The Politics of the Paragraph

By Michelle Kenney

Illustrator: Chris Kindred

Chris Kindred

It wasn’t until I became an English teacher that I understood the relationship between silence and passion. My 12th graders were so quietly fired up over their persuasive essays on immigration that I had nothing to do but study the tops of their heads as they wrote and listen to raindrops ping against the classroom windows. Part of me was proud that my students had become such independent and motivated writers. The rest of me grappled with the teacher version of empty-nest syndrome: There were no hands desperately waving in the air, no side conversations, no one trying to make a 3-pointer into the garbage can across the room with a wadded-up criteria sheet.

Toward the end of class, Erica pushed her notebook aside and ran out of the room. I found her sitting in the hallway with her knees up to her chest and her face in her hands.

“What’s up, Erica?” Her alcoholic mother had recently kicked Erica and her 3-month-old baby out of the house. Life had become an incredible struggle for this young woman, who was currently living with her boyfriend’s family. I wasn’t surprised to see her check out of class.

“I’m such a crappy writer.”

“What?” It was the last thing I expected to hear. Erica was a star student and one of the best writers I had ever taught.

“You’re only supposed to have three ideas, right? How can I write a thesis statement with four or five? You’re only supposed to have three body paragraphs, so I’ll have to mush all of my ideas together, and then I won’t get a good grade because I’ll have too many sentences and too many ideas. I don’t know what to do.”

As we continued the conversation, I discovered that Erica had previously learned a five-paragraph essay structure that limited the writer to three big ideas, each of which the writer was supposed to develop in three corresponding body paragraphs of no more than five to six sentences, but only after providing a three-pronged thesis statement in the introduction to serve as a road map to the writer’s argument.

“Erica, it’s OK to add more paragraphs to the body of your essay. It’s important to develop a strong argument, no matter how many paragraphs or sentences it takes. You’re a bright girl. Trust your own ideas and your own judgment.”

“Really? I can do that?”

Seriously? How could one of the brightest and most talented kids I had ever met question her right to have more than three ideas about immigration?

Since then, countless paragraph and essay “formulas” have cropped up in my students’ work every year. In fact, the academic world teems with tricks for organizing expository paragraphs and essays, most of them conveniently packaged in the form of an easy-to-remember acronym such as TEETH (topic, example, explanation, tie to thesis, hook to the next paragraph) or TISAS (pronounced “T-sauce”—topic sentence, introduction to supporting evidence, supporting evidence, analysis, summary, transition sentence). There’s also the Jane Schaffer formula, which involves attaching two pieces of brief commentary to a concrete detail to produce a 2:1 ratio of opinions to facts, a generic recipe that reads like the literary equivalent of Bisquick. It’s a speedy and convenient “just add one or two quick thoughts and mix” approach that leaves you wondering how much better the piece could have been if the author had put in the time and effort to create the real thing.

Systems like these encourage students to produce shallow, fast-food versions of paragraphs that don’t allow much elbow room for creativity or critical thinking, yet lend themselves to speed grading by a standardized test scorer or an overworked instructor only 50 essays into a stack of 160 on a Sunday night.

I didn’t learn to write using an acronym and, perhaps for this reason, I avoided teaching formulaic writing for most of my career. Of course, that doesn’t mean that I didn’t teach essay and paragraph structure. My teachers had shown me that each paragraph of a narrative, expository, or persuasive essay exists to do a job: to provide evidence or commentary, to support a thesis, to help a reader see, hear, feel, and understand the writer’s message. Like my teachers, I gave students graphic organizers to gather their thoughts and evidence before they crafted thesis statements to provide a focus for their writing. I taught skill lessons to help them craft paragraphs that fit together to build their argument in a smooth and cohesive way.

Before they would begin writing, my students spent countless hours mining texts to “raise the bones,” as my current mentor, Linda Christensen, likes to say. Students examined articles, stories, and academic essays to figure out how they were organized, and what kinds of skills professional and excellent student writers brought to their craft. Together, students read, color-coded, and put together their own criteria for their essays, based on this examination of authentic models. As they wrote, I peppered class time with more lessons on skills that they could immediately apply to their writing. My students spent as much time discussing and sharing their writing as they did drafting their pieces; I spent as much time as I could meeting one-on-one with students for writing conferences.

