The Best Thesis Ever

Let me tell you how to write the best thesis ever. But first, let me tell you a story. My advisor in college was a man named Ken Fields. Besides being a Stanford professor, he was a poet, a recovering alcoholic, and a Texan. He brought his dog, Dixie, to class. He took the elevator. You couldn’t take notes in his class, because one minute he was talking about Renaissance ballads, the next Leonard Cohen, and the next a feud his family had in Kentucky in the 1800’s. When I graduated, I went to his office one last time and sat between his towers of papers and he told me about a guy he knew who had hiked the Sierras with a mule. It felt random at the time, but looking back on it that story sanctioned the road less travelled, which was the best blessing new-graduate-me could have received from a professor.

Ken Fields, more or less as I remember him.
 He might have come off as a bumbly old guy, but there was a thread through it all though, an underlying organization, a poet’s kind of sense. So somehow I am not surprised to have learned the best thesis-writing tip I know from Professor Fields. 

And this tip, oh wow. Not only does it make your thesis clearer and stronger, it lays out your whole essay for you.

A good thesis, said Professor Fields, goes like this: A but also B, therefore C.  C is the classic thesis; A and B lay out the pros and cons of your particular argument. A argues one side, B argues the other. C corroborates one or the other.

To go back to the elephant, a possible thesis might look like “Although elephants are large and stinky (A), if we owned one we would be the most popular family on the block (B). Therefore, we should get an elephant (C).”

Another thesis might be, “Elephants are friendly, trainable animals long kept by families in other parts of the world (A), so although they are not a common, or possibly even legal, pet in Seattle (B), we should still get an elephant (C).”

Notice that while the C parts are the same in both these examples, the points laid out in the A and B parts are completely different. The essays that follow will be just as different. One essay is going to need to deal with where to keep an elephant. The other will need to address legalities. The tension of the unresolved question that lies at the heart of every good essay (because what good is an essay if the question is already resolved?) gets laid out bare, right in the thesis. From there it’s just a matter of teasing out that tension, using Leonard Cohen lyrics and other evidence to support your points when necessary, straight down to the conclusion, at which point you can close your mouth, put down your pen and walk to the elevator with Dixie while your words begin their lifelong trickle through your listeners’ minds.


It’s Convince-A-Parent time at Frog Hollow. This is where everyone has to think of something they really, really want, and make a convincing argument why they should get it. I want chickens. I want a sleepover with my best friend. I want a $2000 mountain bike. I want a sword. Convince-A-Parent does not bring out the altruistic or the ascetic in the kids. However, it does take essay writing from being abstract and scary sounding to concrete and commonsense. Even more, it reveals essay writing to be about something they are already skilled at: being convincing. I use this project with my teen writers as well, for all the same reasons.

Before the students write their own, we write a mock essay together. I like to use a ridiculous example like elephants.  I want the whole exercise to have a little bit of a swashbuckling derring-do, or at least some humor.


First, we state what we want. I want an elephant. English teachers would call this our thesis. We just think of it as a burning desire.

Then we think of all the reasons why having an elephant would be so cool. We could ride it. It could spray us with its trunk. Elephants are smart and social and trainable. We’d be the coolest folks on the block.

Then we consider what our parents’ hesitations might be, and how we can address their concerns. Worried about the mess? Elephant manure is great for gardens! Worried about the cost? We could charge for elephant rides. Worried about legalities? What a great educational research project. Worried about animal cruelty? Maybe we could rehabilitate a rescue elephant. We get goofy, but more, we get creative.

After brainstorming the pros, cons, and rebuttals, we pick a couple of the best pros and most pressing cons, and we’re ready to write our argument. I encourage them to just start with their introduction. For the older students, this is a paragraph. Ease your parents in, I tell them. Get ’em hooked. Say, I know you and I share an admiration for elephants. We have talked about what amazing creatures they are. Then drop the whammy.  Everyone agrees this makes better strategic sense than just starting I WANT AN ELEPHANT NOW!!!!

Then each main point gets its own paragraph. For many students, the argument unrolls so fearlessly that they have launched into this part when all I asked was for them to write their intro. With older students, I talk about organization, transitions, topic sentences — whatever the next thing seems to be for them. But no matter how far into essay technique we get, I keep it rooted in the pure, wily work of convincing their parents to give them their heart’s desire.

We do a second draft for neatness, spelling, and organization. Finally, a polished and Highly Convincing Argument is placed into their parents’ (pre-warned) hands. Good luck, parents.

