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Lauren Wong Headshot

The Right Prompt

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Two weeks into the school year, my AP English class stumbled across its first hurdle of the ten-month race, one we'd all become familiar with over our high school careers: the in-class writing prompt. But this time was unlike the others, for six words we'd never heard used together were enough to send the class into frantic disarray.

"There's only one rule," my teacher said. "Don't write a five-paragraph essay."

When a few minutes later she left the room to run a quick errand across the school, 28 Palo Alto High School seniors erupted into chaos.

"Is she kidding?" "Is she using reverse psychology?" "So is she saying she WANTS us to write a five-paragraph essay?" "I'm so confused, what's happening?" "I don't know how to NOT write a five-paragraph essay..."

After the essay test was finished, I asked my classmates what they had done. Every single person, including me, wrote a five-paragraph essay.

Put simply, complete emphasis on traditional, expository writing is unacceptable because even seniors in the highest English lane in one of the highest-ranked, highest-achieving schools in the country are left unprepared. We are unprepared for a future where writing more often than not consists of quick reports and write-ups, persuasive pitches and creative presentations -- in other words, a world that does not require an introduction, three body paragraphs, and a conclusion. In a society whose roots are increasingly in innovation and imagination, and where those making an impact now are those thinking far outside the box, it makes no sense to keep us inside it.

Admittedly, the five-paragraph essay is key to developing structure and organization in a standardized, easy-to-teach manner. It is beneficial because it is one, universal, and two, essentially helps students learn how to write something that can't be found in a SparkNotes "Summary" section (unless they're cheating, but that's a totally different topic). In middle school, kids are learning for the first time how to weave quotes and sentences to form a cohesive argument, and it serves as an era of transition from summaries and main characters to symbols and motifs. Consequently, like all skills, the five-paragraph essay requires practice to become "good" at - however, students do not need seven years to do so.

Once students have mastered the five-paragraph essay, it becomes mundane, a churning-out process (let's be frank: they are just plain boring, both to read and to write). By the time they graduate high school, most will have written about 35 five-paragraph essays -- 35 introductions, 105 body paragraphs, and 35 conclusions, all double-spaced and 12 pt Times New Roman (or Arial, for those playing the bigger font/shorter essay card). Training students to master the expository essay is like teaching them to memorize the "long ways" to solve math problems instead of the faster, easier shortcuts. Sure, they're useful for the test, the immediate future, but when it comes to "real life" we risk being left in the dark, scrambling to teach ourselves all over again.

The goal shouldn't just be to prepare us for the next essay we'll turn in. As we move through high school we need to be introduced to more creative forms of writing because in the real world, people don't think or argue within the constraints of five paragraphs. Those who stick with grade-school structure risk damaging their credibility and losing the interest of their audience. After being accustomed to the straightforward expository structure, creative assignments require us to think beyond what quote to use next or what fabricated-at-2 a.m. "analysis" to insert after it, helping us ultimately get a better and more complex understanding of the work. All students are capable of demonstrating this understanding through means outside the five-paragraph format -- what teachers need to do is let us show that we can.

In my AP English class, we focus on short writing prompts rather than long essays, which are useless for AP exam purposes; consequently, my teacher has a lot more room to experiment when it comes to homework. One assignment was to read John Milton's Areopagitica, a particularly dense speech arguing for freedom of press which I particularly struggled through, then write an opinion piece on a current issue using the point of view he expresses throughout. I honestly gained more out of that one-and-a-half-page assignment than I did from many of the countless essays I collectively poured days into over the past few years (and I'm not just saying that because there is a 95 percent chance my English teacher will end up reading this post). Because I had to take the piece and apply the concepts to real life, to things I actually care about and to issues important here and now, Milton's ideals became much more potent. I swam through the 370-year-old "New" English (as someone living in 2012 who had considerable trouble deciphering it, I would definitely consider it "Olde") and found the true heart of the speech -- the ideals, which remain timeless, applicable in both 1644 and 2012 and modified only with circumstances. And that is the kind of thinking that should be encouraged -- applying past to present, taking the old and creating the new, and stretching beyond what can be paraphrased from SparkNotes.

It is time to step away from ingraining into the minds of the next generation of thinkers, makers, and doers the standardized way of thinking and instead encourage the creativity and innovation that will permeate our futures in classrooms and beyond. We are no longer the kids of yesterday; we are almost grown up now. We are the creators of tomorrow, and those are six words to live, and learn, by.