10 Steps to a Decent Thesis (Steps 5 - 7)

Step #5: Categorize

Here's where it starts to get tricky.

There's no one set 'correct' way to categorize information. There are tons of acronyms various teachers use to give their students a 'checklist' of sorts:

ESP = Economic, Social, Political

ESPN = Economic, Social, Political, eNvironmental (hey, it's not MY acronym)

G-PERSIA = Geography, Political, Economic, Religious, Social, Intellectual, Arts

SPEED = Social, Political, Economic, Environmental, Demographics

MPEG = Money Stuff, People Stuff, Earth Stuff, Government Stuff

If I gave you a shopping cart full of candy and asked you to categorize it, how would you approach the task? You might logically create piles of Chocolate, Chocolate w/ Nuts, Fruity-Chewy, and Salty. Just to be safe, you may even be prepared to adjust your piles to reflect Hershey, Nestle, Tootsie, and Mars. On a whim, you consider separating them into those whose names begin with A-F, those beginning with G-N, etc.

When I return, I'm annoyed because you haven't helped me at all. I'm about to take pictures of cute kids with bunnies and baskets with candy scattered about, and I need a mix of metallic wrappers, pastels, and traditional dark earth tones. A-F? Seriously?

None of these approaches are 'wrong', although some are far more likely to be useful in a wider variety of situations. When it comes to writing, I start my students with ESP and the caveat that eventually that won't work. It's a 'default'. If it doesn't work, change it. But if you have no idea where to begin, consider three categories, and try ESP.

Napoleon Prompt

OK, it's not a great prompt. Shut up - that's not the point.

The point is, if you're presented with a prompt like this one - in which the required categories are laid out specifically for you BY THE PROMPT - use. those. categories. Don't try to make it fit ESP if it doesn't. That's an error we in the education biz call 'stupid'. At the same time, don't make it harder than it needs to be. ESP works more often than it doesn't - don't let your desire to be all original make you fight against being straightforward and clear. 

There are other prompts which less obviously require different approaches to categorizing information. The good news is that the more you write in response, allow your writing to be evaluated, and evaluate the writing of others, the better you'll get at figuring out the best approach. There's no substitute for simply doing this - then evaluating the results - then doing it again. Contructive criticism, but not judgment. We're just trying to help each other write gooder. 

Students make an 'ESP' chart (I tend to call it that even if those aren't the categories) and organize their brainstorming. This is where you simply leave out anything on your brainstorming list which you realize isn't all that useful or applicable, or add things that occur to you as you work. It's a tool, not a religious ritual - do what works. 

ESP Chart

I'll tell you a secret.

When I'm teaching this to my 'on-level' kids, I tell them to always go with ESP. I assure them the prompts I give them will lend themselves to this, so they can count on it. 

With stronger writers, however, they should never assume such consistency or predictability. If they try ESP (or any other selection of categories) and discover as they make their 'ESP Chart' that, say, one column looks rather full while another is practically empty... that's probably not OK.

What are some possible explanations or options?

Maybe they simply haven't considered the sort of material which fits in the bare column. For example, if it's "Political", have they included relevant laws? Court cases? Military actions? Government agencies? If not, they should focus on such things and beef it up a bit.

Or, maybe that's simply not a good category for this particular prompt. Maybe they need Geographical, or maybe they need to separate Social into Intellectual and Cultural. Whatever. The point is, if there's a clear problem, FIX IT.

I realize this seems obvious to many of you, but keep in mind we're still making brownies from a box. We need to be told what to do if the batter is lumpy - do we stir more? Add water? Throw it out? Etc.

Step Six - Documents

If this is not a DBQ - if there are no documents - then this step is a freebie. BONUS!

On the other hand, if there are, it's important that they're added to the mix here - not before, and certainly not first.

If students read the documents FIRST, you know what will happen. They'll write to the documents - period. Any brainstorming, any analysis, any consideration, will be limited by their understanding of whatever they've browsed in preparation. 

On the other hand, if they've followed Steps 1 - 5 first, and THEN begin reading and incorporating the documents, they SHOULD add to and flesh out whatever they've already done.

Ideally.

We hope.

This is where all of that document practice and those cool activities come into play. It's certainly not the only reason we've used so many different sorts of primary sources, but it's one of them. 

Briefly but thoroughly read and analyze each provided document. Do a quick APARTY in your head or in the margins, focusing especially on how the document relates to the prompt. As you process each document, add it to your ESP Chart. No need to get fancy - you can call them Doc1, Doc2, etc.

Try to use all or all but one of the documents. In the unlikely event that the documents don't fit what you've already done, well... you have a problem. Something has gone wrong. Don't panic - but be aware you'll need to identify the problem and adjust rather quickly. Time is an issue with this sort of writing. Most of the time, especially after you've had a little practice, the documents will support, expand, and otherwise contribute to what you've already done, rather than take away from it or call it into question.

Step Seven: Write Your Basic Thesis

This is potentially the most difficult part for young writers. There's simply no hard and fast way to tell them how to do this every time. 

In a perfect world, looking at their ESP Chart (even if it has different categories), it will be possible to identify a strong theme or related collection of items in each column to make up a supporting category. Maybe something in the Economic column is clearly the most important and complex item in that category, and is supported by several of the documents as well. Or, maybe three or four things in the Geographic column are related in some important way and point to one way to respond to the prompt. 

But choosing one from each category is a tool, a default - it's not a rule, or a system, or a guarantee. It's something to look for, and try. I'm also a HUGE fan of examples posted all around the room.

Basic Thesis Sample #1

Basic Thesis Sample #2

Basic Thesis Sample #3

I'm partial towards learning a new skill together as a class and practicing it in small groups (or at least pairs) until we've reached some comfort with it.  We put many basic thesis statements (you could call them 'theses', but this gets a reaction you're probably not going for from high school boys) on the board or wall and evaluate them together, discussing the strengths and potential difficulties of each one.

It's important to resist the urge to label some as 'right' and others as simply 'wrong' unless the disparity is legitimately so pronounced. It is likely, however, that some will be stronger than others, more clear, more balanced, more convincing, more factually supportable. 

BUT IT'S OK THAT IT'S HARD TO WRITE A GREAT THESIS.

Anything concise I'm likely to find a bit too vague, too general, while anything with sufficient specifics that I know where they're going with it runs the risk of being too wordy or bulky. I'm not just trying to be difficult - but I want us to practice the process together, and to get comfortable with it as a whole, so we can be comfortable with it individually. 

So practice Steps 1 - 7, evaluate the results together, and try again. Then go have school for awhile and come back to the process a few weeks later. Under NO CIRCUMSTANCES, however, should you proceed to Step Eight unless the majority of students can consistently manage this much with at least some success. Better to camp out here for the year, working on clarity and adjusting to different sorts of prompts, than to move forward before they're ready, and really crash and burn your brownies.

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