I've been reflecting on why the idea of teaching a 5 paragraph essay unit would bother me so much that I would run off to the National Writing Project archives for research against the practice. In laying out my unit calendar and pulling together materials, 5 paragraph essays have seemed pretty innocuous. The 7th graders have enjoyed their success at writing really structured "academic" paragraphs. Honestly, they seem to love being able to identify and highlight their topic, point, and proof sentences.
Then smart Ellie reminded me what students could be missing out on when they start with a form before they know their content. She really struggled with our most recent paragraph topic: should immigrants who have crossed the border illegally be allowed to stay in the U. S. to work and/ or become citizens? We had explored the question from many angles, spending the most time on the story "First Crossing" by Pam Munoz Ryan. While at the beginning of the unit most students strongly believed that all illegal immigrants should be deported, after reading that children cross the border along with their parents or alone, they were less certain. So, Ellie couldn't decide how to answer the question in a paragraph form. That structure is so certain, and her ideas weren't. Instead she wrote a long, freethinking essay that circled around the question instead of answering it. She gave me permission to post it:
Illegal immigration is wrong. Or is it? It’s illegal, but think of all those starving people who need jobs to meet their needs to barely scrape by. Although, what about the people who live here legally? The illegal immigrants are taking away our jobs. As you can see, I’m very confused about what I think about illegal immigration.
It’s wrong and against the law to immigrate to America without a genuine visa. Also, they will hurt our economy by taking away our jobs. We are already in a recession, why make it worse? It’s against the law, so why do we do allow it sometimes? Some people believe that we should have harsher punishments for sneaking into our country. Paul Westrum said, “But I think they (the workers) should be out of the country. If they’re here illegally, they should be sent home.” But, times must be tough for them to risk coming illegally into our country, why would we send them home rather than help them?
Although I know it is illegal, why can’t we let them stay? What’s wrong with helping out another human being who is struggling to stay alive and hoping to help his/her family? What if a child snuck in and was caught like Marta? Would they send him or her back to no home or family? They just might. Also, when or if the illegal immigrants are caught, they sometimes have to sleep in tents in the desert or spend three years waiting for a court hearing in a jail. Adults have to support their family, and kids shouldn’t be locked up. They never know when they will be deported. Joe Arpaio feeds the immigrants a $0.15 meal without salt and pepper, to save money. They waste part of their lives trying to be sent back to poverty.
Some people believe that there is another thing to consider. If it is illegal to come in the United States without a visa, why not help them in their own country? Volunteers could go and do charity work by raising money, giving out food donations, building houses, etc. This is yet another thing to consider. Even so, some people think that we should help the less fortunate in our country rather than help the poverty stricken people of Latin America.
I don’t know what is the best way to solve this problem. We can either let them stay, deport them, or do charity work in their country. Many people believe we should help them in some way. Other people like Joe Arpaio, also known as “America’s Toughest Sheriff” would say that we should deport them and house them in tents. It’s your choice to make whether you want to help or deport them.
Ellie isn't ready to commit. We conferred about her draft. I told her how much I loved its exploratory tone. I commented in the margin that it matches with the spirit of "essay"--an attempt. But then, I suggested that if she doesn't want to personally commit to an answer, perhaps she could evaluate the reasoning on both sides. Which one has better reasons? She seemed excited because that writing purpose gave a manageable shape to her ideas.
I now realize I was so irritated by privileging the 5 paragraph form because teaching writing is about teaching thinking. Students should explore their ideas, consider possible audiences, then choose the appropriate mode of composition for their purposes. This process seems particularly important given the new multitude of forms available to them for composition tasks. Why assign the same highly structured paragraph to all students, when many can easily compose creative nonfiction, poetry, movies, songs, hypertext and more?