Teachers at Work

A column about teaching

The Nitty-Gritty Essay, Part II

(Read part one of "The Nitty-Gritty Essay" here.)

I'm not sure what the deal is, but people have a fixation with five-paragraph essays. It's as if five is some magical number that a good essay must have. However, that couldn't be further from the truth. Some essays simply aren't worth five paragraphs, and can suffice with three or even four paragraphs. Some need ten or more. For those writers who struggle with composition, it's what's in the paragraphs that counts, and how long the paragraphs are.

First, I teach students that the number of paragraphs in a literary analysis essay comes from their prompt and their brainstorming on said prompt. Here is the prompt from The Nitty Gritty Essay, Part I, in which I discussed the need for formulas and structures for those who struggle with writing.

In the book To Kill a Mockingbird, Atticus and Mr. Ewell take different approaches to parenting. Write an essay in which you explore what values each parent is teaching and give examples of how they are different.

If a student did a Venn diagram on this prompt, they probably came up with that Atticus values education while Mr. Ewell's kids go only on the first day. The Finch family lives in town with a cook /childcare figure in Calpurnia, whereas Mr. Ewell's family lives by the dump with an uneducated sibling Mayella trying to maintain order. 

In this situation, the essay really needs four paragraphs: an introduction, a paragraph about Atticus, a paragraph about Mr. Ewell, and a conclusion.

So working off this introduction, we can clearly set up the essay. Here was the introduction:

In Harper Lee's novel, To Kill a Mockingbird, Atticus and Mr. Ewell take different approaches to parenting. They each value different things and this is reflected in how they raise their children. Atticus is clearly the better parent.

Now here I must give credit to the late Jane Schaffer, whose writing program was used for a while in one of the districts in which I taught middle school English. While I didn't attend her workshop, the district bought all of the teachers "Teaching the Multiparagraph Essay" binders with all of Jane's material, some of which I use to this day.

Jane had a formula for putting together body paragraphs that went like this:

  • Sentence 1: Topic Sentence
  • Sentence 2: Concrete Detail (starting with For Example)
  • Sentence 3: Commentary
  • Sentence 4: Commentary
  • Sentence 5: Concrete Detail (starting with In addition)
  • Sentence 6: Commentary
  • Sentence 7: Commentary
  • Sentence 8: Conclusion sentence (or in an 11 sentence paragraph, another concrete detail would go here—starting with furthermore—followed by two more sentences of commentary and then a concluding sentence.)

Concrete detail is defined as facts; commentary is defined as opinion statements. So using this formula, an eight-sentence body paragraph following the above introduction might look like this:

Atticus's parenting style shows that he cares about his kids more than Mr. Ewell. For example, Atticus makes Scout go to school even though she hates it. Atticus wants Scout to have a good education and his actions show the value he places on learning. He wants his children to grow up and be someone. In addition, Atticus explains why Burris only goes to school on the first day. Scout realizes that her father loves her, and that Burris's father isn't as concerned about his kids. She becomes a little more mature because of this lesson. Atticus's value of education show he is a better parent. 

Now you could argue that this is very simplistic, and you'd be right. But for a struggling writer, getting to this point is often hard. Having a specific outline gives writers a way to plug in their thoughts. My students learn that chunks (which is what Schaffer calls the 1 Concrete Detail to 2 sentence commentary ratio) can be revised and rearranged. I also allow the ratio to be 1 sentence commentary and 2 sentences concrete detail if the essay sets up better that way.

With my students I also tell them that for a four-paragraph essay, body paragraphs most of the time should be 11 sentences. For a literary analysis essay that uses a three-part thesis, often they will have three body paragraphs of 8 sentences each.

For a thesis like In "A Retrieved Reformation," O'Henry uses irony, surprise ending, and point of view to convince the reader that Ben Price was right in letting Jimmy Valentine go the reader would explore irony in one paragraph, surprise ending in another and point of view in another, all developing the idea that Ben Price was right in letting Jimmy Valentine go free.

Providing structure can help struggling writers organize their essays, and this structure is extremely important in the conclusion. Schaffer says a conclusion is all commentary. I personally like what's called the full circle conclusion as it provides more structure than just letting students write three opinion statements. To go full circle means the conclusion reverses the order of the introduction:

  • Sentence 1: restate in a new way the thesis
  • Sentence 2: final point (but not new information)
  • Sentence 3: end by revisiting your hook

So a conclusion to the To Kill a Mockingbird essay could look like this:

Throughout Lee's work, Atticus proves he is a better parent than Mr. Ewell because Atticus values education and treats his children with respect. His approach to parenting works and his children see their father as a role model. Caring triumphs abuse, and love always overcomes lies.

Now, honestly, I'd probably go back and tweak that more, but for kids, it's a great start. I also give students a list of "no-no's" for their conclusions:

  • No talking to the reader (aka how did you like my essay or what do you think)
  • No new information (now would not be the time to bring up Boo Radley)
  • No "in conclusion" (the reader can tell it's the last paragraph—duh)
  • No rhetorical questions (So is Atticus the better parent? Yes he is.)
  • No you (no you throughout a third person essay, use one or the reader)

Many of these may seem common sense, but I've seen junior level students use and do these things, and they've been writing essay since sixth grade. Writers are creatures of habit. We fall back on bad habits if we cannot make the good ones work. My kids write essays, and then rewrite them. I have them use a formula until they get good enough to break free—and even afterwards they'll naturally have a strong foundation as their paragraphs get longer, or their sentences more complex.

There is nothing writers fear more than an empty sheet of paper and knowing they must somehow fill it, and fill it well. Don't be afraid to get nitty gritty and give struggling writers a way to compose works. Remember, we crawl before we walk, and walk before we run. Structures allow us success and we, as teachers, are not failures if we educate students to use them.

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Michele Dunaway is an award-winning English and journalism teacher who, in addition to teaching English III, advises the student newspaper, yearbook and news website at Francis Howell High School in St. Charles, MO. In 2009, the Journalism Education Association awarded Michele with its Medal of Merit. She has received recognition as a Distinguished Yearbook Adviser in the H.L. Hall Yearbook Adviser of the Year competition and was named a Special Recognition Newspaper Adviser by the Dow Jones News Fund. She also practices what she teaches by authoring professional journal articles and writing novels. Click here to read more articles by Michele Dunaway.

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