Old School Methods with a New School Twist: Using the Sheridan Baker Thesis Machine to Simplify Thesis Statement Composition for Developmental Students
Creating and refining a thesis statement is one of the most prevalent lessons of developmental or college-level English. While students have been exposed to the idea of a thesis statement before, they often become intimidated by the gravity placed on a single statement. This intimidation is undoubtedly magnified for the developing writer, and it often leads to struggling to generate words for a thesis or mimicking theses they have read in sample essays or texts.
When learning about generating a thesis statement, breaking it down into necessary components is crucial. However, just including those components often leaves students with a very “bare bones” style thesis that is comprised of a topic, main idea, and (sometimes) a because clause that summarizes or lists the supporting ideas. This cookie-cutter statement is not ideal for the college level writer, and does not empower the student to make linguistic choices about how their ideas are represented.
Enter the Sheridan Baker Thesis Machine. Originally developed by longtime University of Michigan instructor in his composition text, The Practical Stylist, the thesis machine process affords students the opportunity to get comfortable with a step-by-step process of thesis creation and defining and understanding the necessary components of a thesis statement while also leaving room for linguistic development in the future. While the thesis machine simplifies the process of thesis creation, it also introduces students to the idea that complex thoughts can be contained within a single sentence. At the same time, it empowers students to make sentence-level revisions that are not based in grammatical error, but improving the message of the sentence.
Introducing thesis creation by using the Sheridan Baker Thesis Machine will resonate with the introductory college student by empowering them to create college-level thesis statements through a simple process. In addition, it is possible to demonstrate to students that the thesis machine will work for any random topic and main idea, affirming that it is possible to argue pretty much anything. In this lesson plan, we will cover how to introduce the thesis machine, and also how to engage students in the simple challenge: can you write a thesis about anything?
- Write a Thesis About Anything! PowerPoint
- Sheridan Baker Thesis Machine Worksheet
- Index Cards with random topics and random main ideas (Sheridan Baker Notecards)
60-90 minutes is ideal
Students should be prompted to consider thesis statement writing with the following questions:
- What is the purpose of a thesis statement?
- How have you approached thesis statements in the past?
- What seems to be the easiest part of creating a thesis statement?
- What struggles have you faced when creating a thesis statement?
Answering these questions will facilitate completing the third slide of the PowerPoint, which is the “K” and “W” section of a KWL chart (K=What do you know? W=What do you want to know? L= What did you learn?). Demonstrating to students that they have some knowledge of the topic empowers them to connect prior knowledge to the subject, while also pushing them to identify what else they would like to know.
II. While reviewing the rest of the PowerPoint, here are a few reminders:
Students at the higher developmental level and college level most likely have an idea that a thesis statement should contain the topic and the issue. As the fifth slide states, ensuring that students understand that the issue is in the form of a debate position is important to review. I often take the opportunity to review the difference between presenting facts and opinions, as well as the use of qualifiers.
When introducing the idea of a because clause, students are often tempted to simply list the areas of support in the order which they are covered. As each slide follows the progression of three thesis statements, it is important to spend some time exploring how the sample statements summarize several supporting ideas without listing.
Initially when I began using this method, I expected students to be resistant to the idea of composing a because clause in step three, only to drastically alter the because clause in step four when composing the qualifying statement. In reality, when students see the final thesis statement take shape, a quick moment identifying how the because clause has shifted but is still summarizing the support allows students to see how the language shifts.
Students initially struggle to see the value of step five, or inverting the thesis. I emphasize the importance of this step in order to remind students of the valuable time saved in deciding whether or not they agree with their thesis statement. Additionally, I find it important to point out to students that their current thesis statements may resemble a step two or three statement, they should push themselves to compose step 4 statements by the end of the semester.
After completing the steps, take some time to complete the “L” portion of the PowerPoint, giving students the opportunity to reflect on what they have learned about the thesis statement. In addition, it should be (as the PowerPoint suggests) addressed with students that, while the Sheridan Baker method does work, students should begin to explore alternative language, once they’re comfortable with thesis composition.
III. After reviewing the PowerPoint, challenge students to make a thesis out of anything.
Using the Thesis Machine Worksheet, students will create a thesis statement using the random topic (see attached cards) and random main ideas. I typically allow students one switch of their topic or main idea. Initially, the idea is frustrating for the students because the topic and main idea together will likely seem nonsensical. I encourage students to use their imaginations and develop imaginary supports for their topic and main ideas.
Students can continue through the worksheet and go as far as they feel comfortable. Typically, once students overcome the humor and fantasy of the topic/main idea combination, they are able to get through all steps of the process. At the end of the time, I encourage students to share the furthest they were able to go in the process, and take time to give informal verbal feedback. Often other students join in the discussion and imagine what the fictitious essay would really read like.
At the close of the lesson, I find it important to review with students whether or not they feel they were able to compose a thesis statement truly out of anything. At this point, many students recognize that the apprehension they originally felt toward thesis composition was likely attributed to the gravity they were placing on ensuring that the sentence was perfect. Emphasizing to students that the components of a thesis statement are what make it strong helps them see the importance of the message.