Sometimes you have to do the same thing in the classroom, only here, you're going to feel the struggle as much as the student is. The coaching is the same, but you may be pushing the weight in opposition to the student.
The other day I was conferencing with students who were writing analytical paragraphs. A student, whom I’ll call Drew, came up with his draft so that I could help him make revisions.
While reading it, I was immediately struck by the absurdity of his thesis: “In the story, The Chrysler and the Comb, the tone and language to Mrs. Bridge from Ruth is very negative, but I think that in an everyday normal situation they actually get along very well.”
Um, okay, it’s not typical to find a contradiction in the assertion, but that could be corrected with an improved thesis. I read the rest of the paragraph to find his evidence to back up his idea. In each example, he described Ruth as disrespectful and argumentative but ended each sentence insisting that the relationship between mother and daughter was positive.
Weird, I thought. Either this kid lives in a world of denial or he has a very distorted idea of what constitutes a good relationship.
“So Drew,” I start, “I noticed you present a thesis that has a contradiction. That’s going to be problematic for your reader."
“Because you’re saying two different things,” I point out. “Either Ruth is negative, and you need to focus on that, or they have a good relationship. You've given me evidence of Ruth's negativity. If they have a good relationship, you haven’t given me any evidence of that.”
“But they do,” he insisted.
“Where? Show me.” I pushed the story toward him.
“Um, the mom never gets mad at her.”
“Actually, she does. In line 9, it says she answers her ‘irritably,’ and she lectures her throughout the story. She lectures her and then just walks out.”
“But moms do that!”
“Yes, but do they do that when they’re happy with you? My mom only lectures me when she thinks I need correction." I tapped my pen on the table.
Drew looked it over. “I guess I don’t know.”
“You don’t know what?”
He shrugged. “I don’t know where the evidence is, but I think they get along.”
“Just a gut feeling?” He nodded, and I pushed back. “Then Drew, I don’t get it. You can't base a thesis on a feeling. A thesis is based on evidence and analysis, just like a scientific hypothesis. You’ve got to show me evidence that says they get along most of the time.”
He started backpedaling. “Well, maybe not in this story, but normally-"
“Wait, wait, wait. Normally? Do you know something about these two that the rest of us don’t know? Because right here, we only have this story to look at.” I pushed the story towards him again.
He shifted tactics. “Why couldn’t this just be a one time fight they had?”
“It certainly could be. That’s why I’m asking you to show me evidence that they usually get along. You’ve got a lot of good evidence that Ruth is pretty snotty. Does it say anywhere that either person was surprised by the argument, or that either one is sorry or upset over the argument?”
“I’m sure they don’t argue all the time,” he insisted.
“You’re sure? What makes you sure? I need you to articulate it; otherwise, you’re just being a relentless optimist or willfully obtuse,” I pointed out.
“What do you mean?” Drew asked.
I sighed. Drew would probably watch a bar fight unfolding and assume that the two opponents were just joking right up until the first punch. “Prove it, Drew. If my phone is missing and it turns up in your pocket, that's my evidence that you're a thief. I can't say that even though you have my phone, I'm pretty sure that Amy took it. There's no proof of that, get it?" He nodded. "So if you believe they get along just fine, find me a line or a sentence from the text and prove it. You can’t try to prove two opposing arguments in the thesis. Pick one side and give me proof.”
Drew furrowed his brow and was quiet for a few minutes while he re-read the story. Finally, he sat up. “So if I can’t prove it, I can’t say it?”
“Exactly,” I said. “That’s a good rule for papers and life. So let’s see if we can refocus your thesis.”
He sighed heavily. “I’m just not good at this stuff.”
“Don’t wimp out on me Drew. No one’s good at writing a first draft. If you were, you wouldn’t need this class. It’s just practice. Don’t blow off practice.”
Drew hunched forward. “You sound like my coach.”
I grinned and nudged him. “Then get your game face on.” He groaned.
Okay, so I’m no Bill Belichick or even Bill O'Brien, but I have my moments. I still probably shouldn't have been sweating and exhausted by the time Drew figured out what needed to change.