I despised history, until I took AP U.S. History. From my elementary and middle school years, there remains a paper trail of get-to-know-you surveys for which I indicated that history bored me to tears, and doodles on notes of the Monroe Doctrine that subtly communicate the same reaction.
The U.S. history class I took in eighth grade is a perfect example. Almost every day consisted of hurriedly copying notes from a dim image projected on the board as the teacher read aloud the words we were inscribing. There were no lectures of substance; we were spoon-fed worksheets pulled from the dry pages of a textbook. The tests were a contest that determined who could regurgitate the highest percentage of memorized facts. Little to no analysis was ever done. We never focused on comprehending the cause and effect of critical movements or comparing past time periods to the modern era. Apparently, it was far more important to know the names of all the generals in the Civil War.
On the occasion that our daily work did not entail unhelpful note taking or memory-based testing, we took part in such educational activities as watching National Treasure or working on a slightly more involved version of a second grade project on African American leaders. I’m still curious as to why we selected one such leader for each letter of the alphabet in a three-day span, rather than learning about their actions concurrently with the rest of the curriculum.
I received an A in the class (as I did in all of my classes throughout middle school), despite having rarely studied, drawn bumblebees on my notes, and often completed my homework in the five minutes before class began. Now, a few years later, I realize it was all irrelevant; I remember almost nothing. I know now that the class demanded bland memorization with no connection to the humanity of history. It offered no tools to aid true understanding. It gave us the how of the story but never the why. I like to think of classes as a telescope through which one can catch a glimpse of a larger universe. Of course, the student must have the wherewithal and ambition to look through the telescope. But what if the lens is smudged? Partially obscured? What if the student cannot get a clear picture of history because the class is woefully lacking?
Well, the lens in my eighth grade history course was almost entirely opaque. But I never would have known just how bad it was if I hadn’t taken AP U.S. History this past school year, as a sophomore.
Our teacher still lectured on a daily basis, but he was engaging and clearly explained why people acted as they did, and how these actions fit a larger narrative. We still took guided notes from a projected screen, but there were always a few lines of text written and updated by the teacher that better explained the larger story and prepared us for the College Board’s AP Exam that we would face in May. Each day, students were called on to identify information from the day before or explain the relevance of a vocabulary term, actively prompting participation in the class. Every night, our teacher expected us to review our notes and read a few pages from the textbook, laying a solid foundation of fact upon which he laid the cultural story the following day. We read and analyzed primary sources on a daily basis that supplemented the information we gathered from our textbooks every night. We studied women, African Americans, and Native Americans concurrently with the rest of the material. There was no need for a “Women of American History” unit or a special project on African American heroes because we had always included them in the study of each time period.
The class contained few projects, but they comprised in-depth debates and essays that required students to study the time period as though their lives were the ones being affected by the decisions made. Our two large debates—one on Andrew Jackson and the other pitting Alexander Hamilton against Thomas Jefferson—demanded hours of group-based work that involved extensive study of the writing and beliefs of the time period, as well developing the ability to quickly apply relevant knowledge to support a feasible historical argument. Throughout the year, we practiced specific College Board–defined historical thinking skills (contextualization, synthesis, causation, periodization, etc.) and essay writing that showed our comprehension of the why and so what of American history. And each month, our teacher assigned us a take-home packet that required us to use historical thinking skills, employ an essay-like analysis of primary sources, and identify the causation of events. Yes, we had vocabulary quizzes that required memorization, but the terms were picked specifically for our use on the AP exam essays, and were always tied in to the overall story we were learning.
At the end of each unit, we took an essay assessment and a multiple choice test. While our primary tests were still multiple choice, the questions demanded the ability to compare one time period to another, to identify broader processes, and to contextualize and comprehend why people thought as they did.
Perhaps most significantly, A’s were not handed out like candy.
Upon completing such an excellent class, I was confused about and disappointed in the sorry state of my eighth grade U.S. history class. What explained the chasm of difference between the two? Myriad things: understanding vs. memorization, the style of tests, the expectation of hard working and self-reliant students, the development of thinking skills, the opportunity to debate differing viewpoints, the exploration of contextualization within larger historical processes, and the telling of history as change shaped by human people rather than bland caricatures.
All of this combined to create a huge and important difference: In AP U.S. History, we learned. We learned about history, we learned to exercise layered comprehension of multifaceted societies, and we learned how to develop an independent work ethic.
The College Board and its measureable standards deserve much credit. When the reality is “Your students will either learn these skills or earn tangibly low scores that will make you look bad,” work gets done. The lessons get taught. Having an achievable standard to work for is absolutely invaluable to education. Sure, participation and cooperation are important. General competence is a good bar. But at the end of day, the most essential test of effective schooling is the question, “What do you know and what can you do with it?”
Every student deserves the opportunity to learn analytical skills at a high level. And only classes like AP U.S. History adequately reveal to students their intellectual capabilities, which in turn unlock ideas, careers, and whole worlds that would be otherwise closed to them due to an all-too-common façade of simplistic worksheets.
