THESIS BRAINSTORMING AND ORGANIZING

The Literacy Cookbook COVER[This post is adapted from my book, The Literacy Cookbook (Jossey-Bass, 2012). My forthcoming book, Literacy and the Common Core: Recipes for Action (Jossey-Bass), is scheduled for release in August, 2014. This post appeared in slightly different form as a MiddleWeb Guest Article on March 23, 2014.]

It amazes me that anyone can write an entire essay without a thesis. But I’ve seen it done. I think this is why so many students hate to write.  They pour hours and hours into pages and pages, only to be told that what they’ve written is unacceptable.  After all that effort: unacceptable? Sadly, yes.  An essay without a thesis might have half a dozen great ideas in it, but without an organizing principle, it doesn’t hold together.

Our job is to spare students (and frankly ourselves) this agony by coaching them on how to write an effective thesis.  The solution is to give students practice and not let them go any further until they’ve generated a viable thesis. Once they’ve got it, then they can move on to the rest of the piece.  Otherwise, you’ll need to spend more time conferencing with them. Eventually, with enough practice, they’ll get the hang of it.

Although of course there are numerous ways to arrive at a thesis, it helps to have a systematic approach to start with.

Here’s one for an essay based on a text:

BRAINSTORMING FOR YOUR THESIS
  1. What TOPICS/ISSUES does this text deal with?  List as many as you can think of. (Ex: How the Grinch Stole Christmas by Dr. Seuss[1] is about SELFISHNESS, GENEROSITY, LOVE, PERSONAL GROWTH, etc.)
  2. What QUESTIONS does the author raise about these topics/issues?  Pick 1-2 topics to focus on.  (Ex.: Why are people selfish?  What are the consequences of selfishness?  How can people overcome selfishness?)
  3. What MESSAGE(S) does the author convey about your selected topic/issue?  Sometimes it helps toFIND CONNECTIONS among a few of your favorite topics and EXPLAIN THEM in relation to the book.(Ex.: People can overcome selfishness with love from the people around them.)

Once students have pinned down a message/argument they want to focus on, they can craft a thesis.  If writing about a work of literature, they should include the title, author, and specific aspect(s) of the book that convey this message.

Here are some sample theses based on novels:

  • In Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston,[2] Janie, the main character, searches for equality and independence, and she learns some important lessons along the way.
  • In The Street, Ann Petry[3] highlights the conflicts that Lutie has with Boots, Johnson, and Jim to show the difficulty that women, both married and single, have in constructing a life for themselves.
  • In The Street, Ann Petry’s characterization of Mr. and Mrs. Chandler underscores the subtle yet pervasive racism that plagues the whole African-American community.

Once the thesis is in place, students can map out the rest of the essay. Here is a completed model of the “Unpacking Your Thesis Organizer” found on the TLC “Writing 101” page (available as a FREE download):

THESIS/Argument Statement: In Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston, Janie, the main character, searches for equality and independence, and she learns some important lessons along the way.

 What are the different parts of the argument that your essay must prove?

Janie searches for equality. Janie searches for independence. Janie learns some important lessons.
What questions must you answer to prove this part of your argument?

 

  1. Why does Janie have to search for equality?
  2. How does Janie search for equality?
  3. How successful is she?  Why?  What does she learn?

 

What questions must you answer to prove this part of your argument?

 

  1. Why does Janie have to search for independence?
  2. How does Janie search for independence?
  3. How successful is she?  Why?  What does she learn?
What questions must you answer to prove this part of your argument?

 

1. What lessons does Janie learn?

 

 

 

 

 

Write a topic sentence that answers at least one of the questions in the above box.

 

Janie searches for equality through her relationships with men.

Write a topic sentence that answers at least one of the questions in the above box.

 

Because her relationship with Joe frustrates her so much, Janie relishes her freedom after he dies.

Write a topic sentence that answers at least one of the questions in the above box.

 

Janie’s struggles teach her some essential life lessons.

This organizer can be adapted to suit other genres, as well. The key is to model HOW TO ASK COMPELLING QUESTIONS because questions drive the writing process from three angles:

  1. Good questions enable writers to build strong arguments.
  2. Good questions help writers to look for and find useful evidence.
  3. Writers must ask good questions in order to analyze and support their arguments.

Initially, you’ll have to provide the questions.  Then you can remove the training wheels and let students generate their own.  No matter what you’re doing, you should begin by providing a model of what you’re looking for.

[1] Seuss, Dr. (1957).  How the grinch stole Christmas!  New York, NY: Random House.

[2] Hurston, Z.N. (1998).  Their eyes were watching God.  New York, NY: Perennial Classics. (Originally published 1937.)

[3] Petry, A. (1991).  The street. New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin. (Originally published 1946.)

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About theliteracycookbook

In addition to this blog, I am the creator of THE LITERACY COOKBOOK Website (www.literacycookbook.com) and ONLY GOOD BOOKS Blog (http://onlygoodbooks.wordpress.com/), and the author of THE LITERACY COOKBOOK: A Practical Guide to Effective Reading, Writing, Speaking, and Listening Instruction (Jossey-Bass, 2012) and LITERACY AND THE COMMON CORE: Recipes for Action (Jossey-Bass, 2014). Check out my Website for more information about my consulting work.
This entry was posted in Brainstorming, Organizing an Essay, The Literacy Cookbook BOOK, Thesis Statements, TLC Website Resources, Writing and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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