10 Steps to a Decent Thesis (Steps 1 - 4)

If you haven't read my standard disclaimers regarding structure and steps, you should probably start there. Otherwise, let's start with this question -

What's the most common mistake students make when writing in response to a prompt?

Most Common Error

They don't answer the $#%& prompt. They may write ABOUT it, or write all AROUND it, or even respond to SOME of it - but they don't clearly address and respond to it in its entirety. It's not even clear they've really read and considered the prompt - as if doing so might detract from their sudden need to GET WRITING!

Thus the first two steps. That's right - this is SUCH a big deal that it gets TWO whole steps!

Step One

Step Two

Now, I can badger my students about this for eternity and they won't fully believe I could possibly be speaking to THEM. And yet, somehow, if I show them examples on YouTube - even foolish examples - suddenly it's REAL!

I can't tell you how demoralizing this is.

BUT, if it works - if they 'get' it - then... well, I have to do it. For the children.

Who Wants to be a Millionaire. Harvard Chick royally fails!

What was this young lady's primary error?

She didn't stop and think. She didn't consider the prompt and possible ways to respond before she answered. She just kinda... jumped.

Now, I'm all for confidence. Yay no fear!

But let's balance that with taking a moment to breathe, and to ponder, before we dive.

I ask my students if she's an idiot. They want to say yes, but it was Collegiate Week - did you notice the sweatshirt? She's from Harvard.

Well, she WAS from Harvard. Apparently she's currently waitressing at a local Denny's. How ironic is THAT?

Here's another example:

What Was The Question?

What was Nicole's primary error?

She didn't come anywhere NEAR to answering the question. Do you even remember what the question was? Watch it again if you wish.

She heard 'motorcycle accident' and ran with it. She didn't have a plan or an outline or, well... a clue. My students mock her mercilessly, but I have to tell them - in love...


It's why your teachers drink. (Students should be glad. The essays get better the more we imbibe.)

But you know, there's pretty good news for my students so far. They aren't on TV when they write for me, or when they write for the state, or when they take various AP exams, or even when they write in college. They can and should stop and think about the prompts they're given. And, if they get off track, the prompt isn't going anywhere - it's staying right there at the top of the page where they can read it over and over or break it down / mark it up any way they like!


We also do a breakdown of Miss Teen South Carolina, who actually makes more sense than you'd think, once we make some educated guesses where she was going (other than to South Africa, the Iraq). There is much to learn from both what she does well and where she fails - but you have to bring me in for that one. It's too much to type here, and it loses the magic.

The point is, though, that NOTHING ELSE MATTERS IF YOU DON'T FULLY ADDRESS THE PROMPT. Answer the $#%&ing Question! Everything else is in support of this - without it, no amount of formatting, content knowledge, style, or systems will matter.

Not even a little.

I like to give my students several prompts they lack the background knowledge to answer. We practice breaking down the prompt and paying attention to what it's asking, what we're expected to do, which elements we should pay special attention to, etc. Then and only then do we move to a 'real' prompt - usually something related to content covered in my class or the prior school year. (Keep in mind we're trying to reinforce content while working on skills. Or were you not paying attention? Tsk tsk.)

Sample Prompt #1

Sample Prompt #2

Sample Prompt #3

I'll spare you a 'real' content-based prompt. Come on - you weren't going to write a thesis for me anyway, right?

Step #3: Brainstorm

We practice brainstorming in response to the 'real' prompt. You guys all know how to do this, but my students are all over the place on this one.

So, a few ground rules - although they'll eventually need to be able to do this quickly, silently, and individually, when we're learning it as part of a new skill we do it in small groups. The first however many minutes is technology-and-textbook-free - all actual brainstorming.

Anything which might come up in regards to the prompt is fair game. There's no editing at this point. The exceptions are (a) that one kid who says stupid stuff on purpose, and (b) extended conversations on particular points. The former should be kicked in the face, and the latter discouraged at this stage - they take over and become the focus, which can prove limiting rather than enlightening.

If you're the most confused person in your group, you should volunteer to make yourself useful and write everything down. 

Shock and surprise, after a few minutes I have some groups still going full tilt and on their second page of ideas, other groups starting to slow and get distracted, and that one group who wrote down two things and have been pretty much drooling and staring ever since. Because this is a skill which needs building and practice like any other, we'll discuss a bit before moving on. I'll have each group share one thing from their list, or suggest groups send ambassadors to trade ideas with other groups. Cheat if you have to - whatever it takes to keep the list growing.

Partly this is because we need enough info to outline our essay eventually,and partly it's an ongoing effort to reinforce content at every opportunity. Repetition is the key to learning, right? If it's not that, it's repetition. That and revisiting information regularly pretty much make up the Big Three of learning.

Depending on the prompt, I may also give them time to use textbooks, technology, or whatever. This is a great point at which to take one of those two or three required weekly grades, by the way - just have them hold up their brainstorming page and ballpark it like the edu-beast you are.

Step #4: Read the Prompt Again

Having gone wide, it's time to refocus on the actual prompt. Seriously. 

So now we have all of this wonderful information - but it's not useful. Not until it's at least somewhat organized...

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