Thursday, February 7, 2013

Thesis Writing Exercises

My colleagues in the science and math departments have increasingly used small white boards in their classrooms as a way for students to do quick problem-solving in groups. Talking with them about this inspired me to consider how to use small, portable white boards in my own classroom for writing exercises, and now I do not think I could have a classroom without them again.

I have used the white boards mostly in my AP World History class as a way to practice writing thesis statements. First, students are put into groups and then given a sheet of paper with twenty to thirty pieces of evidence about one or two civilizations that we are studying (not all the evidence may be relevant; I want them to practice sifting through data). Then they are given a question and must use the evidence in front of them to create a thesis statement. When completed we line the boards at the front of the class and read each of them over, giving constructive criticism and praise where appropriate. This has allowed me to easily point out strengths in theses (such as using appropriate transition words and precise verbs) and to allow the students to quickly dissect what makes for a weaker thesis. One of my colleagues gave me the idea of calling such an exercise the "Thesis Olympics". 

Giving students the same pieces of evidence lets them easily gauge the differences between arguments since they can immediately see the various results from the same set of evidence, but I have also given them different pieces of evidence so that they can reflect on how important it is to articulate an idea well when you cannot assume your audience knows exactly to what you may be referring. For example, below are photos from a recent exercise we did concerning the trade of commodities in world history. Each group was given a packet of primary sources regarding a different commodity (chocolate, salt, fur, and rice) and then had to come up with a thesis answering this question: "How should we understand the role of your commodity in world history?" Considering that the other groups had not read the other sources, we had a good discussion assessing how well the theses articulated an answer. I also posted photos of all the boards from both of my AP sections so the students could review all 8 theses later in their own time. Here are two examples of theses below in their original form.

The white boards have also been great for review games - my favorite so far has been using them as a way for students to compete in Pictionary. Each team selects a member to leave the room and then they all must draw one or separate concept/figures in world history within a time limit. Then the team member returns to the room and the first to successfully figure out the drawing wins a point. They get an extra point if they can also explain the significance of the concept/figure in world history. Here is a fun photo of my students playing this game, with the team members trying to analyze the drawings while their team mates squirm in their seats, pace around the room, and stand in anticipation, waiting for them to figure it out.

Lastly, my freshmen often struggle to synthesize information, so the white boards have been a great way for them to quickly get into groups and try to summarize a complex idea in a paragraph together.

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