For the past two Mondays, I have been attending a photography class. This was a Christmas present from my wife, and a much-needed break from the regular weekly routine in this cold, cold mid-winter stretch. The award-winning photographer teaching the class, Ron St. Germain, shares a number of tips and tricks while also teaching us the basics about how to operate these fancy (or what we thought were fancy until we realize all the things they can’t do) digital cameras that we’ve owned and never really known how to use.
In the first two sessions, he has basically told us to stop doing everything that we are doing with our cameras. Or, should I say, what they are doing for us. Point and shoot with auto focus? Turn it off and use your shutter and aperture settings. Automatic flash? Turn it off, too, and use a detachable, multi-directional flash. Saving in JPEG? Stop it, and switch over to TIFF or RAW formats because the JPEG may be space-saving, but is also taking out details in your pictures that you may want later. In short, take control of your camera so you can take better pictures. Otherwise, you will continue to get the same type of pictures that you have taken for years on auto pilot and that have never turned out.
As I was processing all these tips on the drive home tonight, I began to recall a conversation that I had with a group of high school teachers during a professional development session a few weeks ago. The topic of the session was “writing with purpose,” and we discussed a variety of reasons and genres for writing. Towards the end of the session we began a discussion about the five-paragraph essay (5PE). While I thought that showing them a video from the Annenberg Foundation and discussing reading a Jim Burke book would open up a conversation about essay writing that would critique the 5PE, what I found was exactly the opposite. Teachers in the session offered all the usual thoughts on why and how the 5PE works for them:
- The kids don’t understand what an essay is at all and this gives them a model
- You have to know the rules of essay writing before you can break them
- When kids are in a testing situation, they need a model that they can rely upon
While I would like to believe that all of these are palpable reasons for teaching the 5PE, I simply can not buy it. As an amateur photographer, my instructor is basically telling me to throw out all the automatic settings on my camera and learn how to shoot manually. As a teacher of writing, I think that I should invite my students to throw out the automatic settings, too.
Instead of talking about a particular form, the 5PE, — just like relying on the settings that come installed on my camera — we need to talk clearly and carefully about audience, purpose, and situation of a writing task. Just as I no longer point my camera at a subject and let it do all the work, I don’t think that a writer should put a mold into place and then try to fill it.
This will only become more important as students compose multimedia texts. Beyond the many connections to composing that I could make with this digital camera example, I want to keep thinking here about the ways in which I should control the camera (or the form of the essay), and not how it should automatically do things for me.
Perhaps I am extending the comparison between my camera and the form of the 5PE essay a little far. Yet, I do believe that writing teachers need to consider the ways in which they frame the writing tasks in their classrooms. I want to make sure, especially with digital writing — which is by its very nature non-linear and multimodal — that we do not offer templates or pre-set notions of what a digital story, blog, wiki, or other composition should be (having X many links or images, for instance). Like the automatic settings on my camera limit me as a photographer, these preconceived notions of what a composition can be limit what a writer can attempt in his or her essay.