Tag Archives: Writing

Making Thesis Statements from Commonly Held Beliefs.

I’ve presented templates for thesis statements on this blog before, and recently in class we did a quick brainstorm activity that was in the same style.

When students can’t find a topic to write about, I often encourage them to explore a commonly held belief — not simply to refute it, but to analyze.

We started with blank sheets of paper and a simple prompt:

Many people believe that…

Students passed clockwise, and then had to build on somebody else’s prompt like so:

They believe this because…

Pass again. Third student continues with this starter:

However, they are ignoring that…

For the final prompt, the last student had to pick make a choice: either analyze why people continue hold this belief o explain how the belief is faulty.

Their belief is misguided because / The reality of the situation is…

At the end, students had a brief but somewhat coherent intro paragraph: set up the belief, poke a hole in it, and explain why. Successful versions of this read to the class included explanations about the ascendancy of LeBron James (even though some people believe that he’ll never surpass Michael Jordan in his career) and the commonly held belief that Marijuana is a dangerous substance (due to the wealth of popular media that portrays it as such).

These brainstorms weren’t necessarily airtight, but they encouraged specificity — important when students are tempted to embrace more generic thesis statements like “x is the greatest basketball player ever” or “y substance should be legal.”

(This is one of several times this year that I’ve used writing templates either taken from or inspired by the book They Say / I Say. Check out their blog here.)

Fitting together the puzzle of thesis and support.

passingI just finished reading a batch of Self-Reflective 2Fer Essays from my 11th graders, and a common weak spot they talked about was when your support in your body paragraphs doesn’t (quite) match your thesis.

I have been tinkering with this trouble in my mind for a few weeks. As teachers of writing, we often encourage students to pick a topic and “zoom in” early, and workshop their thesis statement too — but sometimes the statement is the cart that comes before the horse. They’ve fine-tuned it before they’ve really exhausted their line of inquiry. Then the thesis becomes a jigsaw piece too carefully cut for the puzzle that is their essay.

When we wrapped up reading “Passing” in the 10th grade, I decided to try the opposite approach, and asked a simple question:

“What are you still wondering?”

From that question, we made a list on the board. The questions often looked something like this (spoiler alert!)

  • Were Brian and Clare really involved?
  • Did Irene push Clare?
  • Would Jack have accepted his daughter now that he knew the truth?

Of course, we can’t see into the fictional future and find out what happened. (“Can’t we ask Nella Larsen?” “Nope, she’s dead.”) But we can re-write these questions so that the point towards the text, instead of past the ending:

  • What evidence does the book present that Brian and Clare are having an affair?
  • What motivations did Irene have to push Clare? What was her attitude towards Clare?
  • Which impulse was stronger: Jack’s love for his family, or his racism?

Students then received a sticky note to write down their question. They could grab one off the board, or brainstorm their own. That sticky note then became a bookmark as they hunted down a page that helped answer their question. Once they found some worthy evidence, they were handed a chart with the following questions:

  • Context – what’s going on in this scene? Give the basics in a sentence or two.
  • Patterns – what words or phrases stand out to you on this page? Write them down here.
  • Analysis  — what conclusions do you draw looking CLOSELY at those words and phrases? How does this page give some clues to your deep question?

The final prompt in the chart:

  • Answering your question – So, based on all of your close reading, how can you answer your original question? Your answer will probably take a couple of sentences.

It was not until the next day that I revealed: That closing prompt? It’s the core of your thesis, and your intro paragraph. A few students rolled their eyes: they’d been tricked! But a few of them smiled with surprise. That was a complete outline they had just done! And though the write-up was rough, with plenty of first person and opinionated statements, the inquiry was real. In most cases, the puzzle fit together.

Truth and Storytelling: Two Final Essays

My example of a journal brainstorm: "Draw the relationship between the self and the changing world."

My example of a journal brainstorm: “Draw the relationship between the self and the changing world.”

I started this series two months ago, but here’s the final project that goes with the Things They Carried: Truth and Storytelling Unit.

Your benchmark task is to answer the essential question:

What is the relationship between the self and the changing world?

(Sub questions: How does the self react to and deal with change? How does the world in turn react when a person changes? How does this cycle work? What is notable about it?)

You will do this by writing an essay that is both analytical and narrative.

The analytical portion of you essay will identify a major lesson O’Brien gives us about the self in the changing world. You must analyze how he conveys this message in his book. Once this formal analysis is complete, you must then apply your understanding from the book it to your own beliefs and experiences, and then write a personal essay around that theme. (This section can resemble one of the stories in the book.)

The analytical section really just reinforces the writing skills we’ve been working on all quarter with the 2Fers — and students see this. The narrative assignment, though, really blows things wide open. I emphasize that, while you can focus on death or trauma (and many students do), there are so many lessons embedded in the book about the self in the face of x y or z change. I also rely on lessons from Peter Elbow to get these ideas really flowing from students — not always easy after a few months of mostly analytical composition.

Students write about the acute anxiety of transferring schools, or refusing to watch a loved one die in the hospital; to be intensely attached to every item in a care package sent to summer camp, or to have an anger that they bank down inside them, only to have it seep out at unexpected moments.

I love this project, and it’s a fitting end to a unit where we have explored the purpose of storytelling in their lives. (At this point they usually get over the fact that Tim O’Brien was “lying” with his book of fiction.)