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Home > Pre-AP > Teacher's Corner > Significance, Consequence, or Reason: Creating Meaningful Thesis Statements

Significance, Consequence, or Reason: Creating Meaningful Thesis Statements

by Lorri Horn
Santa Monica High School
Santa Monica, California

Fact Versus Opinion
At the beginning of each school year, I work with students on how to craft meaningful thesis statements. Students often enter my classes with thesis statements that, while sometimes phrased eloquently, are little more than factual statements about the work. For example, when we complete our outside reading of Valerie Martin's Mary Reilly, a retelling of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde through the eyes of Dr. Jekyll's housekeeper, I ask students to analyze Mary Reilly's character either as it remains constant or grows and changes. Students typically respond with thesis statements such as: "Mary Reilly is a well-organized housekeeper until Mr. Hyde threatens all she holds dear." True -- but this is not an interpretation; it is more like the kind of plot description one finds on the back of the novel. And such a statement, while accurate, tends to lead students to cite evidence that generally speaks for itself, resulting in analysis that is at best a fancy plot summary and, at worst, circular and redundant.

What follows next is a discussion about the difference between a fact and an opinion. I draw a horizontal line across the board. On one end I write the word "fact" and at almost the other end I write the word "opinion." I teach students that their goal is to come up with an opinion about Mary Reilly's change. Their opinion, once masterfully supported, will by the end of their essay smack of fact. But to start off with a fact will not leave the reader of a paper convinced of anything new or of interest. I save the very end of the fact/opinion spectrum for a discussion of what happens when opinions go mad, and suggest that if their opinion is not grounded in the evidence presented in the text, they'll cross over the line into the world of the absurd. You can't argue that Mary Reilly is a cross-dresser and that the Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde deal serves to symbolically represent that aspect of her personality unless you've got proof. An interpretation should be original but also must be grounded in the solid evidence of the text.

So how do we take one of the more obvious or straightforward parts of the book and explore it more originally? I ask students to repeat after me: "Significance or consequence or reason!" and then work on making their factual thesis statements more interpretive.

Significance: Why is it important that Mary Reilly changes from being well-organized to being disheveled? Is it symbolic? Is there a moral or does it relate to a significant theme?

Consequence: What is the result of undergoing this change? What is the cause and effect at play here?

Reason: Does Mary Reilly's change mean something important to the author? To the characters? Why might Martin have it occur?

Students with a limited thesis end up limited in their analysis. In proving the first part of her thesis -- that Mary begins as a well-organized housekeeper -- one student quotes Reilly's thoughts: "I worked and worked, scrubbing hard, sloshing through the filthy water to fill my buckets." Her analysis reads, "Mary works hard as a maid. She's even willing to trudge through the dirty water to do her job." "Trudge" -- lovely diction! But her thesis thoughtfully restates the obvious. This student's revised thesis reads, "Mary Reilly is a well-organized housekeeper until Mr. Hyde threatens all she holds dear by bringing up her nightmarish childhood memories." Now, the student has a reason embedded in her thesis: Mary Reilly changes because Mr. Hyde is a catalyst of symbolic proportions. She goes on to attempt a psychological interpretation: "Mary seems to be diligent in her housekeeping, but there is more going on here. It's almost as if she is wading through her dirty past. The fact that she 'works and works' suggests that it is a challenging task as she attempts to make less muddled and clear what is dirty. Since these are Dr. Jekyll's floors, it prepares us for the dirt she soon will uncover herself as a result of her relationship with him."

Students begin to understand that there is much more to say about the novel. Their thesis statements become richer and, as a result, so do their analyses.

Lorri Horn has taught AP English at Santa Monica High School in California for the last six of her thirteen-year career. She chaired the English department for five years, and is a 2003 National Board Certified Teacher. Her article about teaching in a time of scarcity recently appeared in Phi Delta Kappan (April 2004).

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