A high school English teacher emailed me with a problem.
She said that the textbook she was using included essays with questions for understanding that the students were supposed to answer. One of the questions was, “In a sentence, what is the thesis of this essay?”
The teacher said the thesis statement the publisher provided in the teachers’ materials didn’t appear anywhere in the essay.
“How the hell am I supposed to find the thesis of an essay if it isn’t written anywhere in the essay?”
I have a feeling that saying, “by the preponderance of the evidence” will not help her.
The best way to teach nonfiction writing is to teach the most broadly encompassing elements first. The student has to have an opinion (called a thesis statement) before doing any other work, so writing instruction should begin with the thesis.
Next on the list to teach is structure. There are only two basic nonfiction structures you could teach, and of these two, the thesis-and-support organizational pattern, which is characteristic of persuasive essays, is the more useful.
At the tail end of items to be taught as part of the writing process are issues like sentence structure, grammar, and usage.
Both teacher and students should have a rubric for evaluating whether an essay is satisfactory. Rubrics foster learning by offering students direction and self-correction help.
Students usually have no difficulty asserting an opinion. Supporting that opinion is an entirely different matter.
Supporting an opinion means sticking to one idea. Beginning writers are not very good at that. Their writing is usually stream of consciousness with misspellings rather than logical reasoning with supporting evidence.
Having a good working thesis statement, however, helps student writers determine what to put in their essays and what to leave out. Savvy students (who typically are students taught by a savvy writing teacher) select a working thesis to use in thinking about their writing project.
If the thesis statement turns out to be workable, they have the biggest chunk of their writing planned. If it turns out to be unworkable, they haven’t wasted hours composing and their thinking can usually be turned into a workable plan without a great deal more effort.
A couple years ago, Glenn Wiebe shared on his History Tech blog information from a conference presentation that I tucked away to follow up sometime.
Leslie Duhaylongsod, who at the time was teaching at the Winsor School in Boston, shared at the 2008 National Council for the Social Studies how she uses what she called argument writing with middle school students in her history classes. I’m not sure her students incorporated the refutation element that marks argument, but they clearly used thesis-and-support.
Duhaylongsod had students develop nonfiction thesis statements, find evidence for them, and explain how their evidence supports their thesis. From a writing teachers standpoint, it is useful to look at some thesis statements she shared at the conference:
- The geography of Greece was an advantage of Ancient Greece.
- The geography of Greece negatively impacted the lives of the Ancient Greeks.
- Geography led to development of democracy.
- Geography of Greece helped the ancient Greeks become powerful.
Wiebe reported that Duhaylongsod said the most difficult part of the work for her students was developing patience to deal with the frustration of writing on intellectually challenging topics.
Those of us who teach writing rather than history can learn from Duhaylongsod’s efforts. She required serious intellectual work from middle school students. Granted, she taughts at a private school and didn’t have the hodgepodge of students that populate public school classrooms. However, that doesn’t mean the public school teachers shouldn’t be pushing their students for learning adequate only for blackening bubbles on multiple choice tests.
Also, instead of letting them choose any topic that interested them, Duhaylongsod required students to choose topics within her discipline. That kind of authentic writing rarely happens in the English classroom at any level from middle school through associate degree except for writing assignments about literature.
I believe Duhaylongsod is now in an education doctoral program at Harvard University. She has been presenting at various conferences this spring (NARST, AERA) on a team lead by Harvard Associate Professor of Education Tina Grotzer. The researchers are investigating how how children reason about the nature of causality.
Wiebe is a member of the Curriculum Development Team of ESSDACK (the Educational Services and Staff Development Association of Central Kansas).
[Broken links removed 2/26/2014; updated link 2/03/2016]