which is that there is still value to be found in a critical literature essay. I’ll make a bit of a switch and call it a “paper” instead of an “essay” because to me, “essay” implies either a piece of personal writing and not analytic writing, and I want to be clear that I am not referring to that scourge of high school English class, the five-paragraph essay. Furthermore, since the literature paper is still a viable form of assessment, then it’s right to consider that the teacher is still a genuine audience (then again, I’ll go out on a limb and say that teachers not being “genuine” is simply a label meant to denigrate the profession and harp on the already-tired “industrial model” talking point). But why, if said paper may never go beyond the classroom or past my desk, do I consider myself a genuine audience for my students and consider their writing a paper a genuine assessment of what they have learned in the study of literature?

I’ve touched on this subject before, but I did want to come back to it here and talk a little more about my experiences with the literature paper this year with my advanced sophomore English class. I know that many of them are considering colleges and having gotten to know a good number of the 25 students in that particular class, I can see several of them going after acceptance from a competitive school like Virginia or William & Mary (if this were my old high school, they would be applying to at least one Ivy). So, their immediate future more than likely involves a classroom or lecture hall and if they wind up taking a class in the humanities, they may wind up doing some sort of critical analysis by way of a paper.

So it’s still a relevant way to use a skill that’s been labeled “21st Century,” although to be honest, the lit paper has been around for quite a long time. And come to think of it, the idea of a “closed” audience, no matter how collaborative an environment you work in, is also relevant as well. I spent quite a number of years in sales support and marketing positions where my work was done for either my boss or someone in another department or a partner and the only people outside our company/firm who saw it were clients. So the idea that you are producing something that’s for a specific audience and not “published” in the sense that it is available for a mass audience is also important and therefore those types of audiences (your clients, your boss, your teacher), are genuine audiences.

Now, back to my students. With the majority of them probably looking to further their educations beyond the walls of our high school and many of them moving on to AP-level English next year, I asked the AP English teacher what he expects when they show up next August. “Well, they need to know how to write,” he said. With that, I took a glance at the syllabus from a community college class I took last semester and began plotting out a course that was based on student-led discussions as well as critical literature papers. It was tough for them at first because the first paper was assigned by the end of the second week and when they were graded and passed back, many were not happy to see that they had only gotten a C. And as much as I was looking to set a particular tone there–the class may be fun and we may have a good time discussing the material, but they will be challenged–I also wanted to work with them to make sure they improved as we went along.

That first C was not a set-in-stone grade, anyway. I handed back the papers and began troubleshooting, reminding them of my rewrite policy that states you have the choice to rewrite your paper and the worst thing that can happen is that the grade stays the same. They did improve with rewrites, for the most part, although I honestly was not much easier as the year went on because with each paper the minimum length requirement increased and my standards stayed high. We have had some breakthroughs. After the first paper, I specifically addressed the fact that many in the class were writing in the first person and making an analytic paper into a personal opinion essay. We talked about, of all things, science experiments, matching up the thesis to the hypothesis, the experiment to reading the book and gathering the examples, and the conclusion to … well, the conclusion. At least one student told me, after a much-improved rewrite, that our discussion in the context of science is how she “finally got it,” and with the exception of a few moments, they’ve kicked that habit.

From there, we have been working on bolstering arguments through evidence, properly quoting texts, and developing a personal sense of style. I admit, it’s a few steps down a long road. Learning to write is something you never stop doing, and while I don’t expect all of my sophomores to emerge from my class being able to submit to the most important academic journals, I do expect them to be able to enter a classroom at a higher level, be assigned a paper, and not wave their fists at the sky cursing me because they never saw the business end of MS Word.