Five Paragraph Essay

My teachers in elementary and middle school drilled into my head a style of writing known as The Five Paragraph Essay. It consists of an introductory paragraph, three supporting paragraphs, and a conclusion. For old time’s sake:

There are many cities on Earth, but I think Chicago is the best city of them all. Why is it the best? Let me tell you. It has a lake, it has many different neighborhoods, and it has the best museums. Once you understand this, you will agree that Chicago is the world’s greatest city.

First of all, Chicago has a lake- Lake Michigan. You can go there and swim or just walk along the beach. Other cities like Las Vegas don’t have any water, so they can’t be as good as Chicago. Some people don’t like going to the lake, but it is still good for them. That is because everyone in Chicago gets their drinking water from Lake Michigan.

Secondly, Chicago has many different neighborhoods. Some cities have only a downtown area and an outside area. Chicago has over forty neighborhoods that are each their own tiny city! If you really like Mexican food and riding your bike, then Logan Square is for you. Edgewater is fantastic if you love ice cream or diversity.

Finally, Chicago has the best museums. The Field Museum and The Museum of Science and Industry are two huge museums that have really interesting stuff. My sister really likes the Museum of Contemporary Art. There is also the Chicago History Museum, where you can learn even more about how Chicago is the best city ever!

In conclusion, Chicago is the best city. The three reasons why this true are that it has Lake Michigan, lots of neighborhoods, and many museums. Now you can see how Chicago is the greatest city in the world. If you are sad because you live in Las Vegas, come here and make Chicago even better!

I can do that in my sleep. We wrote hundreds. The great thing about the FPE is it’s a formula that can solve virtually any question, like ‘who is your hero?’ or ‘should students be required to wear school uniforms?’

As a formula, it’s a quantifiable form of rhetoric. That means if you wish to determine the “writing ability” of millions of children in order to determine where to (not) allocate state and federal funding, you need only to test their handling of the formula.

When I took the Illinois Standards Achievement Test (ISAT) in eighth grade, the test had a new significance- No Child Left Behind was enacted that year. I didn’t know this; all I knew was my accrued abhorrence for the FPE. So when I read the prompt Who is your favorite teacher and why? I attempted to play with the formula.

Miss V is my favorite teacher. She teach me grammar, how to spell hard werds, and to use the right punctuation?

I stuck to the formula. Each body paragraph elaborated why Miss V was my favorite teacher. It’s just that the grammar paragraph had poor grammar, the spelling paragraph riddled with… you get the point. It was ironic.

Just Another Brick in the Wall

A month after taking the test I was called down to the principal’s office.  Mr. S thrust my ISAT packet onto the table in front of me. It was opened to the page of my essay and all my “mistakes” were circled in red ink. He began the interrogation. I tried to explain that it was a joke, that I thought whoever was doing the grading would understand, maybe appreciate it. He said they wouldn’t; I submitted a failing essay. Then, he revealed to me how I was up to much more than I myself knew.

He placed three more essays on the table. All were lackluster, at the very least. Finally, I was denounced. Gopher, you are accused of deliberately failing the ISAT. Not only that, you have coerced others to do the same. This school- YOUR school- depends on this test for the money it receives from the federal government. Your efforts are in effect SABOTAGE. Do you realize the damage your little prank has done to your school, your teachers, your fellow classmates, and, most of all, yourself?

I asked him if he was allowed to read my essay, let alone show me the essays of others. He turned red and removed them from the table. I was just as red. I felt guilty for having hurt my school, even if I didn’t understand how. Also, I had caught a glimpse of the names on two of the other essays- they had a reputation for being stupid. I felt shame for being grouped with him. Ultimately, I never confessed to the insurrection, nor did I break any standing rules, so I was let go.

When the results of the test came home, I had my usual scores in the 90s for math, vocabulary, and reasoning. But for writing, I had something like a 17. I felt terrible. I hid that document for years. It convinced me I wasn’t a good writer. That’s your cue to post a positive comment below.

Earlier this summer I began training for the GRE. The written section demands an FPE, albeit an evolved form. You might be asked whether the internet helps or hinders one’s connection to others. A good answer won’t be one-sided; it will provide a balanced argument such as “the internet has the capacity to both help and hinder human connectivity, depending on how it is utilized…”

Even if a more nuanced argument is required, you still must remain within the boundaries of the formula.  You can’t write a short story about an agoraphobic teen obsessed with World of Warcraft, which- though a factor in his isolation- ultimately is the (virtual) place where he meets the love of his life from Singapore who- depicted enigmatically- might in fact be his downfall, we don’t know. You can’t quantify that.

