Scaffold The $#*& Out Of It
My students are not typical of those I’ve had in the past. I’ve had plenty of diversity in my 22+ years of public education, but it’s always been just that – diversity. My current school is not particularly diverse. Sure, there’s a mix of haggard white kids and not-particularly-prosperous Hispanic students walking the halls, but by far the greatest majority of my darlings are poor, Black, and from backgrounds the rest of us might cautiously clump together as “complicated.”
So it’s been a learning experience.
The most bracing realization was that pretty much nothing I’d ever done in class with any other group of students actually works here. That’s not an attack on them so much as a confession of my own shortcomings. I’ve been riding high on personality and pedagogy-with-a-flair for quite a few years, and finding out that I was incapable of successfully communicating, for example, the “iceberg” approach to analyzing a short story (the author uses the “ice” above the water – the details in the story – to hint at the larger realities just below the surface) was humbling.
I’d rather not even discuss the results of our efforts to recognize ethos, logos, and pathos is persuasive writing, commercials, or print ads. It was… messy.
But hey – I’ve been to teacher school. Once. A long time ago. I’ve got one of them “toolboxes” we always hear about, stuffed onto a shelf somewhere in my metaphorical pedagogical garage. This is doable, right?
The Five Paragraph Essay
For those of you new to education, there are several things you can bring up in any gathering of teachers to virtually GUARANTEE a complete and total breakdown of whatever was SUPPOSED to be happening. “So… what’s our primary goal as educators, exactly?” is a classic – both unanswerable and constantly answered poorly. “How should our honors/advanced/GT/AP classes be different than our regular/on-level/academic classes?” is another sure-fire disrupter. Oh, and I particularly enjoy overtly ethical and unavoidably emotional conundrums: “Do we really want students missing class because they’re not properly aligned with our outdated and possibly misogynistic ideas about clothing?” or “Should attendance really matter if they can demonstrate they can do the work and have mastered the skills?”
It’s good times, I assure you.
For English or Social Studies teachers (especially those frothy AP types), the Holy Hand Grenade of rapport-killers is the Five Paragraph Essay. Come out in favor, come out opposed, or simply mention it in passing, and off the rest of us will go. Only Wikipedia and Teach For America have achieved similar infamy for their ability to produce pseudo-intellectual chaos and mutual hostility, online or in the teachers’ lounge.
Honestly, you’d be better off bringing up religion, immigration, or abortion. Fewer emotions or deeply entrenched convictions in play that way.
The primary criticism of the Five Paragraph Essay is that it’s stifling. Students learn to plug-n-play to fit a format without any real conviction and little actual learning. It’s barely an evolutionary step up from fill-in-the-blank worksheets. Secondary teachers and college professors alike lament their students’ inability to break free once their minds have been trapped and corrupted by this five-part infection.
An essay should be however long it takes to say what you have to say! This “structure” practically DEMANDS bland, surface-level thinking and formulaic thesis statements! It destroys creativity and genuine thought! IT PRODUCES STUDENTS WHO ASK HOW MANY SENTENCES HAVE TO BE IN EACH PARAGRAPH!!!
Those voicing these complaints aren’t entirely wrong.
At the same time, there’s something to be said for structure. How much great rock’n’roll started with the same basic 12-bar blues? How grounded is most Occidental music in the standard 12-note chromatic scale? And while there are plenty of examples to the contrary, it’s still hard to beat the power of verse-chorus-verse-chorus-bridge-(verse)-chorus. And yet, somehow, music has managed to remain fresh and creative and meaningful and real.
Well, some of it, anyway.
If the musical example doesn’t resonate with you, there’s a comparable structure for planning a meal. Salads come first, maybe with a little bread. It’s typically green and one of two or three main varieties. The main course comes next, and ideally consists of one-quarter proteins, another quarter carbohydrates, and the remaining half some sort of vegetable. Dessert is last, and usually sweet.
Of course you can defy conventions if you wish. Have your green beans with your mousse or stir your salad into your iced tea. That sort of freedom periodically leads to brilliance and creativity, like whoever first thought to put ham or buffalo chicken on salad. Yum!
