My fifth grade boys brought home an interesting assignment on Monday. They had to write an outline for a “research” paper that they are working on. They had to pick a topic and then write a thesis statement. They had to put it all into the standard 5-paragraph essay format, putting in topic sentences for each paragraph and then listing 3 details they were going to put in each paragraph. What was interesting about that is that they really did not have a strong grasp on what a thesis statement was or how to put together the paragraphs. I saw the instructions that the teacher gave them, and it’s not like they hadn’t been taught this to a certain extent, but the boys obviously had not fully grasped it.
So, we had to have some work time on Monday on what a thesis statement is. Since these are fairly simple research papers (topics = muscle cars for one and puffins for the other), we had to start pretty basic. I had them think about why they wanted to write on those topics and then come up with three reasons for each one. So, the why they wanted to talk about the topic became their thesis, and the three reasons formed the body paragraphs. While that sounds pretty simple, it was actually a pretty long and agonizing discussion, as they had not really thought about why they had picked their topic, outside of the fact that it seemed cool. So, we had to work on some reasoning skills and delve down below the level of cool and into the reasons behind cool. It took quite a while, and one of the boys did have a short crying fit over frustration at not being able to articulate his reasons. However, we ultimately prevailed, and they were able to put together their ideas into the format that was desired.
What was interesting about that, is that we put more thought into how they were going to go about thinking and writing this paper than I think a lot of my own students do. They have just as much trouble with the idea of a thesis statement and presenting evidence, which makes me think that my 5th graders are not alone in not fully understanding this concept at this level. In fact, it seems to me that this is a concept that gets lost all the way through, as there really is no excuse for my college freshmen and sophomores to be having trouble writing a coherent thesis statement and using evidence if they are supposed to start learning about this all the way back to elementary school.
As I said, though, it was very obvious that even though my 5th graders had been taught generally how to do it, it took us a long time to translate that into a practical and working thesis and essay outline. So, maybe it is just assumed along the way that they have learned this before, when maybe they really have not.
The whole process has made me think about assumptions. I assume a lot about what the students I teach have had as a background before entering my class. As this example shows, however, just because someone is taught something, that does not mean they actually understand it. I think this is certainly a lesson that all of us in education need to consider on a regular basis.