Underage Pedantry Threatens the Five Paragraph Essay
September 4, 2013 8:38 AM   Subscribe

The kid reads. The kid writes. There's got to be a better way.

Here's the deal:

We've decided to home school our 13 year old son this year as a kind of transition from his previous school (small, loosely structured, dauntingly small pool of peers) to next year's entry into public high school. I'd be grateful if we could leave off any discussion of the social and emotional merits of home schooling: I have no doubt that this is the right choice for him this year.

The plan is to augment home study with stuff like team sports, theater, and some a la carte classes.

Of the latter, the plan for this Fall had been to sign him up for a literature class at a local ad hoc learning place that serves homeschoolers. Unfortunately, after a beginning-of-the-year meet-and-greet at this place, we are all reminded just how stiff, humorless, and pedantic these people are (including the kids!), and fear that we have signed our son up for four months of misery.

So the question arises: are there online options that could work for him? A Google search yields countless online learning opportunities, of course, but what are the good ones? Or what are the good ones for him? Even though you don't know him, maybe you can help.

What we are looking for:

-An online course or other kind of learning zone suitable for a 13-year-old boy who writes voraciously (fiction, drama, comics) but needs to be urged to read novels.
-The course should build his (so far, relatively undeveloped) skills related to critical reading of literature and the formulation of a reasoned response to pieces of literature.
-It should also teach him how to structure a basic essay about a novel, play, or equivalent, enable him to graciously give and receive feedback on essays, and teach the value of drafting and revision of written work.
-Bonus points for supporting thoughtful discussion of literature among peers.

I'm open to general recommendations that would help me separate the wheat from the chaff of online learning, but I'm really hoping to hear from parents whose kids have experience with specific online learning sites and can report back: strong thesis statement not required. Thanks!
posted by baseballpajamas to Education (8 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Long-time editor, writer and dragger-upper of two brainiac daughters: I would actually look at your third element -- the essay -- as quite a distinct challenge from the other items on your list. Maybe find a strong composition class somewhere?
posted by thinkpiece at 8:45 AM on September 4, 2013 [2 favorites]

Can you sign him up for a Saturday writing workshop? Some sort of adult ed course or something through the local community college? What's he reading instead of novels?

13 would be a good age to do a year of unschooling, to get him to develop his own reading list of, say, a book a week (could be fiction, non-fiction, comics--the key is to get him reading things he's really engaged with) that he'd like to read and write a 5-paragraph review about. With parental guidance, you could sign him up for goodreads, where there are significant numbers of teens writing really good, interesting literary criticism. 13 is right around the age where compulsory reading and writing instruction becomes really stilted and, frankly, unhelpful; knowing how to write a five-paragraph essay is good for passing standardized tests and getting through high school, but the minute he gets to college he'll have instructors trying to unravel that formula.

At least, that's my experience as a published writer of fiction, voracious reader, voracious writer, and former college instructor. I think it's great that you're pursuing this but I really think it's also an opportunity to cater to his unique interests and needs and help him develop a genuine love of both reading and literary analysis.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 8:53 AM on September 4, 2013 [1 favorite]

...enable him to graciously give and receive feedback on essays, and teach the value of drafting and revision of written work.

I don't know if this would be an interest of his, but the thing that helped me learn this right around his age was writing and reviewing fanfiction. I found people who wanted to trade drafts through various fandom-specific sites and also good ol' fanfiction.net, and it was always a lot like what I think teachers/professors always hope "peer review" will be.

Also, I'm sure this will sound ridiculous, but your title was the first I'd heard of the "five paragraph essay". I mean, now that you call it that it makes perfect sense because good grief have I read 'em, but I dropped out of high school to go to college and I guess I missed the part where that was taught as a Thing. As PhoBWanKenobi says, I've never once gotten a paper back from a professor with "please be more formulaic" written at the top. I think he'll be okay if he never really internalizes it either.
posted by teremala at 9:15 AM on September 4, 2013 [3 favorites]

I agree with thinkpiece that composition and literature are separate topics. It's a weird coincidence that American public schools handle them in the same class. They can just as easily be taught separately.

Also: Most of what I know about nonfiction composition I learned (as a teenager in the 90s) from making BBS posts on topics I was interested in. The second-most-helpful thing was writing CD reviews for the local alt-weekly newspaper. The third-most-helpful thing was, years later, writing my own blog, and now participating on MetaFilter. High school English and college composition were way down the list.

My experience is that you improve the most as a writer when you have something you genuinely want to communicate, an audience who you genuinely want to communicate it to, and quick feedback from the audience about their reaction. At that point, you quit worrying about The Five-Paragraph Formula, you quit worrying about Sounding Impressive, and you start actually learning what works and what doesn't. When you've expressed something clearly and convincingly, you find out. When you've been unclear or unconvincing, you find out. When you made your point clearly but shot yourself in the foot by adopting an inappropriate tone or register, you find out.

