In his early novels about the Swedish detective Kurt Wallander, author Henning Mankell focuses from time to time on Wallander's father, a difficult man (he never wanted his son to be a cop--and never drops the subject). But also a somewhat talented one. He paints.
But the father has very narrow ambitions. He paints the same landscape (sometimes with a wood grouse, sometimes not) over and over and over, and never seems to run out of people and institutions willing to buy a copy. This puzzles Wallander, but later, when his father's gone, he is touched by the memory of those repetitive paintings.
I think about Wallander's father when I think about what we ask youngsters to do, over and over and over, in school writing assignments that require the five-paragraph format. Whatever ideas you have, we tell them, pour them into the same mold. It's like requiring art students to paint by numbers, music students to follow a strict formula in composition---every time.
It's also odd that we require students to write in a format that no one outside of school really uses. Look at essays in The Atlantic or the New Yorker or any other serious magazine. Look at a newspaper op-ed page; look at prize-winning collections of nonfiction. How many five-paragraph essays do you see? How many paragraphs follow the model we pound into our students? How many paragraphs have topic sentences. (Sure, some do--but many, many others do not.)
The universe of writing is enormous--there are so many ways to arrange ideas, to communicate them effectively. So why do we focus on one tiny asteroid (the five-paragraph essay) and declare that it is the entire universe of writing? We would make our student writers far more agile, for more interesting, if we showed them many varieties of organization, if we taught them to allow their ideas to determine their structure, not the other way around.
We should teach them to ask: What am I trying to say? What are some good ways to communicate that? What is the most effective way for me? Often students can answer these questions only after they've begun to write. The shape emerges from the stone, as sculptors sometimes say.
Back near the beginning of my career, I read James Moffett's book Teaching the Universe of Discourse (1968). Mofffet influenced me then; he influences me now. Early in the book he wrote, "A student writing in all the forms as the authors he reads can know literature from the inside in a way that few students ever do today" (7). In other words, by trying all sorts of ways to write, kids can understand more clearly they things they're reading, as well.
Let's end with our old friend Procrustes, the robber who forced his victims to lie on his bed (no, not for that reason). If they were shorter than his bed, he stretched them to fit; if they were longer ... chop, chop.
I don't think he is a fellow we should emulate in the teaching of writing, literally or figuratively. He was, after all, a Bad Guy. And his sort of rigid thinking has brought all sorts of unhappiness in the world (just ask Hester Prynne). Instead, we should work to liberate our student writers, let them explore the "universe of discourse," help them learn myriads of ways to communicate.
Let's not teach them to paint a single landscape in a single way. Or to stretch or chop their ideas to fit some seedy bed in some wacko's hideout.