While I use technology in my classroom, I pride myself on conducting a fair amount of our learning “old school.”
We write rough drafts by hand, creating word webs, outlines, and other pre-writing on notebook paper. I can then give feedback in real time, and together, we create a wonderfully organic document, from which something beautiful emerges: a clear, concise thesis.
An endangered species on many campuses, the clear thesis is often discovered accidentally. One way to discern whether a student really knows how to write a solid thesis is, after having written their first paragraph, ask them to underline their thesis. Many aren’t certain, and point to one thing or another, looking for confirmation. I don’t give it. They need to think more about the topic, about what they want to say. They should be able to tell me what they want to say.
Many point to something so vague that it does not separate itself from any anti-thesis. Or the student in Gifted/Talented English comes with a complex, multi-faceted first paragraph that could really be an outline for a book. They are so used to being praised for such writing that they are often shocked when I tell them that this paragraph won’t work at all.
When I ask them to underline their thesis, they’re unsure not because they don’t know, but rather because they have managed to squeeze three viable theses into an opening paragraph! When I tell them to pick one, they really don’t want to, because “issues are more complex,” etc. “Do you know what’s not complex?” I ask. “A thesis.”
When student finally learn to write a clear, concise thesis – and a methodology for doing so – they find it liberating. Too often they’ve had to stumble across a thesis nearly a page in, or had to respond to writing prompts without developing ideas as much as responding to them.
Doing all of this by hand is much faster than with technology, allows for arrows and redirects to be made, and is teaching process in a non-linear way. Typing pre-writing on a word processor gives the impression that thought falls forth from one’s head like soldiers marching in columns.
Once students have written what they want by hand in a solid rough draft, it is time to type it up. One of the benefits of a typed rough draft before the final product is the clarity of thought (or lack thereof) emerges, once messy penmanship is eliminated. Development, connections and refinement are easier to see now. So why not start that way? Because development, connections and refinement are second order concerns. If the ideas and clear thesis are not created first, there is nothing to develop, connect, or refine. First things first.
Scott K. Harris teaches The Moral Sciences: A.P. Macroeconomics, A.P. Psychology, and Philosophy. He holds a B.A. in History/Psychology and a M.Ed. in Teacher Leadership. He has also taught U.S. History, World History, International Baccalaureate’s Theory of Knowledge, and coached swimming and water polo. He piloted curriculum for Stossel-in-the-Classroom and is an associate producer for izzit.org.