Of Photography and Five Paragraph Essays

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.

6 thoughts on “Of Photography and Five Paragraph Essays”

  1. Troy, I disagree that your comparison between digital photography and the five paragraph essay has gone too far. As teachers of composition, we collectively teach writing as an art. A well-composed essay is a work of art (note: The Best American Essay series, a personal favorite of mine, has never featured the five paragraph essay). It seems to me that the five paragraph essay style developed originally as a form of apprenticeship, but, in response to today’s multimedia composition demands, a five paragraph essay would fall short. In my classroom, showing students excellent models of writing, deconstructing them together, and letting them explore has been far more effective in getting results than the five paragraph essay ever was. By the way, I found the link to Wikipedia’s discussion of the essay quite intriguing. We could have a very interesting discussion on that as well.

  2. Wonderful post, Troy. I am in complete agreement about tossing out prescribed forms and instead exploring how form follows function, rather than forms serving as empty vessels to be filled, especially now that new modes of expression are emerging. I chafe at the idea that there is a certain way to blog–says who?

    I do, however, like to examine forms with students to understand what they are and why they have emerged, and what purposes they can serve. In other words, young writers do have to understand cerain conventions such as how to open and close a business letter, how to write a lab report, etc. And sometimes I love to use forms as a creative constraint, something writers have always done.


  3. Hi Andrea,

    Thanks for your response and discussion of what works for you in your classroom. I agree that a thoughtful rhetorical analysis (examining purpose, audience, situation, and genre) generally produces better writing than anything else I have tried. That’s not to say that a formula doesn’t work sometimes, but taking the approach that you do with even formulaic writing allows students the opportunity to better understand the form.

    I, too, would be interested in a longer conversation about the etymology of “essay” and how that definition fits into our conceptions of essay writing today. In some ways, I think that essays should be places to try, to attempt (and, sometimes, to fail). That’s what learning how to write, like learning how to take pictures or anything else, is all about. Sometimes, however, I think that we place to much emphasis on these attempts, especially with writers who are still learning the craft.

    What do you think? Has the school definition of “essay” strayed too far away from the original concept of essay writing?


  4. Hi Barbara,

    Thanks for your response and I think that you raise an excellent point about conventions and genre. Certainly, there are expectations that readers have of the texts that writers produce. One way I think that we can talk about those conventions is to examine patterns of argument and the types of evidence that writers use in their texts. What counts as “good” writing in a business letter as compared to a lab report?

    Also, you mention constraints, and I agree that these constraints can be liberating. I think about the classic RAFTS assignment: Role, Audience, Format, Topic, Strong Verb. Having students write a business letter from a specimen in their lab experiment to another specimen, describing the process that it went through under the microscope, for instance, might be one way to play with genre while still being creative about learning the content. In this case, the constraint of the business letter helps the writer process the content and produce writing that is fresh and interesting.

    Thanks again for your comments. I would be curious to hear what your thoughts are on the etymology of the essay, too.


  5. Great link, Leigh.

    I think that the graphic showing all the things that the tool can do overlapped with everything the user can do is a good counterpoint to the first one. There is a certain point at which you can only use a tool in so many ways… I keep thinking about all the Web 2.0 services that I sign up for and never return to again, for instance!

    Thanks for the link to the Web 2.0 video, too. That will make a good teaching tool.


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