After our last round of practice rhetorical analysis essays, I realized that my students need more instruction and practice with writing robust, specific, defensible thesis statements.
My students see the value in well-written and thoughtful thesis statements; they realize that when the thesis statement is solid, the essay can almost write itself. The problem is in writing the thesis statement itself.
They were also having trouble identifying tone and what builds it, even though I thought I had taught these things. We had practiced with texts released by the College Board, and while those are robust and important, they don’t always have the “fun factor.” After several formative essays and a summative essay, we all agreed that we needed some sort of break, but we still needed to be learning.
So, I tried to get creative about how to teach my students more about tone and thesis statements.
I gathered several unique texts, mostly available in my classroom library. These texts will likely never be on the AP Lang exam, but they have unique tone and purpose, and are accessible and important to my students. The skills my students learn through reading and analyzing these texts are transferable, and that’s important.
In one of my classes we started by discussing two texts: Tiffany’s Table Manners for Teenagers and Shade: A Tale of Two Presidents. Because this is a particularly small class, we were able to have a discussion that didn’t require too many formal directions. I asked the students to read the texts one at a time, and then try to write a thesis statement based on tone. I was there to prompt and direct their conversation, but they did most of the thinking, which mean they did most of the learning. They came up with the beginning of a thesis statement for each text, and I liked what they did.
The next day, with my larger class, I took the discussion we had had the previous day and organized it with step-by-step directions.
The texts they had available, in addition to the two listed above, were as follows:
- The Undefeated by Kwame Alexander
- Last Stop on Market Street by Matt de la Peña
- a letter from Memories of Vietnam: War in the First Person by Ellen Weiss
- a Life in Hell comic by Matt Groening (found in Guys Write for Guys Read by Jon Scieszka)
- Can Your Outfit Change the World? by Erinne Paisley
- Postcards from Camp by Simms Taback
- John, Paul, George, and Ben by Lane Smith
- A Boy Called Dickens by Deborah Hopkinson
First they read the text with a partner. Then, using a half-sheet of chart paper, they recorded their thinking. When finished with the first six steps, they followed a formula for a thesis statement.
I know that formulaic writing isn’t the goal, but I want to scaffold them to a place where they feel confident to get creative. They need to internalize the important elements that build a robust thesis statement so they can deviate from it later.
The results were encouraging, but I thought they needed more practice. After they wrote their first thesis statements, I rotated the texts from one partnership to the next, and they tried again. By this time, we were on our second day of this activity.
This time, the results were spectacular. While we aren’t “perfect,” we have made a ton of progress, and the thinking process, including multiple draft readings, is evident on their papers. It was messy, but that’s where the magic, the learning, happens.
As I rotated around the room, I overheard and participated in some deep conversations about rhetorical devices, how tone is built, and what makes a defensible thesis statement. By the end of the second class, we were high-fiving for a job well done as they exited the class. It felt good.
(If you don’t want to decipher the handwriting, you can find the students’ thesis statements are typed in the photo captions.)
Next, we will try writing thesis statements with more robust texts, but for now, I think they “get it” and can see that a defensible thesis statement includes audience, purpose, and rhetorical decisions made by the author. A defensible thesis statement is specific and can help to structure the rest of the essay.
They’ve got confidence now, and I can’t wait to see how they transfer this new learning to more robust texts. We have another rhetorical analysis essay practice next week, and I fully expect that all of my students’ scores will go up from the last one based on this activity.
How do you instruct your students when they are writing robust and defensible thesis statements? What would you add or change to this activity? I’d love to hear your thoughts and ideas in the comments.
Julie has been teaching secondary language arts for twenty years, spending the first fifteen in rural Central Oregon, four in Amman, Jordan, and the most recent school years in Managua, Nicaragua.
Follow her on twitter @SwinehartJulie