Anyways, I quit training for the GRE and have given up the idea of graduate school. Perhaps one day I may swallow my pride, master the formula, and give myself a great opportunity. For now, my prerogative is to develop my own qualitative form of rhetoric. And, more importantly, I’m getting over myself. Writing this today has allowed me to enjoy the experience with Mr. S that was apparently still gnawing at my unconscious.

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  1. #1 by Ole cole on August 6, 2012 - 5:59 pm

    You are in fact a great writer. You would also be a great writer in a grad program specifically one in rhetoric. Remember undoing something is about imploding it with its own tools. No outside of inside.

  2. #2 by Gopher Padfoot on August 6, 2012 - 9:39 pm

    You touch a nerve. I admit you are right, but am not ready to take action.

    Thanks for the direction.

  3. #3 by Dano on August 6, 2012 - 10:40 pm

    I already told you are know how to craft words into meaning and descriptive imagery. You know how to tell a story, explain ideas and pose interesting points, else I would not read your blog or comment. I think grad school may be in your future if you want it but for now I think you are in a good place. I did not let what I did not know or felt I could not do well stop me for trying for grad school. I made it, got very good grades, learned a lot but especially learned that I could do things that some predicted I’d fail in. Remember, I was a foster child, shuffled from home to home, didn’t do well in school as as result, and was on my own at age 17 with nearly nothing. You have a great deal to offer and develop. I think you are still in the right place at present. Keep writing.

    • #4 by Gopher Padfoot on August 7, 2012 - 11:41 am

      Thanks for sharing, Dano. I agree- right now I am in a good place. Graduate school and any other “calling” can wait. In the mean time I am getting my body/emotions/intellect/spirit into balance. I’m grateful to have you as a kindred spirit on this path.

      I’m amazed at the ordeals you have overcome, especially since you retain a positive energy and have guided countless students.

  4. #5 by Katheter on August 7, 2012 - 6:16 am

    Your description of the interaction with the principal made me laugh out loud. The FPE is a decent tool for beginner writers, you just evolved before your time. I love to read your work.

  5. #6 by Gopher Padfoot on August 7, 2012 - 5:09 pm

    The FPE is a great set of training wheels for all writers. But the thing about training wheels is they need to come off as soon as possible, not be welded on.

    For anyone interested in this topic here’s a great piece written by teacher Kimberly Wesley on her renunciation of the FPE.

    http://www.csun.edu/~bashforth/406_PDF/406_Genre/00Sep_EJ_IllEffects5ParaEssay.pdf

    I agree strongly with her argument that “every writing assignment poses a unique rhetorical problem”- that we need to ask who we are writing for and why we are writing…

  6. #7 by kdgallagher on August 12, 2012 - 2:09 pm

    While affirming that there is a more subtle, varied reality to rhetoric beneath the mask of FPE’s, you are turning the issue into something black and white.

    When I think about it, with population levels, centrally controlled funding, etc., the FPE seems inevitable. Really, its a microcosm of the whole educational system. Then I think: when my English teacher prompted me to go above and beyond, I told her to shove it; when I did go above and beyond, it was out of some sort of self initiation. I conclude: transcending such formulaic expectations lies with the individual. And, if you do, when you step back into said boundaries, your knowledge of their parameters will allow you to fuck with the formula in such a subtle way that only the subconsciousness’s of the Judges will know what’s going on.

    All that being said, you’ve made me think way more about this issue than I intended to (closest thing to a compliment I’m allowed to give).

    • #8 by Gopher Padfoot on August 13, 2012 - 1:19 am

      You pose a good notion – perhaps the FPE is just a micorcosm. In that case, I suggest you read an essay by John Gatto railing against the macrocosm: http://www.wesjones.com/gatto1.htm

      However, to put this polemic in perspective, I was introduced to it by a public school teacher. Granted, this teacher was cracking by the time I was in his class, and quit after his third year, but nevertheless I found an excellent mentor within the system. This goes to show the comment made above by Ole Cole.

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