Educational Synecdoches

In the Miami Herald, an odd reference to the five-paragraph essay. While the form is often cited in the press when standardized tests come up (since most require a FPE), Emily Schmall refers to the form as synonymous with being able to read, in particular, and being educated, more generally. The article (for context) is about how students interested in dance are finding they need to do well on standardized tests:
"Our pressure is to help the students read and then they can take dance," Granados said. "It motivates the kids in wanting to come to school and doing better in their grades to be in the dance program. They can be sent back to their home school if they can't maintain grades."

While Granados is not the only educator to argue dance students must know how to write a five-paragraph essay before learning pointe, Peter London, an internationally renowned dancer and instructor at New World, disagrees.

"We never see any academic records," London said. "All we see is their dancing. We judge them solely based on their performance at that audition, their ability to hold a space. If they're not well versed in the classical vocabulary, they have to have a phenomenal magnetic ability on stage."

In a doctor's office a few years ago, before being fitted with an enormous ligament-mending knee brace, my doc asked me what I did at the U. "I teach writing," I told him. "Hey, now that's a hard job. You can teach them a lot of things—spelling, punctuation, grammar—but the question remains: can they get it all to fit into five paragraphs?"

Already stunned from the pain in my knee, my mind reeled to figure out what this guy was saying. It seemed almost a joke—why would my knee doc be saying something so dopey?—but he was dead serious.

Reading this article in the Miami Herald, though, I tend to think that the FPE (and maybe other memorable things we learn) can act as educational synecdoches standing in for "literacy," in this case, and in other cases what students learn in math, social studies, science. Other educational synecdoches could be "learning the periodic table," "learning the Pythagorean theorem," and "understanding the three branches of government."

In all of these cases, the educational synecdoche stands in for much more that goes on at the scene of learning, while in the case of the five-paragraph essay, the synecdochal gizmo casts the learning in its entirety in a way that could be seen as reductive. Deciding to think more about this, I click "publish post."


  1. When I have my hair cut at the local shop, my barber always wants to know how the handwriting business is going. For him the mechanics of printing and cursive are how to define writing, but I don’t think he’s much letting handwriting stand in for anything else because when he asks me, he invariably likes to scroll his hand through the air, forming letters as he speaks.

  2. Handwriting! I love that story. It reminds me of a chapter on handwriting in Mina Shaughnessy's book that I've always wanted to teach. If it's not handwriting, it's just typing. :)