I say it "worked" because every project that resulted from it was different, every project said something new, and it was apparent that through the assignment students thought about writing in new ways. (Oh: they were also very funny! I think the significance of humor in academic writing is like way downplayed.)
I've engaged students in versions of this before, but this year I spent more time on the project, raising some of the expectations while working with students to make sure they were on track and meeting the assignment's main goals. In a line: the five-paragraph essay about the five-paragraph essay assignment challenges students to produce a complex, intellectually satisfying argument using the typically rigid five-by-five form. Form is rhetorically available to them and should be tweaked and manipulated as part of what they want to get across.
project by Katie Bianchi; used by permission
( click image for larger version )
I talked about this "box logic" (ref. to Sirc; image above) uptake of the assignment a bit yesterday during a presentation, and what I said then is what makes this project so compelling: on so many levels, the "essay" is carefully planned and executed. The box speaks to the bottles ... which speak to the labels ... which speak ultimately to the written text: which is outstanding. One paragraph per bottle (with an added footnote-type-thing in bottle 5), this project hums with ideas, repurposing what to many seems a tired, inflexible form.
The five-paragraph essay is only tired, this example shows us, in the ways it is taught and taken up.
I have a file, now, of outstanding uptakes of this assignment. If it "works," and I think it does, it's because it challenges students to think in new ways when they write, asks much more of them than is typically expected, is emphatically writing about writing, and looks back at what, for many, is the origin of their student-lives as expository writers.