Students have made improvements to their working thesis statement at this point. After I quickly read them, I decided that I wanted to push them to make stronger arguments. Several students had stated facts in their thesis without taking a stand or establishing something arguable. For instance, I read a few where students had written a thesis statement that was almost a straight definition of identity, such as the thesis statement from a student that said, "Identity is the way that society views you, but it is also the way you view yourself." Today, I want students to push themselves to make stronger statements and to write them clearly.
I begin by projecting a student's draft on the board, having asked for permission in advance. I introduce this as the working draft of a brave student who is kind enough to let us learn from her work and who gets tons of credit for this. I also tell the owner of the paper that she gets to get help from the entire class, a win-win situation. I read the introductory paragraph only because I mean to focus our discussion on establishing a strong argument. I ask the class to identify the thesis for me. Students are pretty good at identifying the thesis as well as pointing out the absence of one if the paper failed to state an argument. I then ask students to think about whether the given thesis statement is making an argument and this sparks a discussion. Students are able to point out statements that are confusing and we suggest to the writer that he/she reword it for clarification. Also, I am able to ask questions about the arguments they are formulating. I ask things like, "So, are you saying that...?" This is especially helpful for students who wrote a very short thesis stating something like, "Identity is the way society perceives you." Once these students hear their argument reworded through my question, "So, are you saying that your identity is defined only by the way society perceives you?" they realize that they need to add qualifying words to make their argument state something they truly stand by. In this video, I discuss a student's thesis statement. The paper in the video is useful in explaining the need for students to reword their thesis for clarification and to hear the argument in their mind to make sure they stand by that statement.
Once we look at sample thesis statements, I deliver a brief talk where I attempt to demystify the concept of a thesis statement by emphasizing the most essential aspects: that it states an argument that is solely theirs, that it expresses their own perspective, that it states something they honestly believe in. I want them to see this as an opportunity for freedom of thought. The concern is that they don't quite get the point, and this just feels like an assignment with a formula where they will plug in words where words are required. I know this is the way my student population tends to view essays and the writing process. The hope is that if I invite them to express their own thoughts and perspective, they will gain control of the process and produce writing that is more thoughtful and meaningful.
I then remind them that talking about their ideas helps them develop their thinking and that the rest of the period will be devoted to a class discussion where they share the arguments they are developing and have classmates agree and disagree with it. I ask students to grab their outlines, drafts, and texts they are discussing in their essay and to arrange chairs in a large circle where we all face each other. This is the fourth Seminar-like discussion we have had this year. However, this is the first one where I have the entire class engage in a discussion together. In previous lessons I divide the class in two groups and form an inner circle and outer circle and give each group a certain amount of time to discuss and then swap. The entire process is described in this document, One Method of Holding Academic Discussions. The reason for the whole-group discussion today is that I want to give them the entire time to discuss without stopping to swap and give each group an opportunity to talk. During the discussion, I sit in the group and mainly keep track of their participation on my laptop. This has worked to discourage them from looking directly at me when speaking during discussion and encourage them to look at each other instead. I do speak up periodically, but mainly to guide them to do the types of things I have told them to do during discussions, such as asking for clarification or responding to each other's comments or giving the floor to someone who does not usually speak up and is making an effort to do so. To keep track of their responses, I type their names in a word document and use the key on that document, which I am still developing and expanding, to mark and qualify every response. I share the results with them afterward. This is what this chart looks like for today's whole group discussion.
I close by sharing with students my sense of their progress at this point, based of my observations during the discussion. I commend them for this and urge them to continue working on their draft at home. I let them know that the next lesson will address analytical writing and the development of their central argument.