Are guidelines really gatekeepers?

I don’t personally have a lot of experience with the five-paragraph “writing style” (quoted because I hesitate to call it that). In my high school writing life I was only taught such a structure as a Freshman, and it was only to be applied to persuasive/argumentative essays. Maybe because I took honors classes or maybe out of sheer luck I was not confined to such a drab formula outside of the Writing Test and SAT essay. While I was lucky enough to have freedom over my writings, I tended to use the introduction paragraph taught to most students containing a hook statement, thesis statement and a few bridging sentences that lead into my paper. Having a set of expectations to refer to is a good thing in my opinion, beyond that the only gatekeeper should be a students willingness to surpass those expectations.

When I think of gatekeepers I don’t immediately consider formulaic writing, having a structured guideline to writing is a great way to get started when you are struggling with a topic. As you advance more in other aspects of writing such as grammar, syntax and flow I think it should be up the individual to expand their horizons and write however they wish. This is what I remember from high school.  The gatekeeper wasn’t holding students back from writing freely, instead it was herding lost students towards a goal and allowing advanced students to do as they pleased. As I stated I don’t believe I had a normal experience with English classes, most classes consisted of a few in class essays, which lend themselves to quick structured writing, and out of class research papers which didn’t have to follow a certain style as long as it was deemed sufficient length. I wrote a 26 page paper on the history of Germany up to World War I for my final paper in English III which was given a 98 because of a few grammatical errors, the suggested length of said paper was around 7 pages. So in my experience the only gatekeeper for writing is a students willingness to go the extra mile, it takes a lot of work to stay on topic for more than five paragraphs when your topic is something like “Most people have favorite entertainers, sports teams, breeds of dogs or fast food restaurants. Write a paper to persuade someone else that your choice is great.” (An actual writing prompt from Ohio’s 2009 writing test). With such mindless prompts it isn’t hard to see why a five-paragraph essay would be the easiest way to approach writing for tests. It should be up to instructors to teach students how to go above and beyond what is expected of them, but it is the students responsibility to follow through.

I can say from my time at UNCC that the expectations in college aren’t different but they are longer. Instead of three topic, five paragraph essays I’ve written 7-8 topic essays with 9-10 paragraphs. Only in a religious studies class did the professor actually expect more from us, otherwise following a rubric was the bare expectation and going beyond was over achieving. I don’t believe writing literacy today holds the same importance as it did twenty or thirty years ago. The most important thing, at least outside the academic world, is to be able to communicate with and through technology. Writing isn’t obsolete but as times change the job of peer-to-peer communication shifts to computer generated graphs, bullet point presentations and speeches instead of written reports. At least in the fields I care about writing isn’t about being fancy and showing off mastery of writing as much as it is about effective communication.

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All of that aside, I would like to state my problems with “The Five-paragraph Essay and the Deficit Model of Education”. While I can only speak for myself*, I felt like this article was written expressly to people who wouldn’t like the five-paragraph essay to begin with. It is fine to write to a specific audience but as somebody who doesn’t loathe that style of writing it seemed extremely disrespectful towards the teachers she addressed. This was further implied by the excessive use of name-dropping throughout. Never have I seen so many different people quoted in such a short article. She would bring up a new expert on the subject every other paragraph and only rehash straight forward things. Looking at the paragraph where she quotes Kay Halasek, only one or two sentences are original thoughts not quoted or credited to another name. I don’t want to say this wasn’t a well written informative article, because it was, but I felt extremely ostracized by the aggressive tone used throughout. As if by ever having used a five-paragraph essay I was nothing more than a mindless sheep among a herd of useless creatures called students. Writing is expressive by nature and to discredit forms of writing because they are easy or convenient seems silly. Sure at a higher level of education it should be expected that students are capable of more, but for regular high school students having rules isn’t the end of the world, in fact it is literally the beginning. There is nowhere to go but up from a five-paragraph essay so in my mind it isn’t nearly as evil as Brannon makes it out to be.

* It is really hard to openly disagree with a professional who works at my university, and I don’t have the credibility to justly defy her logic but seeing as this is a blog I wanted to share my opinion on the topic after addressing what I was expected to. (I can also end sentences with prepositions)

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