Last night, students spent time at home selecting the thesis statement for their essay and writing it as clearly as they can. Today they will be writing topic sentences for their thesis and selecting evidence from Their Eyes Were Watching God. Whatever thesis statement they have right now has only been seen by them. I tell students that they can probably benefit from some feedback on their thesis statement so I ask them to share it with the people at their table. I remind them of the guidelines I gave them yesterday and instruct them to look for these in their classmate’s thesis statements. These include the following: mention the concept you are discussing, make it arguable, state a big idea, use eleventh grade vocabulary. Students spend a few minutes sharing their thesis statement. I then ask them to share good thesis statements they heard and as they share, I get to hear what they have come up with. Someone is arguing that Janie had to experience all three marriages in order to achieve autonomy. Someone else is arguing that Janie depended on all her husbands but that the nature of the dependency was different with each husband. Every time someone shares a thesis statement I ask the class to decide whether it is arguable or not and to explain. They are good at determining this on their own so I just have to pose the question and listen. For the ones that are not arguable yet, such as one that states that Janie’s quest for autonomy was difficult, I ask the class to suggest what this student can do to make it arguable. It is difficult to make any suggestions for some of the thesis statements so that I just have to tell the class that some of them may need to go back to the list they brainstormed the day before and write a brand new thesis statement. I also tell them that I hope this process of sharing thesis statements and deciding whether they are arguable or not can help them write a new thesis faster so they do not fall behind. The idea of making a statement arguable is challenging, but talking about it and hearing examples helps. The specific guidelines I give them are meant to help them discuss this idea like this student discussing his own thesis statement and why he feels it is arguable.
We are now ready to move on to the next step of this process.
The next step engages students in a process that leads them to topic sentences. I explain the relationship between thesis and topic sentences by stating that their thesis statement has such a big, profound idea that they need several body paragraphs to explain it. I add that what they are essentially doing is establishing this big central idea in the thesis and then using topic sentences to walk their reader through the process they followed to arrive at that big idea. Specifically, they are walking the reader through the thinking process that leads to the big idea in the thesis one step at a time, one topic sentence at a time. I ask them to imagine their reader arriving at their thesis and reading the big, profound idea they have put forth. I assure them that the reader’s brain will be completely stimulated and they will have one question in mind: what do you mean by this? I use this question to drive the next step in the process.
I ask students to draw a line under the thesis statement they have chosen as their argument and to write the question “What do I mean by this?” on the next line. I explain that this question cannot be answered in one sentence because the idea is that big. This means that they have to come up with a number of sentences to explain what they mean by this. Ultimately, whatever they come up with will be their topic sentences. If they come up with three or four sentences to answer that question, then they will have three or four topic sentences and consequently three or four body paragraphs. Like the thesis statement, their answer to this question will not be verbalized beautifully on the first try so I give them 5 minutes to brainstorm answers. They are to write their answers as a bulleted list. Before they start I emphasize the importance of coming up with as many answers as they can because this will increase their chances of coming up with brilliant answers. I make sure the classroom is absolutely silent during these 5 minutes for students to focus on their thinking. Once the 5 minutes are up I ask students to read their bulleted list and to select the most clear, sophisticated answers and to decide whether two, three or four separate answers are needed to fully explain the thesis. Clearly, this decision determines whether they will be writing two, three or four body paragraphs. I ask them to mark the ones they think meet the criteria by putting a star next to them or circling them or any other way of marking them. I give students a few minutes to do this in silence. My job during this time is to make sure the classroom is silent. Students want to call me over to show me their paper, but I tell them that I will make myself available for this later in the period. Right now, I want this time to be just them and their thoughts. This is a student sample of this brainstorming process .
I now want students to edit the answers they selected so that they can turn sentences that sound like they came out of a brainstorming sessions into sentences that can take the prominent role of a topic sentence in their final essay. To clarify, I tell students to fix any grammatical errors that understandably are made during brainstorming, to find better vocabulary for anything that was understandably written in simple terms during brainstorming, and to clarify anything that sounds confusing. I also tell them that they have the option of combining two of their brainstormed sentences into one. I tell them that now they can ask me for help if they need it. Students call me over to show me their answers. This allows me to get a sense of what they understand and what they need me to clarify. For example, I read a few sentences that described a detail in the novel. This is usually problematic because a description is not argument. If the topic sentence dictates what the entire paragraph is about, which is what I have been teaching students, then a topic sentence that describes and not argues, will lead to a descriptive paragraph and not an argumentative paragraph. After I realized that several students had descriptions, I interrupted their work to get everyone’s attention. I asked them what term we use to refer to specific details we borrow from the text. They all correctly said the term we use is evidence. I told them that a topic sentence is not evidence, that a topic sentence should have a big idea, like the thesis. Specifically, this big idea in the topic sentence explains one part of the thesis. I ask them to make sure their response to the question “What do I mean by this?” is an idea and not specific evidence. I ask students to take 35 seconds to look over their paper and determine whether they needed to change some of their answers, which are really their topic sentences at this point. After 35 seconds, I ask students to raise their hand if they found topic sentences that needed to be rewritten. Several students raised their hand. Asking them to do this is useful because it forces all of them to spend time double checking what they have written so far. I tell them that if their brainstormed list is long, they probably have nothing to worry about because they should have something that works on their list. I ask students to continue working and to make sure they have all their topic sentences clearly written before the beginning of the next class period. I spend that time assisting students. Most of the help I offer has to do with the fact that too many topic sentences need to be rewritten to communicate arguable ideas and not just descriptions. For example, the first bullet point this student’s paper has under the question that asks what her thesis means was mostly description. After I pointed that out and clarified that the topic sentence should have an arguable idea, she came up with the following bullet point, which does communicate the idea that Janie was treated like property.
I make it clear that by the beginning of next period, it is crucial that students have a well-written thesis statement and topic sentences. They will begin drafting their essay at that point.