The Specter of High-Stakes Writing Test

Those times didn’t last. A few years ago, I went to a conference partly funded by the Broad Foundation in Washington, D.C., where I attended a session on the Smarter Balanced Assessments (SBAC) that we would soon be using to assess students’ progress toward the Common Core standards. The tests were still in development but already seemed bewilderingly difficult, especially the writing test. Students would be expected to examine various texts on a preselected topic and then write an analytical essay that took a position and supported it using evidence from the models. The writing task was not unlike those my students were already used to; however, in order to graduate, students had to complete the essays with no help or scaffolding from the teacher.

At the diverse, high-poverty high school where I teach, we were worried. Many of our students arrived in 9th grade with minimal literacy skills. We had kids coping with poverty, parental job loss, successive moves, and fractured families, as well as kids who grew up in refugee camps in Kenya or Tanzania and came to us with no formal education or literacy in any of the languages they spoke. Nevertheless, they were hardworking students who, in the hands of a talented and inspired staff, made impressive progress by the time they graduated.

Like most high school staff members across the state, we expected the majority of our students to fail the SBAC. We knew that student scores would be reported to a public that was being increasingly turned against the public education system, teacher unions, and teachers themselves by conservative political voices in the media. Each one of us was aware that our students’ scores on an assessment developed by a private for-profit business were going to be reflected in our evaluations and perhaps our salaries. There was pressure on everyone to come up with a fix, to find a shared method that would get our students through the mad scramble that had become the path to graduation for all students across the state.

We Invent Our Own Acronym Formula

It wasn’t surprising when teachers at my school proposed developing shared language for writing analytical paragraphs that we could use across grade levels and content areas. It sounded like a great idea to me. Little by little, the shared language morphed into an acronym that went through several iterations before it wound up as PEAS (point, evidence, analysis, so what?). It was short, it was cute. Kids joked about “peeing” on their papers. Our literacy coach had posters made with a color code for each element of PEAS. They hung in almost every classroom at the school. It made things easier for teachers outside of English and social studies to teach writing. Some teachers went a step further and added sentence frames to the PEAS formula, hoping to help struggling writers show more evidence of deep analytical thought in the body paragraphs of their essays.

Even though I certainly believed that argumentative essays should contain points, evidence, and commentary, I was suspicious of mandating all of those elements in each body paragraph of an essay in the way that some teachers were doing. Nevertheless, I went along with it because I was worried—worried about test results, worried that my students might never graduate, worried about what the media would say when our writing test scores tanked, worried that my colleagues would complain that my 9th graders were the only students who arrived in 10th grade unable to produce tidy paragraphs. So I taught PEAS.

The first difficulty I ran into was finding authentic PEAS models for my students to read. I was used to giving my students the best nonfiction writing I could find from newspapers or magazines like The New Yorker or Atlantic Monthly. The problem was that not many writers in these publications applied the PEAS formula to their paragraphs. A lot of the pros wrote entire paragraphs with nothing but analysis; some adopted a narrative approach to develop their arguments; very few had classic topic sentences at the beginning of a paragraph. Some paragraphs were only a few words long. With few authentic examples of PEAS available, I ended up writing my own model essays for my students and then switched over to models written by students who had mastered the format.

Formulaic Writing Is Not Engaged Writing

There were undeniable benefits to adopting PEAS as a schoolwide writing approach, especially at the 9th-grade level. Many teachers across subject areas—English, social studies, math, biology, and special education—embraced PEAS. Many students appreciated the shared language and expectations for their writing assignments, especially those working on basic literacy skills. These were the kids who showed the most appreciation for PEAS and were the quickest to internalize the format. “It helps me know what to do,” one student claimed. Struggling students reported more confidence in their writing, and I noticed that the organization and overall readability of their paragraphs improved.

