I don't know if you heard, but College Board's redesign requires the teaching of actual writing skills. I was pretty excited about this revelation, and hurried myself in the direction of developing materials to teach this skill. It's been a minute since I taught writing, so I zested my approach. I thought I had learned a thing or two about writing.
A few weeks ago, I thought I cracked the code on thesis writing. I was convinced I knew how to teach a thesis to my students in a manner that would ensure points. It was more or less an equation that my students could memorize and use on the AP Exam. It looked something like this.
Despite Z, X caused Y because of A, B, and C.
I hacked this thesis equation mostly from my experience in teaching Document-based questions (DBQs). DBQ's equation was a bit juvenile (I hate the concept of buckets) but it was a great place to start an easy approach to writing. I taught the equation, my students practiced, and then talked to their previous teachers. They had lots of complaints that they did not understand my approach.
I heard about it through the grapevine (eh), reflected and then set about to the task of trying to figure out how every else teaches thesis writing. Here is what I learned. EVERYONE DOES IT DIFFERENTLY.
Some teachers say "it's one sentence!" Others mention historical thinking skills direct the structure. Still others talk of "fully qualified" paragraphs that talk about WHAT and HOW/WHY.
I was overwhelmed. How do I make sense of what my kids already know and tailor it to the six point thesis in front of them? How do I keep the disciplinarian and reasoning skills outlined by College Board in the forefront of their minds?
I collected information and sat down with College Board's fixed rubric. This is the part of the rubric that will not change. I am assuming that CB will still have a content rubric that will accompany the argumentation FRQ. So how do I prep my kids with skills?
This rubric is hard to understand for kids, but in essence there are a few things I have clarified.
The thesis is critical information. It does provide a road map, and has to take a clear, defensible position using foundational docs. At this point, CB has directed that each argumentation FRQ will utilize foundational docs as evidence. What is a clear, defensible position? One that does the following:
This can be one or two sentences, but as long as I see all four of these items clearly identified in a thesis, it is a clear, defensible position. Thus, the equation below.
Despite Z (counter) (reword prompt as a statement), Y (dependent) is caused by X (independent) because why/how.
What does this look like? Let me share some theses I thought were successful from a recent argumentation FRQ I assigned my kids. First, the prompt and my equation.
Breaking the equation down into the four parts listed above, I look to see that each component is accurately and adequately addressed. Then, I assess them for validity.
This prompt does answer the question and provide an accurate and valid argument and counter, but it does not tell me WHY. Failure to identify WHY means this student does not have a fully qualified thesis and no point is awarded. They can only obtain one point for evidence in points 2-4.
Here, the answer is split over two sentences. The answer is rambling, but I do see evidence of all four required components: counter, prompt, argument, and why. I might recommend to the student to strip out some of the prose as the timed prompt is not assessing linguistic and lyrical skills. A clear response is what is necessary to demonstrate the disciplinarian and reasoning process outlined in the FRQ.
So, I walked away from this experience feeling like I identified equation that is transportable into the testing environment but leaves enough room for students to be creative. While this thesis may not be applicable in all college courses (it would not necessarily work on my Masters coursework) it is tailored to the disciplinarian and reasoning processes warranted for the assessment. Students will have to learn moving forward that theses can vary depending on the writing assignment, but all theses have basic components that can definitely be hacked into an easy to remember equation.
Okay, this one is for the kids.
Lovgubbers, ye citizens of Hitch, I need to tell you a few things about your writing.
#1. It's getting better. Really, it is. I know you still have anxiety about how to construct an epic thesis or not plod on with pedestrian transitions, but you are getting better.
It's not going to be a single experience that makes you a fab writer... it's the commitment to learn a bit more about how you write, and how to fix it so you express yourself better with each experience.
I had a chat with my girl, Charlie, about my thoughts... And if you are like Charlie, you maybe don't know where to start with revisions. But, concentrate less on the construct of your argument to the flow of your voice. Your logic should be rock solid and established in your research and planning (i.e., outline.) But your language should be revised and revisited to make sure it is crisp, snappy, and precise.
Mean what you say, say what you mean.
Here are some examples taken from the latest round of papers. You know, Hobby Lobby. Lots of kids said stuff like this:
The petitioner, Kathleen Sebelius, believes that the government should require religious business owners to provide their female employees with contraceptives.
We chatted in class, so I know where you are going. But it's lacking precision. Let's explain.
1. What kind of businesses are we talking about? Sounds like churches, which we know from the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, is already cool to exercise First Amendment rights. We are talking about private, for-profit companies.
2. What kind of requirement? Are we talking a right to access and use birth control (protected by Griswold) or a legal requirement to provide benefits that include no-cost coverage for contraception. Because Hobby Lobby is not handing out contraceptives. They are paying for someone else's contraceptives, as prescribed by doctors. Very important distinction. We are talking about providing health insurance coverage for these products.
3. Who is Kathleen Sebelius? Is she suing Hobby Lobby? Or is she a bureaucrat?
As you can see, how precise or imprecise you are may contribute to mad props in terms of grades, or points flying off your rubric. Reread, and tread carefully.
We would re-write this jam to read:
Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius argues that the federal mandate on private, for-profit business owners to provide their female employees with health insurance benefits covering no-cost contraceptives is constitutional.
2. On how to construct arguments. Some final thoughts:
Other than that, you all did a marvelous job. I am done grading these bad boys, and am so proud of your hard work.
So we are full swing into writing season. I have one major writing assignment under my grading belt, and two more to go.
As I gaze upon my social networks, I recently came across this raging debate (really? was my response...) about the correct usage of double space following periods.
