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Developing A Thesis for Common Ground and Points of Departure: Using NY Times A Room for Debate

by Lee Friederich | 24 Feb 2017
Resource Description: This activity engages students in the process of working together to develop a "they say" thesis statement for a synthesis essay based on The New York Times online forum "A Room for Debate," a website that clusters short, opinion-based articles about current topics by experts in their field. When teaching a class with many levels of readers, it is best to choose one of the debate forums to work with, either with the instructor choosing or students voting.  The activity elicits intensive collaboration and negotiation between partners, what Vaivanpanah and Miri (2017) call a "collaborative dialogue," a higher-level and more productive task type than the "simple dialogue." The activity can be used to practice synthesizing ideas and formulating a thesis, with or without going on to write a synthesis essay.
Audience: University
Audience Language Proficiency: Advanced
Duration: 75 minutes (reading prep takes place outside of class and/or during previous class period)
Materials and Technology:

Even when choosing one Room for Debate forum, the instructor should show the students the "Room for Debate" website so that students can understand the website and that the articles in a forum all address the same issue.  Copy and distribute all of the articles in the forum (usually 3-6 short articles) so that students can be read the articles carefully before coming to class.

Please see worksheet below.

Objective(s): Generating a thoughtful, complex thesis is one of the more difficult skills in a source-based writing class, particularly if students are not used to asserting strong ideas. This activity helps students gain experience in identifying over-arching main ideas in two essays, in particular "common ground" among authors and "points of departure," before bringing these ideas together into a synthesizing "they say" thesis. Using Graff's famous "they say, I say" construction, students will go on to add an "I say" statement to complete their thesis after the activity. The activity provides a rhetorical template for common ground and then a  "However, while" statement that allows students to show how the authors' ideas differ or "depart" from one another.
Outcome(s): Using a common ground and then a "However while" template students will go away from the activity with the first part of a "they say/I say" thesis. Negotiating which overlapping ideas constitute "common ground" and "points of departure," students will gain experience in identifying and synthesizing main ideas with the help of a partner.
Activity Description: After spending time in the previous class reading and discussing all of the short articles in the forum, students form partnerships to choose the two articles they think offer both "common ground" in terms of the authors' opinion or approach to the issue at hand and "points of departure" in which the authors either outright disagree or propose different solutions or ways of thinking about a problem.  Once the students have chosen the two articles they will work with, they chart common ground and points of departure on the enclosed worksheet and then compose two sentences together, first showing common ground and then a contrasting "However, while" statement to present points of departure to complete the "they say" part of the thesis.  Both sentences can be written on large pieces of newsprint to be displayed and discussed at the beginning of the next class, when students can then add their "I say" part of the thesis statement, which they should compose independently as homework.
  1. Graff, G., & Birkenstein, C. (2010). They say / I say: The moves that matter in academic writing. New York: W.W. Norton & Co.
  2. Kaivanpanah, S. and Miri, M. (2017), The Effects of Task Type on the Quality of Resolving Language-Related Episodes and Vocabulary Learning. TESOL Journal. doi:10.1002/tesj.311
Useful Links:

NY Time A Room for Debate


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