So I don't know if there's some way to get this guy writing nonfiction in front of an audience like that. But if there is, do that.

(FWIW: I'm a college instructor, and I'm generally not the sort of hardcore educational DIYer who goes "Pfft! Why take a class? You could learn that just fine all by yourself!" For the literature end of things, I totally recommend finding an online course for him to take, because you can learn a hell of a lot from a good lit teacher that you wouldn't just notice on your own. But writing is different. It's startlingly hard to teach, and the most important thing is just to get all the practice you can, where it matters, out in front of an audience.)
posted by Now there are two. There are two _______. at 9:16 AM on September 4, 2013 [2 favorites]

I don't know if this would be an interest of his, but the thing that helped me learn this right around his age was writing and reviewing fanfiction. I found people who wanted to trade drafts through various fandom-specific sites and also good ol' fanfiction.net, and it was always a lot like what I think teachers/professors always hope "peer review" will be.

Yeah, I was actually going to suggest fanfiction, fictionpress, or a blog. At 13, he'd still need a fair degree of parental guidance and supervision, but these are essentially in-built writers' communities that operate based on passion and enthusiasm as opposed to formula or rote learning. There are also a lot of great writing guides out there--my favorite at that age was Lawrence Block's Telling Lies for Fun and Profit, which was laugh out loud funny and really informative.

Another resource might be the local teen librarian. See if there's a YA book club or discussion group--I do library visits as an author and there are absolutely fascinating, active and apt discussions of literature going on at many public libraries. Wish they'd been around when I was a teen.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 9:27 AM on September 4, 2013 [1 favorite]

readworks.org is geared to the K-5 set, but the 4-5 grade books would be a good start for reading and analyzing books.
posted by tilde at 10:03 AM on September 4, 2013

If what you're looking for is more engagement and guidance for your son, I would not go the online class route. Especially for a lit class, since so much of the learning happens during discussion, and discussion in an online class is usually limited to stilted/boring "forum" posts.

At around your son's age, most kids make a cognitive leap in their abstract reasoning ability. Suddenly, they're able to grasp more abstract subjects -- like math or art -- at a whole different level; so, at around eighth or ninth grade, how those subjects are taught changes *a lot.* Math jumps from arithmetic to Algebra and English jumps from focusing on reading comprehension of texts to creating coherent/convincing arguments based on those texts.

So this year (and likely next year as well) is basically about honing your son's skills at forming a thesis and supporting it with textual evidence. Using the five paragraph essay to learn how to do that is basically like using training wheels to ride a bike; he won't need or want to use the five paragraph essay when he's got strong analytical skills under his belt (ie, when he's a high school upperclassman and beyond), but it's going to be useful support while he's learning. In his English class this year, it might look like your son is learning a lot of pointless formulas and not being allowed enough freedom of thought, but that doesn't mean the class (or material) is bad. It's like in martial arts -- your teacher places you in the correct (boring, formulaic) poses, then you have to show that you can go through the paces of a (boring, formulaic) choreographed routine on your own, and it's only once you show mastery/muscle memory that you can be allowed to spar (which is exciting and creative). I don't think there's any reason for an English class to be boring, but I also don't think that early on in building a skill set (in this case, textual analysis) is the appropriate place to focus on creativity or enjoyment, or to skimp on guidance.

Personally, I've learned *a lot* about analysis from fan sites and forums -- as an adult. Those are places where, in my opinion, you can practice and hone a lot of analytical skills, but they aren't places where you learn those skills wholesale. For what it's worth, I would enroll him in a debate team, where he'll learn how to graft strong arguments onto a lot of different frameworks and will frequently have to do so on the fly. A debate team would have the added advantages of a coach, and a bunch of kids who are interested in getting their reasoning top-notch. A guided discussion group also sounds to me like a great idea. I might also try to involve him in a (school?) paper, because the deadlines, space constraints, and teamwork involved are great for learning and because you say he loves to write. However, I wouldn't necessarily discount the English class he's in now just because it's formal and dry -- that doesn't necessarily mean he's not learning the skills he needs there, which imo is the most important thing (though he well may not be, in which case, I would yank him). Learning skills and using those skills doesn't necessarily look and feel the same, and learning to think in a whole new way may be uncomfortable and frustrating at first.
posted by rue72 at 10:36 AM on September 4, 2013 [3 favorites]

If he hates to read novels, he might be more receptive to analyzing graphic novels. The medium is different, but the process of telling a story is the same.

Start with "Understanding Comics" by Scott McCloud, then move on to reading and analyzing graphic novels in the same way you would a standard novel. I have a list of websites and some recommended graphic novels at home. Memail me if you are interested.

Also, our librarian is a whiz at finding books a student would like. Ask a school or local librarian for the latest in teen reading.
posted by rakaidan at 5:13 PM on September 4, 2013 [1 favorite]

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