Let’s Bury the 5-Paragraph Essay: Long Live Authentic Writing

I checked out Edutopia’s most popular posts of 2015 this week.

These posts account for over one million page views. They represent the best of what resonated with readers. Yet, there is something interesting about them. Not a single one is five paragraphs. Not one has paragraph after paragraph with a topic sentence, supporting details, and a concluding sentence.
One began with a story. Another launched with a rhetorical question. One set up a scenario. None of them had a clear thesis in the introduction, nor a conclusion that repeated what was established in the introduction.
I say all this because the list represents one sampling of authentic writing.
Out of the hundreds of posts it published this year, these posts captivated, grabbed attention, sparked debate, and were shared all over the net.
Yet none of these posts look like the type of writing that appears on standardized tests. Each defies the format taught in countless classrooms every day.
Blog posts represent just one part of a larger pie. Authentic writing includes reports, reviews, and a whole host of other forms that are produced each day by working adults. But they are an important part of that pie. Roughly 173 million blogs exist, and 1.13 million posts are published each day.
Goals of Writing
I always thought that a primary goal of education was to cultivate young minds to be thoughtful, versatile, and never satiated. The instruction of writing does the exact opposite. It is like so much of what’s wrong in education right now. It standardizes and homogenizes rather than individualizes and differentiates.
Dan Millman, author of 17 books including Way of the Peaceful Warrior: A Book That Changes Lives and The Creative Compass: Writing Your Way from Inspiration to Publication, once said,
“I kind of got more interested in writing after I turned in my last college essay and nobody was going to tell me what kind of academic papers to write anymore. I could write whatever I wanted, and I realized that I actually liked it when I could choose what I would write.”

It is time to torch the five-paragraph essay. It is time to offer our students a chance to write authentically.
Where We Went Wrong
During the Age of Enlightenment, essays were a favored tool of polemicists who aimed at convincing readers of their position. The Frenchman Michel de Montaigne was the first author to describe his work as essays; he used the term to characterize these as “attempts” to put his thoughts into writing. Virginia Woolf believed that “A good essay must have this permanent quality about it; it must draw its curtain round us, but it must be a curtain that shuts us in not out.”
Yet as the essayist and technologist Paul Graham points out where we started going wrong. It coincides with the late 19th-century rise of the industrial model of education.
In 1892 the National Education Association “formally recommended that literature and composition be unified in the high school course.” [4] The ‘riting component of the 3 Rs then morphed into English, with the bizarre consequence that high school students now had to write about English literature– to write, without even realizing it, imitations of whatever English professors had been publishing in their journals a few decades before.
It’s no wonder if this seems to the student a pointless exercise, because we’re now three steps removed from real work: the students are imitating English professors, who are imitating classical scholars, who are merely the inheritors of a tradition growing out of what was, 700 years ago, fascinating and urgently needed work.
Standardized testing has only compounded the problem. By its very definition, to standardize means to make something conform, to make homogenous. And since what gets tested gets taught, all originality, creativity, and authenticity has been sucked out of student writing to standardize it for an exam.
How do we create fascinating and urgently needed work? How do we develop a permanence with our students and their writing that invites the reader behind the curtain to see something?
4 Keys to Authentic Writing
#1 Freedom
What I once did: Assign topics.
What I’m now doing: Not giving topics. I am challenging my students to tell me what they believe is worth writing about on a given subject.
Why I am doing it: It is not about me, it is about them. When I assign topics I am implicitly telling my students what I believe is important and disregarding their thoughts. Their writing will always be disingenuous it is conforming to my train of thinking.   Authenticity occurs when I value their choice of topic, not mine.
#2 Publishing
What I once did: My students wrote for an audience of one — me.
What I’m now doing: My  students are publishing their writing.
Why I am doing it: I do a blogging unit with my students each year because their writing needs to exist beyond the four walls of the classroom. Publishing their writing forces them to consider an audience beyond the teacher. Their peers may see it. They can show it to their parents. Perception is everything to them and knowing that their work will be seen by others, my students spend more on grammar, mechanics, and meaning. This didn’t always happen when it was for my eyes only.
#3 Simpler Rubrics
What I once did: Issue standard rubrics for each assignment with a matrix of 20+ boxes.
What I now do: I invite students to create the rubric with me, creating simpler ones that value originality and clarity.
Why I am doing it: Most rubrics confuse or overwhelm students more than they help them. They rarely deliver their promised precision. Just as standardizing test can compromise the quality of teaching, elaborate rubrics may compromise the quality of writing. Too many result in writing that serves the scoring hierarchy of the rubric rather than the spirit of the assignment, resulting in bland, unoriginal compositions.
#4 Model Style
What I once did: Teach a format.
What I now do: Talk more about style and less about format.
Why I am doing it: Formats confine. They box you in. They limit where you can go. By discussing style, sharing mentor texts of varying styles, I am encouraging my students to be exist beyond those limitations and operate on a higher level. Formats may change but style endures.[bctt tweet=” Formats may change but style endures.”]
Read Part II of this post: Authentic Writing: What It Means and How to Do It in which nine teacher share their understanding of authentic writing and the assignments that lead to it.
I hope you will share your best assignments in the comments section below. I will feature them in a follow up post next week, a roundup of authentic writing assignments, so that other can learn from you and you can learn from others.


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