AP U.S. History allowed me to genuinely learn the subject matter, analyze historical movements with context, compare my world to past times, broaden my understanding of politics, and truly love the story that history tells. History went from being something I despised to one of my favorite subjects. I now see the people behind the events, and the deep and inseparable humanity that accompanies them. For my entire life, I have been a reader and writer, loving how words paint a picture of a real world. AP U.S. History made that love of mine applicable to our past—and potentially to my future profession. I will always be grateful for that.
Alli Aldis is a rising junior at Gahanna Lincoln High School in Gahanna, Ohio. She is the daughter of Chad Aldis, the Fordham Institute’s Vice President for Ohio Policy and Advocacy.
The views expressed herein represent the opinions of the author and not necessarily the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.
This post is written by NCTE member Kim Zarins.
[Disclaimer: I don’t have a PhD in composition studies. My PhD is in English with a focus on medieval literature. Besides teaching college literature courses, I write creatively, and my debut young adult novel comes out in September. I am joining the debate on the five-paragraph essay in response to Kathleen Rowlands’ smart “Slay the Monster” journal article, because I think high school and college teachers can work together and set up our students for success—and the five-paragraph essay is setting them up for a really tough time in college. Students don’t find their voices this way and come to college hating how they sound in writing, particularly in the essay form.
As a high-school survivor of this form and now a teacher occasionally receiving it from students trying their best, I have to say I hate this abomination. I hate it so much, I decided to be naughty and condemn the five-paragraph essay in a five-paragraph essay. Here you go. Enjoy. Or not.]
From the dawn of time, or at least the dawn of the modern high school, the five-paragraph essay has been utilized in high school classrooms. Despite this long tradition, the five-paragraph essay is fatally flawed. It cheapens a student’s thesis, essay flow and structure, and voice.
First, the five-paragraph essay constricts an argument beyond usefulness or interest. In principle it reminds one of a three-partitioned dinner plate. The primary virtue of such dinner plates is that they are conveniently discarded after only one use, much like the essays themselves. The secondary virtue is to keep different foods from touching each other, like the three-body paragraphs. However, when eating from a partitioned plate, a diner might have a bite of burger, then a spoonful of baked beans, then back to the burger, and then the macaroni salad. The palate satisfies its complex needs for texture, taste, choice, and proportion. Not so for the consumers of the five-paragraph essay, who must move through Point 1, then Point 2, and then Point 3. No exceptions. It is arbitrary force-feeding to the point of indigestion. After the body paragraphs, and if readers have not already expired, they may read the Conclusion, which is actually a summary of the Introduction. There is no sense of building one’s argument or of proportion.
Second, critical thinking skills and the organization of the essay’s flow are impaired when a form must be plugged and filled with rows of stunted seeds that will never germinate. If we return to the partitioned-plate analogy, foods are separated, but in food, there is a play in blending flavors, pairing them so that the sum is greater than the individual parts. Also, there is typically dessert. Most people like dessert and anticipate it eagerly. In the five-paragraph essay there is no anticipation, only homogeneity, tedium, and death. Each bite is not food for thought but another dose of the same. It is like Miss Trunchbull in the Roald Dahl novel, forcing the little boy to eat chocolate cake until he bursts—with the exception that no one on this planet would mistake the five-paragraph essay for chocolate cake. I only reference the scene’s reluctant, miserable consumption past all joy or desire.
Third, the five-paragraph form flattens a writer’s voice more than a bully’s fist flattens an otherwise perky, loveable face. Even the most gifted writer cannot sound witty in a five-paragraph essay, which makes one wonder why experts assign novice writers this task. High school students suffer to learn this form, only to be sternly reprimanded by college professors who insist that writers actually say something. Confidence is shattered, and students can’t articulate a position, having only the training of the five-paragraph essay dulling their critical reasoning skills. Moreover, unlike Midas whose touch turns everything to gold, everything the five-paragraph essay touches turns to lead. A five-paragraph essay is like a string of beads with no differentiation, such as a factory, rather than an individual, might produce. No matter how wondrous the material, the writer of a five-paragraph essay will sound reductive, dry, and unimaginative. Reading over their own work, these writers will wonder why they ever bothered with the written word to begin with, when they sound so inhuman. A human’s voice is not slotted into bins of seven to eleven sentences apiece. A human voice meanders—but meaning guides the meandering. Voice leans and wends and backtracks. It does not scoop blobs of foodstuff in endless rows. If Oliver Twist were confronted with such blobs of written porridge, he would not ask for more.
In conclusion, the five-paragraph essay is an effective way to remove all color and joy from this earth. It would be better to eat a flavorless dinner from a partitioned plate than to read or write a five-paragraph essay. It would be better to cut one’s toenails, because at least the repetitive task of clipping toenails results in feet more comfortably suited to sneakers, allowing for greater movement in this world. The five-paragraph essay, by contrast, cuts all mirth and merit and motion from ideas until there is nothing to stand upon at all, leaving reader and writer alike flat on their faces. Such an essay form is the very three-partitioned tombstone of human reason and imagination.
Kim Zarins is a medievalist and an Associate Professor of English at the California State University at Sacramento. Her debut young adult novel, Sometimes We Tell the Truth (Simon & Schuster/Simon Pulse, pub date Sept 6), retells Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales with modern American teens traveling to Washington D.C. Find her on Twitter @KimZarins.