Grey Matter, Grey Areas.

Jenna asked a poignant question of Drs. Hammond and Miller:

Outside of test prep, does the traditional 5-paragraph essay have any place in learning today?

It was great question to ask those who deal with our students and their writing once they leave us, and its answer is inherently obvious.  However, what can we learn about our system of teaching thinking from holding the despised format up to scrutiny?  I particularly liked Paul Hammond’s response when he proclaimed “how the hell did we get here?  We have seen the tool become the end.”  We have, indeed, seen the means to start students on the path to clear thinking become the end product.

Dr. Miller chimed in at this point in the discussion with a great anecdote about the history of the format.  His thought was that the five paragraph format is

driven by an anxiety about clarity.  You have to be able to be clear.  But it’s more than that.  You have to have something to say.

What followed next was nothing short of an epiphany for me:

Let’s not refuse to go into places that are not clear.

To repeat:

Let’s not refuse to go into places that are not clear.

That one struck me as squarely as did Jay Rosen’s Talk at TEDxNYED (see his entrance to “pragmatism” at about the :50 second mark).  These are the problems I want students stuck in the mire of—the types where they must reason their way not only out of their own thought-morass, but also of the writing quicksand they’ve stumbled into.  We have the honor of helping them figure out that there is a lot of thought and meaning that goes into the use of a semicolon in the midst of an argument.

We think it is our job to be teachers not of subjects or disciplines, but rather of curiosity.  It is our job to present really good problems to ourselves and our students, and go like hell to solve them.


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