composition and the graphic organizer

So my eight year-old daughter came home today with some information about T-charts. A t-chart is a kind of graphic organizer (imagine a list where you write "should I get a cat?" at the top and then list pros and cons in two columns and you’ll get the idea of what a t-chart might look like).

In this t-chart, the student writes the question that has been asked at the top. In the left column, the student writes the "answer" to the question: the sheet notes that "filling in this box really makes you think." OK, if you say so… Anyway, in the right column, the student lists the "details that prove your Answer." The t-chart my daughter receives comes with three bullets already put in. Elsewhere, we are given the essay structure with an "Introduction" where you "Tell ’em what you’re gonna tell ’em," the "Body" where you "Tell ’em the details!" (and we have previously learned that the optimal number of details is 3), and finally the
"Conclusion" where you "Tell ’em what you told ’em."

Yes, my daughter is being taught the five-paragraph theme. Keep in mind that the person teaching this crap has a graduate degree in Education and received that degree from my own college. So I wonder how you go through all those classes and come out thinking that this is a way to teach writing. What are we doing?

The thing is that the problem isn’t really with the concept of the graphic organizer or even the T-chart as a graphic organizer.

One might create purposeful and/or wildly experimental t-charts. You could even take the old rhetorical triangle and turn it into a t-chart. No, the problem here lies in the assumptions about writing that inform the chart, and there are so many detrimental attributes to this. Where to start?

  • It assumes that writing is about answering specific, given questions. How often does that occur outside of a testing environment?
  • It assumes that writing (and the world) is composed of answers.
  • It foreshortens the process of invention by turning it into answers + proof.
  • It makes for very dull writing.
  • It teaches students to dislike writing.

How do I know those last two things? Because I see the products of this "teaching" walk into first-year composition courses and professional writing courses. I know because I’ve made a career out of trying to undo the damage of K-12 writing instruction (as has every rhet/comp instructor).

3 thoughts on “composition and the graphic organizer

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  1. K-12 teachers are directed into this form of writing because (1) they must follow state curriculum requirements, (2) state-mandated standardized testing is based on five-paragraph essays, and (3) students’ success on these tests affect college entrance possibilities and school scores that are considered by the states and federal government to be indicators of how well the schools are teaching their students. In such an environment, it’s easy to see why teachers teach writing the way they do.

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  2. Fair enough Charles. And I realize that here you are not defending the practice but rather explaining how it has come to be. You’re right of course that the teacher didn’t invent this approach. That’s clear from the fact that my daughter comes home with these pre-printed worksheets. There’s an entire culture of faulty thinking at work here.
    Here’s the funny thing about it, tho. These teachers go through the most absurdly rigorous curriculum. Our pre-service English teachers have 70+ credits in their major with nary an elective. They are essentially double-majoring in English and education. Then we require them to get Master’s degrees.
    If this is the result, then all that’s a complete waste of time for everyone involved. Every breath spent on teaching these future teachers how to write themselves and how to teach writing and literacy is completely wasted, b/c if there is ONE THING you ought to be able to learn about teaching writing, it’s that this is NOT the way to do it.
    Honestly my daughter would be far better off if the school had no writing curriculum rather than delivering this.
    Still your point is well-made about the testing. Setting aside the argument about the value of testing itself, there is still an error in teaching to the test. If you can teach students to write well, they will be able to write these inane formulaic essays well. On the other hand, if you teach students to produce inane formalism, generally all you end up with is purposeless, repetitive nonsense.
    So I would like to think that teaching students to write well, instead of by formula, would result in better performance on writing tests.

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  3. I think Charles is right in his explanation, but it also misses one key motivation for teaching the 5-paragraph essay, the very same motivation I had when I (regretfully) used it while teaching 8th grade. Teachers are short on time and it’s an easy thing to fall back on.
    I made the huge mistake of using the 5 paragraph essay once while teaching 8th grade. I got the worst, most boring essays from my students (except the few who were challenging themselves enough to break the mold anyway), and I felt awful because I knew afterward that I hadn’t really taught them a lot. But I was overloaded, stressed, and needed something easy.
    I think one big problem with K12 teaching is time. We send out these potentially great teachers with a lot of knowledge about theory and writing, and then put them in an environment where they are not given enough time to think critically about how to apply that knowledge. It doesn’t do much good to know something isn’t the best idea if one doesn’t have time to come up with or research better ideas.
    I agree with your point that teaching students to write well instead of write formulas would help them on a standardized test.

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