And remember, kids, to only ask for things you actually want, because who knows? You might convince your parents.

The Suitcase in the Mirror: cracking The Jabberwock

One of my favorite poems to teach is Lewis Carroll’s “The Jabberwock.” It is fun to memorize, and thrilling to recite. ‘Twas brillig and the slithy toves/did gyre and gimble on the wabe. It’s pure, exhilarating nonsense. To steal the kids’ slang, it’s epic. It’s also one big suitcase of cool lessons.

I’ve been teaching “The Jabberwock” since 2005, when I was a visiting poetry teacher in a third grade class in Missoula. The class I worked with there was very difficult, and I was a new teacher. Sometimes getting the kids to write poems felt like herding the proverbial cats, and then asking the cats to write about it. The day I did “The Jabberwock” was different. I showed them how it looked written in mirror writing, which is how it appears in Through the Looking Glass. I told them they could write in mirror writing as well. One student, a boy who often only wrote a labored word or two, was a mirror writing whiz. His poem was several lines long, and he only stopped because the class was over. Most children don’t have such a dramatic response to writing backwards, but it is still a challenge that feels like a game.

The next thing I pull out of the poem is the idea of portmanteau words. These words, like the suitcases they are named after, are a combination of two separate pieces. Or as Humpty Dumpty explains to Alice, “there are two meanings packed up into one word.” “Slithy”, for instance, is a portmanteau of “lithe” and “slimy.” I encourage the children to invent their own words, portmanteau and otherwise for their poems.

Then we talk through all the crazy vocabulary in “The Jabberwock,” invented and otherwise. This helps the story of the poem become clear (because of course all the nonsense actually serves a point). It usually culminates in us doing our best to outgrabe, just like the poor little lost green pigs called the mome raths. Outgribing, if you don’t know, is “something between bellowing and whistling, with a kind of a sneeze in the middle.” A room full of kids outgribing their hearts out is an amazing thing to witness.

By this point, it’s been plenty of talking so we get down to writing. I tell the class they can write a poem that tells an epic story, that may use made-up words, and if they want to they can write it in mirror-writing.  Sometimes, I will read pieces of the poems they write to the class and see what people picture when they hear the made-up words. Interestingly, they usually get the idea the poet was trying to express. For instance, when Jade wrote about going down the “grotiling mortiling way,” everyone pictured a twisty, mossy, stony, overgrown path.

If I have some quick finishers, I like to direct them towards looking up Lewis Carroll’s crazy words in the dictionary. They discover — like I did the first year — that his poem gave English two new words: galumph and chortle.  This raises the question of what words might join English in the future. And this thought: what if one of us invents a word that sticks around? If that happened, it would be a frabjous day indeed.

Wishes, Lies, Dreams

I’m going to start off by telling you one of my secrets.

Frog Hollow writes tons of poetry. That’s no secret, and it’s no secret that with the right infectious enthusiasm, teaching poetry to children can help them get lit up about writing, about language, and about the centuries-long conversation about the human experience that we call literature. Also, poetry is short. Children can write a poem, revise it for spelling and punctuation, and illustrate it all in a sitting, whereas most “stories” children want to write are really novels, or whole series of novels, or complete worlds.  Getting all that from mind to paper at all, let alone in a day, is a challenge and so the satisfaction of completing something often gets lost when kids write longer forms. Writing poetry shows children they are writers, and allows us as a class to play with many different things quickly.

 But where do you get that all-important infectious enthusiasm? At Frog Hollow, once we get into the rhythm of writing poems, the children bring it themselves. It also helps that I get pretty excited myself. However (and here’s where the secret comes in), I also rely hugely on the work of poet and teacher Kenneth Koch in his books Wishes, Lies, and Dreams and Rose, Where Did You Get That Red? In these books, he shares his work teaching poetry in New York City public elementary schools in the 1960’s. In Wishes, Lies, and Dreams, he starts with a poetry idea — writing about wishes or lies or dreams or noises — and includes some of the poems his students wrote drawing from that idea. In Rose, Where Did You Get That Red? he starts from classic poems, and shares the work his students wrote inspired by them.

There are many great prompts and poems in these books. Including the poems written by students helps my students see that they can write poems. But beyond that, there is so much enthusiasm that reading them makes me wish it was Wednesday, so I could see what kind of magic would come out of my students’ pencils.

So there it is — the big secret: none of us are in this alone.

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