Research Thesis Shootout!

Turning thesis writing into a Wild West showdown.

This week, my eleventh grade students are hard at work on their Junior Research Paper — an impressive display of six full weeks worth of independent reading, writing, and research on a major work of American Literature of their choice. The multi-stage project will culminate in a literary criticism paper of about 6-8 pages in length. And as anyone who’s ever written a long form research essay will tell you, having a top-quality thesis statement is the foundation for a solid argument.


But these thesis statements won’t write themselves.

So I decided to turn thesis writing into a “gauntlet”-like challenge, where students would be churning out thesis after thesis, getting tons of practice and lots of feedback as they developed a feel for how to write an evenly balanced thesis statement that could easily lend itself to solid textual support over 8(ish) pages of writing.

Here’s the three-pronged thesis recipe we’ll be drilling throughout the “gauntlet.”

In (name of text), (author’s name) uses (support 1), (support 2), and (support 3) in order to show/prove (deeper message / theme of work).

The plan:

  1. Divide students into four different regions of a 24-team tournament bracket.
  2. Give a new writing prompt for each round of play.
  3. Have students pair off and compare which written submission is stronger.

Winner stays, loser pays. And at the end of each matchup, students will roll dice to determine their award payout, where their award total will equal (roll) x (preassigned value for that round). So, for example:

(Roll of 8) x (Round Value of $100) = $800.

But ever good game needs a “rubber band” mechanic to help contests stay competitive even in those late stages of the game. And since I’ll want to make sure that everybody is still working all class long to ensure that even those students with weaker submissions have the opportunity to continue practicing their craft, here’s the twist:

  1. If you’re still in the tournament, you advance and compete against a remaining challenger. Steel sharpens steel, and competition will naturally increase as we go. If you’re still in the “winner’s bracket,” you’ll continue rolling two dice for your award payouts in each round.
  2. Once you’ve been eliminated, you can still compete in non-tournament “all play,” but you’re only eligible to claim *half* of the winner’s purse for that round — which means that you’ll only get to roll ONE dice for your award payout.

So again, using the same example:

Winner’s Bracket: (Roll of 8) x (Round Value of $100) = $800.
Consolation Bracket: (Roll of 4) x (Round Value of $100) = $400

Loving the concept of a “Boot Hill” all-play area so that there’s still incentive to keep battling even after you’ve been bested in the tournament — and the roll of the dice adds a fun little element of chance to the activity, so that students can still pull off an upset victory even if they are bested in a head-to-head work product comparison.

(And for kicks, I even threw in a “good luck charm” bonus mechanic just to help keep things lively in case suffers a tough loss)

Looking forward to seeing how this one plays out in tomorrow’s class! And if you’re interested in snagging a copy of this activity for yourself, then I’m your Huckleberry.

Click here to snag an editable copy of the Google Slides template.


Author: John

John Meehan (@MeehanEDU) is an English teacher and school instructional coach at Bishop O’Connell High School in Arlington, Virginia. He began his teaching career in 2010 as a career switcher through The New Teacher Project, after spending five years working in social media and event marketing. He is a 2017 ASCD Emerging Leader, and an alumnus of the 2016-2018 Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation Teacher Advisory Council. In 2016, he was named one of Arlington, Virginia’s “40 Under 40” by the Leadership Center for Excellence. He is a past presenter and regular attendee at educational conferences throughout the United States, including the annual conference for National Catholic Education Association, ASCD Empower19, and the Play Like a Champion Today: Character Education Through Sports summer conference at the University of Notre Dame. He’s an avid runner who’s completed more than three dozen marathons, half marathons, long-distance road relays, mud runs, and obstacle course races. John lives in Silver Spring, Maryland.

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