Tuesday, November 13, 2007

A Different Take On Teaching The Thesis (With Just A Little Technology)

To oversimplify and make a generalization based on not much, English and Language Arts instruction seems to follow one of two mantras when working with the thesis essay. 1) The 5 (or however many) paragraph model: Thesis, supporting statements, evidence, and discussion, and some kind of conclusion. Or, 2) Rejection of this kind of formulaic writing with something more narrative-based or creative in its place. I've tried both, and I've tried teaching from somewhere in the middle, but that gets tough because of the inherent contradictions. Where teaching the middle worked well was in an upper-level composition course (one of my favorite courses to teach). For this post though, I'm thinking about teaching the thesis to freshman.

The context is that my class just finished reading The Odyssey with which we did some very engaging writing about names, family, self, home, journey but neglected to work on anything that resembled thesis writing or literary analysis. So as an afterthought steeped in guilt, I decided to run what I called a "Group Thesis Challenge Relay."

1. I divided the class into 5 groups of 4 and explained briefly that a thesis is essentially identifying a literary device and its impact on something thematic or character-based. Other traits of a thesis might be that it's disagreeable and beyond a summary.
2. I gave them this stem: Homer uses _________ to show _________.
3. The groups had 10 minutes to dig through the text and compose as many workable statements as possible.
4. I determined a random order for the groups to present then had them designate a spokesperson.
5. The first group presented their thesis statement.
6. Any other group could challenge the thesis. They had to provide reasoning behind their challenge. And the challenged team gets a chance to respond. Challenges had to be justified by the text.
7. Unsuccessful challenges result in loss of points (I had just watched NFL Sunday).
8. After each challenge, the whole class revised the thesis. I word-processed and projected the statements. With highlights, comments, and revisions, I'm going to post the document as a future reference.
*This activity segued into a discussion of a wiki document we've been working on to examine the differences between blogging, journaling, writing for school. They saw the connection.

Throughout the thesis activity, I was increasingly impressed by the student-led challenges and discussions. In order to make valid challenges, students discussed how an essay would be constructed around particular statements, why a statement wasn't specific enough, how to revise, what parts of the story support and/or disprove statements. The activity became much more than an afterthought.

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