Nevertheless, I also noted a decline in the overall quality of thought in these paragraphs. Students had more confidence in their writing, but they were also less invested in their ideas. Writing paragraphs and essays was now a set of hoops to jump through, a dry task only slightly more complex than a worksheet. Sentence frames helped some kids, but only functioned as a substitute for thinking for other students. It was also more difficult to get many students to revise skimpy paragraphs if all the pieces of PEAS were already present. “I already peed on my paper,” one student complained. “Why do you want me to do more?”

There were also students who resented PEAS and insisted on doing their own thing. “I honestly don’t like the PEAS format. It just ties up my thinking and makes it hard to focus on what I actually have to say,” complained a 9th grader. “I think that it gets in my way of thinking creatively.” These were often my best writers, students whose work I used as models for other students. The truth was, they produced better writing when I excused them from the PEAS format.

This was a sad and ironic lesson for me. As a social justice teacher, I had always tried to get my students to develop their thinking by questioning the world. When I imposed a prefabricated writing template on them, I was doing just the opposite. Too many of my students could not think critically because they were so busy getting the PEAS structure just right—a quote sandwiched between a point and a skimpy bit of analysis, with a touch of commentary as a garnish. And the students whose instincts and thoughtfulness led them to reject formulaic approaches to writing were frustrated and marginalized in a classroom where they should have been exemplars.

Are Writing Templates Training Wheels?

When we first adopted the PEAS model, one staff member suggested that students needed to learn this structure before their academic writing could develop in sophistication. Teaching PEAS was important because “you need to learn the rules before you can break them,” in the way a child needs to use training wheels before learning to ride a bike, or skiers need to master the snowplow on a bunny hill before they can stem Christie down a steeper slope. But, after two years of teaching PEAS at our school, a few of us are beginning to wonder if we could be wrong in assuming that student writing will blossom in depth and creativity after years of being squeezed into the confines of a writing genre that doesn’t exist outside of school.

“Well, if not PEAS, then what method do we use to help our students learn to write?” This is the very reasonable response I hear from colleagues whenever I question our choice to use PEAS as a schoolwide approach. These are good teachers—hardworking, talented, knowledgeable people who confront the daily Sisyphean task of preparing struggling students for success after high school. They are not out of line insisting on immediate solutions. The problem is that none of the writing templates or methods I have come across actually teaches writing or even acknowledges the reality of the writing process—an unavoidably messy, sometimes painful business that students need to be carefully guided through with wisdom and care from a young age. Good writing is not the product of a formula, but the result of reading, discussion, drafting, head scratching, and revision. The kind of literacy all of our children deserve does not come out of a can of PEAS or TISAS; the process of educating a good writer is more time-consuming and messier than that.

Unfortunately for many schools, parents, families, and communities, it is also much more expensive. These days, prepackaged writing formulas function more and more as a band-aid solution to the underfunding of public education. Under the gun from state mandates, the corporate school reform movement, and private testing companies, administrators and teachers feel more pressure to teach students to be glib writers rather than to be good writers. It costs less to implement a quick, canned fix like PEAS than to do what it takes to invest in a high level of literacy for all students: open more early childhood programs, reduce class sizes, build up school libraries, encourage teacher collaboration, and make time for one-on-one tutoring and conferencing with student writers.

As teachers, we feel the immediate need to help our students now. However, we do a disservice to our students when we settle for an approach to literacy that only produces “good-enough” writing—formulaic essays devoid of creativity and well-developed critical thinking, yet proficient enough to pass a test, raise school graduation rates, or increase the number of students receiving AP credit. Good-enough writing isn’t nearly good enough for our children. I look forward to the day when all teachers can banish the canned formulas and have discussions about schoolwide writing programs based on their shared knowledge, experience, and expertise as professional educators.

NOTE: Since I wrote this article, I have found the PEAS writing strategy on multiple university websites. Some of them use language that is very similar to that at our school. I believe that my school developed its own approach, but apologize if I am neglecting to credit an earlier iteration.

Michelle Kenney ( teaches in Portland, Oregon. Her most recent Rethinking Schools article was “Teaching the N-Word” in the fall 2014 issue.