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The Town and the City

Most authors would agree that formulaic writing means writing with guidelines that are rigid and structured. Most of them would also agree that structured and systematic writing processes impede any free-flowing or stream-of-conscious style which is what gives writing a voice, intrigues an audience, holds the attention of the reader, and takes Booth’s rhetorical stance. I assert that most middle school students just aren’t there yet.

I want to draw on my experiences in two middle schools, one in a small town and one in the city, to explain why I agree with teaching what Kerri Smith calls in her article “foundational form,” as long as it is free to be free. The two schools could not have been further apart in state exam scores; the all important numbers that can change the vibe in your school from relaxing to really taxing. The first school routinely passed around 90% of students in ELA while the other passed as few as 28% (just last year.) In one school, it was clear that writing was being taught systematically, across the curriculum, and with explicit purpose (messages about the writing system were literally on posters in the hallway last time I was there). In the other, there was a supervisor who was an island; unless you counted their best friend who split part of the ELA supervisory duties with them and got them the job while bringing in two new ELA coaches to help bolster them. This is not an exaggeration. I am actually leaving things out.

The town school, where writing was a regularly-scheduled cross-curricular exercise, was one of my old schools. I not only went there as a child, but I did student teaching observations there, and substituted for two months. I once observed less than one full week of Social Studies classes where the major product was an in-class, five-paragraph essay. The SS teacher, just as every teacher there who taught writing, first handed out the school writing system handout for the 5 paragraph essay. What was exciting to see was the students’ automatic response to begin to outline their essays without any prompting. Seconds after receiving their instructions, they knew what to do. Students near me that I could see wrote “intro” on top of a new sheet of paper and “conclusion” on the bottom, leaving plenty of space for their three body paragraphs. As they took instruction from the teacher, they waited with hands at bay, eager to ask him about topic sentences. “Can my first one be something like this or that?” He would answer that they should try and push that question into something deeper, re-read the material, or just simply say, “you’re better than that, think a little first, ‘K?”

They rattled off ideas to each other and bounced ideas back to their instructor as a class period flew by. They all knew that they simply needed to flesh out their body paragraphs with their opinions on concrete details from the texts they had recently read. Now it was their time to reflect on what they knew and make it their own. The classroom quieted, as they usually do, and everybody wrote something.

I spent over three years in the (28%) city school and never saw one class commit to the process the way the students from the first school did (not for one period, ever). Of course, school two had more English language learners; they had more students living below the socio-economic line, they had fewer literacy sponsors, and they had a school culture that kinda sucked. But, the supervisor had some good ideas, had ELA curriculum in the technology classrooms and in the library, had an extra 37 minutes a day for their 1s and 2s with Buckle Down or Kaplan workbooks, had current data on student skills from at least three different online testing programs, had tiered / differentiated instruction; it just seemed that her teachers had all kinds of garbage dumped on them and no results.

The town school had a clear system in place with everybody on board because it was not cumbersome. There were standard handouts so nobody had to worry about rules and if you weren’t a “writer” you could still find your way. You learned their writing system for three years (6th – 8th grade) no matter who your teachers were. This school had such a simple structure that it was able to let the teachers do their part and help students with ideas and real writing issues. The system was in place so quietly that teachers could actually spend time setting up critical thinking scenarios and focus on leading their students into good writing a la Bean.

I think the two schools would produce the same amount of “bland but planned essays,” as Wesley would call them. Wesley worries that trying to fit the essay into neat little boxes causes students to lose the purpose of writing it in the first place. But, when teachers are not over-burdened and have a chance to employ tactics such as Dean’s genre theory in the “Muddying the Waters” article, they enjoy their job being a motivator and a guide. Dean says that teachers can use the stability of form in something like the five-paragraph essay as a sort of spring board. She states that, “teachers can help students incorporate into the necessary form other genres, a combining that gives students a chance to make writing decisions.” (Dean 56) This is precisely what I believe I experienced in the small town school.


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10 Responses

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  1. Guadalupe Bueno says

    The ideas presented by Deborah M. Dean are definitely alternatives that can guide students away from the straight-jacket effect the five paragraph essays has on ideas. I think that the alternative she proposes emphasizes the comprehension of what the five-paragraph essay highlights, this not being the number of paragraphs but rather the language of it-the body paragraphs, the topic sentences,etc. Moreover, the inventiveness of mixing genres, acknowledges Gabrielle L.Rico’s argument that “flexibility is the essence of intelligence.” By making the five paragraph essay flexible we are molding it to fit our ideas, because in writing, the writer should shape the essay and not vice-versa, otherwise all writers would be chopping down ideas so these fit neatly into a five paragraph essay, which is no different than Cinderella’s sisters trying to squeeze their toes into someone’s else’s shoe.

