The Five Paragraph Essay

At this moment, children across the United States are gazing at posters of hamburgers, counting on their own five fingers, sketching outlines studded with roman numerals and dots and dashes. Why? to try and construct that keystone achievement of the public school classroom: the five paragraph essay. We teachers natter on about Thesis Statements! And Topic Sentences! And Supporting Proof! As if these are universal truths—divine principles like Faith, Hope, and Charity; Maiden, Mother, and Crone; John, Paul and Ringo. We cling to this five paragraph lifeboat like it can calm the waters, guide us to shore, take us to new realms. But is it all just tinkling brass—form without substance? Is the five-paragraph essay really the essential first tool for organizing thought on paper?

Poetry doesn’t have a thesis statement. Gerard Manley Hopkins didn’t need to say, “Eh hem. This poem will be about the variegation of life and how that diversity reflects the joyfulness of our connection with our Creator.” He simply splashes us with his cacophonous rainbow of description: “skies of couple-color as a brinded cow, rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim, fresh firecoal chestnut falls, finches wings…” Much of the work of poetry is to mask the formal organizing elements—not underline them. Emily Dickenson’s poetry may seem to march directly to its point as it bounces along in hymnodic beats, but it remains compulsively rereadable because the meaning of her poems opens, closes, shifts and inverts, depending on the moment of reading. The poems that I read at 15 are not the same when I reread them at 30. The words have remained unchanged marks on the page, but somehow they are new.

Fiction, too, doesn’t spell out its aims and purposes—in fact, it offends our sensibilities as readers if the moral of a story is too obvious or heavyhanded. As JRR Tolkien muttered in the introduction to The Fellowship of the Rings,  “I cordially dislike allegory in all its manifestations, and always have done so since I grew old and wary enough to detect its presence. I much prefer history – true or feigned– with its varied applicability to the thought and experience of readers. I think that many confuse applicability with allegory, but the one resides in the freedom of the reader, and the other in the purposed domination of the author.”  Fiction may be symbolic or relatable or relevant—the author masks the work of that symbolism and relevance. Fiction is thematic, not pedantic. This means that great fiction includes in its body (like organs on a skeleton) universal human ideas such as Redemption, Pain, Revenge, Faith, Love, Change, Growth, but that it refrains from moralizing about those great ideas. The freedom to draw conclusions “resides,” as Tolkien says, in the reader, not in “the domination of the author.”

Great works of biography, fiction, poetry and drama lack the obvious external machinery of Thesis Statements and Topic Sentences and Concluding Paragraphs.  So why do we insist that students master this form? I spend days demanding coherent topic sentences, clear theses, and substantive proof. My students rage, I snarl, outlines are erased and re-done and erased again; essays are returned horribly marred with gashes of color (I don’t think it softens the blow to receive essay corrections in purple crayon, but I persist.) This is why: The simple machinery of the five-paragraph essay shows the WORK of thought. I want my students to be able to use the lever, the inclined plane, the wedge of basic writing to roll, screw, fasten and MOVE their ideas from the inside of their head to the inside of my head. Later, once I am convinced that they understand the skeleton of their thoughts and that they know how to stack the legs upon the feet and not upon the ribcage, and to top is all with a crowning skull of an ACTUAL POINT, then I will help them obfuscate. I will help them drape their body paragraphs with meat. I will help them circumlocute. I will teach them to be ironic, to distract, to prop up and then light up strawman arguments. I will teach them subtlety and wittiness and understatement.

So in spite of the classroom hours spent hissing and spitting, “WHAT IS YOUR THESIS UNDERLINE YOUR THESIS MAKE YOUR PROOF SUPPORT YOUR THESIS” and the forehead-denting headsmacking that accompanies the outburst, “Kumu Becca, what is a thesis?” I will persist in insisting on Introduction, Body, Body, Body, Conclusion; Bread, Lettuce, Tomato, Meat, Bread; Thesis, Topic Sentence, Proof, Proof, Proof, Topic Sentence, Proof, Proof, Proof, Topic Sentence, Proof, Proof, Proof. Because the milk has to come before the meat; the 2x4 frame before the drywall, the daily jog before the marathon. The five paragraph essay remains the first exercise in logical writing.


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