This week my grade eleven IB class started their first major writing assignment for The Merchant of Venice. With my IB class, the focus is always the same: what is the author’s purpose? What techniques do they use to achieve that purpose? And how do cultural and contextual considerations affect our understanding of the work? Merchant provides lots of food for thought for all of these questions. However, they need to narrow down all of their ideas into a solid thesis statement for an essay.
I never give my IB’s a topic for their writing assignments. I need to build independent thinkers, so we spend a lot of time, especially in the beginning, working on developing a strong thesis. This week we did an activity that worked really well, and I thought I’d pass it on.
WALK THEM THROUGH THE PROCESS OF DEVELOPING A THESIS
1. I started by posting chart paper throughout my room. Each piece had a heading that corresponding with some of the major elements in the play. (The bond plot, the casket plot, etc.) I divided students into groups and each group had to brainstorm everything they knew about how that element was a factor in Shakespeare’s overall purpose, and record it on the chart paper. After an appropriate amount of time, I had each group rotate clockwise to the next chart. There they had to add more info to what the previous group had recorded.
2. Once they were finished, I asked volunteers to explain their theories. What is Shakespeare’s overall message in the play? Each one went to one corner of the room and stated an argument. I repeated this until we had four students in each corner, each with a different theory (it was only coincidental that we had one for each corner). Next, I asked students to join the student they agreed with and form a group.
3. The next step was for each group to look at the pieces of chart paper I had arranged across one wall. I put smaller pieces of paper on the bottom, connecting each larger sheet. The groups were instructed to record ways that the intertwining plots and elements supported their individual arguments.
4. Finally, each group had to take turns explaining the connections they discovered to the rest of the class.
I explained afterwards that I was trying to replicate the process that you need to go through to try to understand a complex text. As we read any text and record theories and ideas, I tell them that we are scattering the puzzle pieces. The corners and edges are obvious, but there are always pieces that are a mystery; you don’t know where they fit until you do some work first. This exercise was my attempt to show them how to start putting all of the pieces together so they could finally see the big picture.
Their outlines are due tomorrow; I sure hope that this exercise made it easier for them to dig deep and develop a strong thesis and argument.