Maybe it's the Ohioan in me, but I snuffed my nose at this debate. Why, oh why, are we debating something that I have never come across in writing. Maybe my subjects were too new to the topic. Maybe it's that I am in academia.
Yet, after reading the twenty some odd responses to this posting I maybe the one late to the party.
And even stranger is the existence of the great Internet capitalization debate. Should we or shouldn't we? I have always said yes, primarily because the Internet is capitalized according to MLA. And that is the documentation style I am required to use at my place of work. 'Nuff said.
So, the long and short of this is grammar is a changin', my friend. And it seems to be relative to the group with which you write.
Until then, I am going to take my pointers from the all knowing Mignon Fogarty (a.k.a. Grammar Girl) to solve these problems.
And try my hardest to follow the middle of the road grammar rules.
Where do you stand on this great debate? How do you span the gap as a 'know-nothing' social studies teacher? Do you get all grammatical on your charges? Or are you a smidge more lax?
Where have I been, you ask?
I have been racing through 111 papers that vary in length from 9 pages to 27 pages. It's the pace that is hell. The projects are, well. good.
Sleep. Coffee. Paper. Coffee. Blackboard. Coffee. Pen stains on my hands. Coffee.
Let me just vent, though, because there are some things I don't get.
1. Why do kids not know the difference between its/it's?
2. What's with all the commas, I don't understand why, I need to put, so many pauses in my reading.
3. When kids want to talk about catalysts, they use the word "Spark." Why, I don't know. But I hate it.
4. Kids don't know what the squiggly green and red lines are under their work. Spelling errors abound.
5. Figuring out when to capitalize something is illusive to kids. If I am talking about an act, it's lower case. If I am talking about the Act, it's capitalized. And while we are at it, what about Congress? Republicans? Democrats? the Constitution? any specific amendment?
6. Idioms are wretched in writing. Stop using them.
7. There are more ways then saying pros and cons to compare the positives and negatives of issues. I don't think they know that.
8. Acronyms. Spell them out the first time. Then put the acronym in (). Then use the acronym. That goes for September 11, 2001 (9/11).
Needless to say, I will be creating a word wall in my class to expand some of our comparative language.
How about you? What do you find kids use as crutches?
The Houdini clause. I hate when kids open their essays with this. There are other things that kids do that drive me EQUALLY nuts... like:
I could go on for days, but I won't. I saw a really awesome post on a Edutopia that talked about creating rubrics that had examples on it via QR codes to help students. Maybe I will tackle that, maybe.
But until then, I am going to download this poster and put it up in my classroom. You can, too. It's **FREE**.
A few years back, I was standing in the front of my class, delivering the news. Not good news, not bad news; just the news. The grim reality that writing is the future they are all condemned to face. "Kids these days..." I can't relate to their inability, their fear, in writing. I love writing. They don't. Enough said.
One kid in the back row said to me, "What do you know? You're just a government teacher."
(Biting back my pride.)
"More than you think, my dear."
But I realize, I know more... but these kids at 18 have very limited, if any, experience in researching, note taking, thesis synthesis, planning, and execution. Let alone all the bells and whistles that come along with MLA/APA et. al. (Although most of them can cheat their way through noodletools or easybib or even the newest Office Suite.
So, I've worked through some cardinal rules to writing for my kids... and come up with a lot of scaffolded resources.
1. Research does NOT mean Google. I assume that since these kids are fully digital that they are awesome at research. Not so fast. What they are awesome at is inputting a few key words and picking up the first (paid advertised) hit that shows up. I tell my kids this is like dancing with the first girl you see at the dance. Don't get greedy. You don't know what you are missing. Instead, I lead them to resources not only through our school's library database, but some extra, online nuggets as well. In order to get my kids to focus on what a good resource may be, we do annotated bibliographies.
2. When all else fails, go to Wikipedia. OMG. I just broke a cardinal rule. I know it. So let me explain. Wikipedia is great for bailing out kids who are flailing in their research. For instance, if they have a niche topic like community impacts of illegal immigration, a Google search will be pretty crappy. I direct kids to not only wikipedia illegal immigration, but to look up special interest groups that might support or refute illegal immigration. Where do they find this? In the footnotes... and the links that take you to other resources. I myself have found great special interest groups or general online resources for use in the classroom. I do tell my kids that if they EVER cite Wikipedia, prepare to be laughed at and failed.
3. Take notes. Seriously, write out your notes. If online textbooks are any guide, kids are not as digital as we think they are. Tactile learning and being able to spread out ideas is still a valuable learning and writing tool. So, I assign notecards in assignments. To reinforce the awesomeness of notecards, I assign companion outlines with specific questions to be answered. They write those questions down at the top of the notecard with just the answer from that source in their notes. That way, when kids sit down to write, they can sort their notecards by the questions in the outline and plug away.
4. Outlines are a kid's best friend. I know, most kids don't do outlines unless it is required. (Including the me, when I was a student.) But forcing kids to create an outline alleviates writer's block. I create the outline for them, because I find that they don't know how to do this yet. If I had vertical intergration of a writing curriculum, I would have this done in tenth or eleventh grade, and have the kids create their own outline. Ho hum.
5. Sit down and write, but do so backwards. Um, just follow me. When we have finished the outline, (including our lovely thesis statement) it's time to get busy. Kids still complain of writer's block... and I can see it. Either they repeat themselves, claiming that their topic is super important and you need to sit and listen (yawn.) or they tell you what they are about to tell you. (zzz.) So, I tell kids to jump down to the next paragraph. Get moving in your argument... finish it all the way through to just before the conclusion... and THEN go back and write your introduction and conclusion. This way they make sure their thesis, intro, and outro are all on the same page, so to speak.
For more inspiration with writing, and specific writing and research units, visit my shop. I have fun stuff to share.