    • Dana Choit says

      While I simultaneously agree and also feel that structure is extremely important, and especially at a certain age sometimes needed.. I just have to say I simply love your Cinderella analogy!

      • Kevin L. Ferguson says

        Dana’s comment might take us back to an issue from last week–is learning more or less the same through middle, high school, and college? Or is the structure/creativity distinction more important at certain times?

  2. Travis Lamprecht says

    Interesting comparison between the town school and the city school. I agree with Dean in that the five-paragraph essay is a good introduction to formulaic writing if the student’s decisions aren’t strictly regulated. Clearly, the town school follows that formula. I wonder if the differences in the teaching methods are attributed to the locations, individual teachers or a combination. Nevertheless, I have never understood why the organization of five-paragraph essay should be treated as a strict guideline. While topic sentences are imperative to the layout of each paragraph, the amount and content of sentences that follow should never be held to specifics. If the paragraphs become too cluttered or long, they can always be adjusted in the revision process.

    • johnjparente says

      Agreed about content. When I learned that writing a successful novel was about an editor chopping half of your book away, it changed the way I looked at reading and writing for good.

  3. Victoria Fontana says

    I’m also curious about the differences in teaching methods at each of these schools. I imagine that there are differences that can clearly be defined and recognized, and others that are so deeply entrenched in the system, they are too difficult to recognize and too convoluted to easily fix.

    Nevertheless, children need structure. The success of a structured writing is evident in John’s description of the “town” school where the five-paragraph essay is widely used. Though Deborah M. Dean writes to the point that this structured essay persists because it’s “easy to teach” and “it’s a formula” (Dean 54), this formulaic essay is an important starting point and can lead to a structured mind-set that can eventually lead to “different styles of writing genres [that] allow for power of individual freedom” (Dean 54). Without control of our mind (this goes for the vast majority of people in this world), our thoughts can become chaotic. What we think often ends up creating messy spoken word and written prose. As exercise and meditation can help to calm and focus the mind, so too can formulaic writing.

    • Kevin L. Ferguson says

      You’re making me think that an important aspect of this is what we talked about last week–what is the assignment students are completing? If it’s a 5-paragraph “what I did over the summer,” that’s different than a 5-paragraph “argue whether Huck Finn was moral or not.”

  4. Dana Choit says

    I completely agree that balance is key here! I think its a great thing to foster creativity and aim to open up the minds of students, but often times students need to use some form of structure in order to help organize their thoughts and learn how to create a coherent piece of writing. I’m all for having a mess of chaos in a draft, but students should be able to work with their messy first or second (or however many) drafts in order to end up creating a legible and well written piece of writing.

    Also Travis I also feel like sometimes the structure and number of sentences within an actual paragraph can get ridiculous. No, a paragraph should not be two sentences, but it is perfectly okay for it to be nine or to be fourteen.

  5. Safaarah Williamson says

    “I spent over three years in the (28%) city school and never saw one class commit to the process the way the students from the first school did (not for one period, ever). Of course, school two had more English language learners; they had more students living below the socio-economic line, they had fewer literacy sponsors, and they had a school culture that kinda sucked. ”

    John, I was very interested in your comparison between the town and the city school. However, it reminds me of all the puzzling and jaded comparisons that are made between many impoverished urban schools and their more affluent counterparts. As educators, we are supposed to have high expectations for our students and I was happy to read that the city administrator had some engaging ideas to counteract the often detrimental factors that exist in his school; however, I don’t think the major discrepancy that exists between the two schools is due to the implementation of a formulaic writing system that allows for some creativity. As you so clearly pointed out, the societal factors that plague the city school are quite overwhelming. The tactics utilized in the town school would probably foster a more productive environment for the youngsters who are struggling in the city school because of the level of consistency that it warrants. However, I still don’t think the performance of the town and city school can be compared by just brushing over all of those factors. It appears to be unfair and tainted, but I do credit the town educators for encouraging their students to go deeper and think critically. This is a practice that all educators should utilize when teaching the intricacies of the writing process.

  6. johnjparente says

    I must confess .. this week my post was a softball for Williamson to knock out of the park, as she just did. My whole point was that the strategies used in the town school likely produce a more balanced and productive learning environment for the students who are struggling. I am only grateful for the opportunity to start such a great discussion. Thank you Dana, balance is the key. Thank you all.