"Writing itself becomes the subject of the writing course..."

 — Michael Carter       

My Theory of Magnets: Try Not to Mention the Five Paragraph Theme

January 12th, 2016 by

The problem with change is that it always means people have to stop doing what they’ve always done.

There has to be a very good reason for that to happen, especially if the way things are always done seems to work. Usually people don’t like change until most everyone has begun to recognize that the old way isn’t working anymore, if it ever did. Then we see change.

That’s usually how political change happens. A recession deepens, or unemployment widens, and people want change. They don’t want their leaders to keep doing what they’ve been doing. They usually don’t even want the same old leaders.

The same principle seems not to hold, however, in education. When it comes to the schools, if there is the widespread perception that things aren’t working (usually low test scores, falling literacy rates, however they are measured), we don’t usually think that we should do things differently. We simply blame the teachers. We try to hold them more accountable and at the same time try to reinforce the teaching of what we call the basics.

Not that There is Anything Wrong With That
What could be more obvious than the need for more of the basics? Or would something else do the trick? Since we generally don’t know what else to do and think that our basic way of doing things is always the way we’ve done them, then we fight change, and what passes for passionate debate ensues.

In this regard, the five paragraph theme has all the power of a magnet that has been placed among metal filings on a table. Its mere mention has the effect of ordering everything around it so that we can’t see that other patterns and methods might be better. Merely mention this practice, and it commands everything in its field.

This is true of the power of old pedagogy in the field of composition generally. Mention writing, and the entire field becomes polarized around some practical, old way of doing things like the research paper, the book report, or the daily theme.

Teaching Teachers
This isn’t to say that I haven’t tried to introduce alternatives. I’ve written some scholarship aimed at practices that are too basic, and I’ve talked to my students about alternatives to junior and high school practices, especially the old greek method of progymnasmata. This ancient practice sounds odd but it has its attraction, and it has even proven useful in some university programs. But in my scholarship, when I simply mentioned the five paragraph theme as just one problem, the editors at the journal behaved like so many metal filings and lined up around it, finally rejecting my essay because I wasn’t doing enough with the practice.

That was never my intention. But the practice got away from me and took over.

It’s never harder to change things than when we aren’t convinced that the old ways don’t work. It’s even harder when we don’t know what else to do.

It seems that we are in a political season where this might also be the case. People have their favorite ways of having done things. But are there other, older or newer ideas that might be worth looking at? Maybe we shouldn’t reject them just because we haven’t heard of them. Maybe when we see the metal filings lining up in the old patterns, it’s time to throw the old magnets out and look for some new ones.

Posted in Uncategorized| 5 Comments


Comment by Nancy Brashear on January 12, 2016 at 6:31 pm

Tom–I liked how you make the “old” visible throughout your highly-visible imagery: “metal filings lining up”! Good food for thought (and I totally agree about that five-paragraph essay format!).

Comment by Tom on January 13, 2016 at 9:09 am

Thanks, Nancy. I do think you are right–the old is usually invisible. Well said.

Comment by Emily Griesinger on January 13, 2016 at 9:40 am

Thinking about old/new ways, we might begin by reviewing the Sermon on the Mount. After that, we can discuss politics . . . or whatever. Nice essay, Dr. Tom.

Comment by Tom on January 13, 2016 at 9:50 am

I like the idea of beginning with a review of the Sermon on the Mount. That could start something!

Comment by Carla McGill on January 26, 2016 at 5:00 pm

Your comment also brings to mind the old wineskins and the need for new wine in new wineskins. 🙂

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