Patrick Higgins, Jr.

Audience Trumps Structure Every Time

In change on August 29, 2010 at 8:46 pm

Last week, in my reading of Kate Glass’ article at ASCD Express “ReThinking Five Paragraphs,” I related to much of what Kate portrayed in her writing.  The staid structure of writing that we’ve all been exposed to as students, and perhaps perpetuated as teachers needs some close scrutiny.  When, other than on standardized tests, do we read arguments that wrap up neatly in five formulaic paragraphs?  This is, as Dan Meyer put it in his 2010 TEDxNYED talk, akin to an impatience with irresolution.  And Glass notes that:

Freedom can be a little scary. Kids sometimes even panic when they are told they can decide how many paragraphs their essay needs. It can be shocking for them to find out that, yes, sometimes a paragraph has only three sentences.

Without a doubt, writing in an unstructured form is scary for students struggling to discover their voices as writers, but it’s precisely what will make them better when coupled with guidance, coaching and support from a patient teacher.  However, by continuing to force a good percentage of student writing into that frame, we are working to stagnate their development as writers more than we are to foster it.

Glass further points that even after wrestling for years with the historical background of the format

I never missed an opportunity to remind my students that the structure was actually derived from Aristotelian principles of logic. Who better than Aristotle to endorse your lesson plan?

she came to the conclusion that teaching that format as default was doing more harm than good:

I finally came to the conclusion that the five-paragraph essay just no longer serves kids in the 21st century.

and

…not only were my students complaining that they found the structure too constraining, but so were the very college professors I’d be turning them over to when they graduated.

which is exactly what we found when we spoke to college professors who teach primarily freshman in the traditional freshman comp at universities.  The format has constricted our students abilities to see writing as thinking, because thinking doesn’t necessarily fit neatly into five boxes.  What they expect is that students can have original thoughts that have value; what they find they get are canned responses.

In workshops with teachers this summer, I used the work of Andrea Lunsford and the Stanford Study of Writing (Clive Thompson hits it better here though) to show that all hope is not lost for this generation of students.  One thing that Glass pointed to as paramount to her teaching and the teachers of writing everywhere was the ability to write for audience:

Of course, I still have to train my kids how to use the five-paragraph essays for standardized tests, but now more than ever, in this world of Facebook and Twitter, our students need to learn the crucial notion of audience.

Lunsford used a Greek word, kairos, to describe what she found in her study as the students’ ability to detect audience and adjust their writing accordingly.  I wonder where audience comes in when we talk about the idea of changing the definition of literacy in today’s day and age.  Regardless, it has to factor as prominent, and if we accept that, to whom are our five-paragraph essays aimed at?  What audience demands those other than the standardized test?

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