As the facts change, change your thesis. Don’t be a stubborn mule, or you’ll get killed. -Barry Sternlicht
It’s a love-hate relationship: the thesis is essential in analytical writing, but it can be one of the hardest elements for students to master. A couple of years ago, I began reflecting on how I was teaching my students to write thesis statements. I came up with a few key issues.
- I was asking my students to do too much blueprinting. When I started teaching, I taught my students to write closed thesis statements. While the could write eloquent lists when they left my class, that was the beginning and the end of it. My students’ papers were always workmanlike. I realized that the way I was teaching them to craft the thesis was limiting the thinking they could demonstrate in their writing. Consider a great discussion: the conversation doesn’t grow when you list the points and plod through them, one by one. Great discussions begin with open-ended questions that have complex answers. It’s okay for a thesis to leave room for that complexity.
- I was teaching students to prioritize the wrong focus. Consider a typical AP Lang prompt: The author (insert general background/context)…(Instructions to read the passage.) Analyze the way the author uses rhetorical strategies to achieve his purpose. (General comment about citing text.) The student has to accomplish two things in answering this prompt. First, she must break the text into its parts and examine the ways in which the author applies principles of rhetoric. Second, and more importantly, she must accurately identify the author’s purpose. It is relatively easy to teach a laundry list of devices which students can use to address the former. However, the device-focused AP class often teaches students that their essays should be extensive lists of everything they find in the text. Their real priority should be a discussion of the author’s purpose, in which the devices play a subordinate role.
- I needed to focus more on teaching effective organization. Students’ paragraphs were repetitive. When they refocused their thesis statements on author’s purpose, they suddenly had no idea how to organize their ideas. I had to teach students to structure their writing around the structure of the text.
Changing my approach around these three issues was tremendously helpful. Check out the difference in student thesis statements (they wrote on the Banneker prompt, 2010) based on these changes.
Before: “In Benjamin Banneker’s appeal to Thomas Jefferson, he uses religious appeals, emotional diction, and repetition in his work.”
After: “Appealing to Jefferson’s values of life and liberty, Banneker establishes himself as an advocate of equality and justice.”
You can immediately see which thesis invites a more thoughtful response; students see it, too, and their confidence as writers grows almost instantly.
I tend to favor two strategies to teach this shift. The first method is the rhetorical précis format. This is useful when you have timid writers who want the comfort of a formula. It’s also handy for slower writers who struggle to say enough during timed writing situations. The thesis is simply the last sentence of the précis. This is the “after” thesis you see above.
The second method, which is better for students who are ready for more complex thesis construction, is PASTA (purpose, audience, subject, tone, author’s bias). Use it like SOAPSTone. List the information after each letter.
P- to advocate for slaves’ rights and freedom, to expose the hypocrisy of American slave owners
A-Thomas Jefferson, drafter of the Declaration of Independence, owner of slaves
S-freedom, slavery, human rights, racial equality
A-son of a former slave, unusually educated, values liberty and equality
Then pick and choose from each letter, combining the ideas to form a coherent sentence.
In a letter to Thomas Jefferson, educated son of former slaves Benjamin Banneker boldly advocates racial equality by exposing the hypocrisy of American slave owners.
This format takes some practice, and students have to play around with syntax to make it work. The key in both approaches is that students don’t need to name or list specific devices in the thesis. The thesis prioritizes meaning and purpose.
To teach these methods, I use think-aloud, modeling, partner practice, and independent practice–nothing fancy, just tried-and-true strategies. As students become more comfortable with writing thesis statements about the abstract (purpose and meaning) rather than the concrete (devices), their writing will grow in depth and complexity. Reworking thesis statements is one of the simplest ways to help students dramatically improve their writing.