Tuesday, April 8, 2008

The Tyrany of the Thesis Statement

I've written about this before, but it's always nice to hear that others feel the same way - especially when their affirming voices make it into the pages of the NCTE's English Journal.

High school English teacher Alec R. Duxbury goes toe-to-toe with the five-paragraph thesis essay in EJ's latest edition, which came out a few weeks ago:

"[The] truth about the teaching of writing is avoided in schools everywhere. The error in pedagogy that governs the teaching of the essay is built on the sanctity of the thesis statement and the insistence that formula will produce quality writing. Teachers ask students to find a thesis statement first and to organize the content of their writing around that thesis statement.

Most students encounter this set of rules in the general category of the five-paragraph essay, a form that students know exactly how to produce by the time they leave middle school. As a result, it is too often a form that inspires little in students but lack of thought and engagement with their subjects. Such thesis-first writing and writing instruction has been a boon to teachers who seek to quantify the art of writing through rubrics and scoring methods.

The assessment of most thesis-first writing assignments is accomplished by checking the introduction for a three-part thesis statement, counting the number of examples, checking for topic sentences, and noting the repetition of the three-part thesis statement in the concluding paragraph. The art of writing, the gift of meaning a writer gives to a reader, is neglected by the assignment of such writing and the quantitative assessment of it.

The tyranny of the thesis statement demands that students write mechanical, lifeless prose in which they have no interest and that teachers of writing never entertain the activity that their titles imply."

Hallelujah brother! I'm a few weeks removed from reading 65 five-paragraph thesis essays on The Old Man and the Sea. Let me tell you - students disliked writing the essays just as much as I disliked having to read them. They were, for the most part, formulaic, lifeless, and predictable. This isn't a knock on my students - I asked them to write in a specific form to a specified set of guidelines, and because most of them are conscientious and willing to do what I ask, they wrote the essays with minimal complaints.

I'm glad it's April and we're onto our poetry unit.


Angela said...

As a teacher, I often found myself up against the same issue. As a mom, I watch it unfold with my daughter, who is a great writer...until she's forced to use a formula. Last year, her teacher required her to use a "four square" approach to organizing an essay. Not a good thing.

Jim said...

Is this where blogging can free up the writing process? Students writing will be public and students, parents as well as educators will be criticizing the writing.

Natalie Ferrera said...

I've become disenchanted with the 5-paragraph essay format too, although I don't know if I was ever really enchanted in the first place. I've found some teaching resources online, though, that have helped me design more creative and less formulaic writing assignments. I recommend http://www.dedicatedteacher.com as a good place to go for ebooks, which are easy to use and transport. The last thing I need is more paper to lug back and forth between school and home.

Steve Roth said...

My daughter (a junior) had the good fortune to have had Mr. Duxbury ("Dux") as her english teacher last year. One of the two truly great teachers she's had in high school.

But it was funny, early in tenth grade she asked me (I've been a professional writer for twenty years), "How do you *not* write a five-paragraph essay?" She couldn't figure out how to make the leap from what is certainly a good starting point, model, and training exercise to the utterly unlimited variety of organizational forms that one can adopt for a written piece.

Funny, I found myself somewhat at a loss as to how to answer. The infinite possibilities left me baffled as to what next steps to prescribe.

So I told her how I work: start by throwing a bunch of my ideas down on the page, using from one to ten words, and then expanding them into sentences that I like. (See Peter Elbow's "Writing without Teachers," which we referred to when I was at Evergreen [where he taught a course by the same name] as "Writing without Elbows.") Then when there's some matter there to work with, start shaping it into some organizational form--creating transitions, drawing conclusions and relating them to each other, etc. And finally, writing the introductory paragraph. (Then going back and revising the body to conform.)

Pretty vague advice, but it does counteract the deductive/thesis approach--coming to your conclusions before you've even sorted through the actual material, or really have any idea what your conclusions are or should be.

W.H. Auden (probably misquoted and misattributed): "How do I know what I think till I see what I say?"

I also taught her the delicious technique of the inductive essay--leading your readers by the nose through the information/arguments/evidence, then, in the final paragraph bushwacking them with an irrefutable conclusion that follows inexorably and inarguably from the stunningly cogent exegesis that precedes it. She has a *lot* of fun with that form.

I've never taught english, but I wonder if a great method might not be one that goes back many centuries/millenia: imitating the techniques of other writers. Would this be a good way to help kids bridge that gap between the five-paragraph essay and the endless variety of other organizational forms?

Mr. B-G said...

Angela - I haven't heard of the "four square" approach to organizing. Do you have more info on it? I do find that excessive structure is necessary for lower level and special education students who need the structure and boundaries defined for them if they are to have success managing a task.

Jim - No doubt that writers need readers - a variety of readers is even better.

Natalie - Are you a real person or simply a bot peddling merchandise?

Steve - Thanks for the comment. I try to model my writing process, and share other strategies that I know have worked for students in the past. I definitely think models help, and pastiche-type activities, where students have to mimic a particular style, are also effective.

I agree that it can be hard to articulate one's writing style. I'll usually have something I want to write about, start writing, and end up somewhere I hadn't intended. Then I need to decide what to cut and what to keep.

I'm a tangential thinker. My mind can easily go from one topic to another as it acknowledges links and associations.

There are other times, of course, when my writing can be structured, especially if I know I need to convey certain ideas or limit my prose to a particular subject.

Graphic organizers, lists, and visual aids have never worked for me, as I think I'm more of an abstract thinker. Increasingly, I find my students need written organizational strategies to succeed at writing tasks. It's hard to tell how the medium of electronic communication is affecting the way we gather, store, and access information.

I'll try to find time to check out your blog and post a comment. Thanks for visiting.

Midwest Teacher said...

I came up with a "formula" for my students thesis statements this year for their research papers. I found it was necessary to put it in a visual form for many students because they were struggling with it. I refer to it as the "telling us what the paper is about without saying 'this is what my paper's about' sentence". To me, since I've started thinking, the thesis statement, the research question, and the outline all go hand in hand.
1) Have them develop a research question -- what do they want to know about their topic they're researching.
2) Have them start to write their paper
3) during their rough draft process, have them figure out what the main points of their outline re -- all good papers need SOME semblance of organization
4) help them construct their outline
5) then, I tell them the magic formula:
thesis = research Q + I + II + III (in sentence form, of course).
It has helped some students, but not everyone.

crowther said...

Hello -- I finally got around to blogging about Alec's article as well:


I'm not an English teacher, just an opinionated writer! In any case, I enjoyed your "Senior Pastiche" entry on this topic.

sexy said...