Generally, however – especially when you’re new to the process – there’s strength and security in following established wisdom.
I’ve previously compared writing with structure to making brownies from a box. It’s absurd for anyone with actual baking skills, but for someone at my amateurish level, those pre-measured ingredients and carefully diagrammed steps are a lifesaver. So are the instructions about how to put together my new desk or “how-to” guides for replacing the trim in your house. Even John Coltrane and Miles Davis mastered their scales before leaving the planet with their own ideas about what jazz could be.
And it seems I’ve come full circle back to the music metaphor. So be it.
I get that there are problems with the Five Paragraph Essay. For example, it’s unlikely most of my students will ever be called on to open with an attention-grabber, introduce what they’re going to say and how they’ll support it, elaborate on each of those points, then restate everything by way of conclusion. The so-called “real world” will rarely expect them to write this way and, unless you’re an old-school preacher, most of us don’t talk that way – and couldn’t, even if we wanted to.
On the other hand, at some point in their lives, assuming a modicum of personal or professional success, it IS likely they’ll be expected to explain a process, persuade a small group, or advocate for themselves or someone in their care. It may be formal, as part of a business presentation, or informal, standing at a customer service counter, or perhaps sitting across the desk from their child’s teacher or principal. It may be part of their effort to get a loan, defend themselves against a traffic ticket, or make a case at a community meeting for some policy or another.
While expressing themselves like a Five Paragraph Essay may not be the most effective approach, neither is their current default of “Tsst! Are you %&@4ing STUPID?!” The hope, then, is that by working on overall clarity and the necessity of supporting any argument with clear, rational thought, they’ll be better able to transfer this general skill to situations beyond the classroom.
Hey, we can dream, can’t we?
That is, in any case, the current reality in which I teach – or did before the Covid-19 beast descended. (I can’t wait for Easter when everything will be magically cured by saving the stock market.) As recently as a month or so ago, however, we were still just having school and trying to pry open their little minds and cram in some learnin’.
I don’t belong to a particularly organized English department. There’s no time built into the weekly (or yearly) schedule for collaboration or team-building or whatever, and as of March I don’t actually know the names of everyone who teaches the same subject I do. Meetings are infrequent and informal (although there were snacks last time), and most of the teachers I actually talk to regularly are a door or two in either direction in my hallway.
A few days ago, as I was passing by between classes, I casually asked a colleague how things were going. She was unexpectedly peppy in response.
“Great! We finally got through five paragraph essays!”
“That’s awesome. Were they any good?”
“Well... they weren’t all terrible, and that’s saying something.”
“I haven’t even come back to writing yet this semester. What’s your secret?”
“Secret? Ha – no secret. We just scaffold the $#*% out of it!”
Twenty years ago, I would have been intimidated by the terminology (the “scaffold,” not the “$#*&%”). I was getting by on enthusiasm and self-delusion and if I’d slowed down to think about anything too clearly, I’d have been Wile E. Coyote just after running off the cliff – he didn’t plummet until he looked down.
Ten years ago, I would have understood it, but been a bit dismissive. I had different kids then, and while I’d dramatically improved my grasp of pedagogy and child development, my students generally arrived with enough basic skills that my primary challenge was to engage and motivate so we could push towards greatness, not rehash the basics of playing school.
I genuinely love my little darlings this year, some because I choose to and others because I just can’t help it once I get to know them. Winning them over is still part of the equation – not for my benefit, but because it’s the only way most of them are likely to learn anything “academic” while in my care. I’ve learned not to make any assumptions about what they already know or what they can do – not because they’re “stupid” (they’re not), but because they’re such an unpredictable mix of ignorance and ability. They can definitely learn. They can even learn to enjoy learning. Their tolerance for challenge is low, however, and their frustration palpable at the slightest speedbump.
I can lament the loss of rose-colored “good ol’ days,” or I can put on my big-teacher panties and adjust based on the students in front of me and what they need if they’re to have any chance of moving forward. It just requires a different approach – one I’m finally mastering after 20+ years in the classroom.
We scaffold the $#*& out of it.
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