I’m trying to get my Christmas shopping done early this year. Somehow, I expect I’ll still be scrambling at the last minute, but I’ve already managed to stash a few boxes into the closet—like a writer squirreling away great ideas in a notebook.

The downside of my ingenious planning? Friends and family have to suffer through me—repeatedly—reminding them, “I got your present already!” grinning and cavorting impishly. I can’t help it, though. I’m excited about the presents I’ve chosen.


Choosing a great present takes effort…

You need to know your subject and his or her “present” interests. It takes real effort to think through just the right gift.

Sometimes it’s a lot of work with less-than-intended rewards. From what I’ve been told, my childhood self (unpolished in social graces) tended to unwrap new toys, set them aside, and play with the boxes.

My antics were either endearing, or aggravating, depending on whom you asked—and depending on whether they were the ones who had paid good money for the cast-aside gift.


Fast-forward to school essays…

Teachers disagree over the benefit of the ubiquitous five-paragraph essay. Schools begin easing students into this format as early as third grade, and they continue all the way into high school—and even college.

Some teachers remain devout believers in the five-paragraph essay. Some are dissenters. They chafe at imposing such confining constraints on their students. They feel (and many students most likely agree) that the tight requirements “box in” their creativity.


The “essay box” isn’t intended to constrain creativity…

When I’m teaching, my hope is that students will realize the box isn’t there to hold them in, but rather, to open into new worlds. Now, I certainly hope that students will progress beyond the academic five-paragraph essay, but it is still a good place to start, much like a skater starts with compulsory routines, or a musician starts with scales. Great essay writers, columnists, or book authors aren’t doing anything fundamentally different than what students learn to do in a school essay (provided they learn it well). They come up with ideas or positions, support them, and present conclusions. These are the basic ingredients of even the most advanced literary works.

One of my favorite comic strips is Bill Watterson’s Calvin and Hobbes. The main character, Calvin, knows his way around a box. He’ll take some plain old corrugated cardboard and turn it into a time machine, a duplicator, or a transmogrifier. In the world of the comics, this leads to all sorts of creative adventures: to other worlds and other times.


The key to unlocking excellent writing…

The key is to help students understand that writing is not about forcing themselves to fit into a box, but rather, seeing what they can put—and discover—inside that box. The best teachers realize that learning is not something one can pre-package in a box. Each student will find something different inside an empty box.

– Fred Feldman, with Karen Davis – ABOVE-GRADE TUTORING