Whap Dbq Essays Examples

Thesis Statements

WHAT THIS HANDOUT IS ABOUT

This handout describes what a thesis statement is, how thesis statements work in your writing, and how you can craft or refine one for your draft.

INTRODUCTION

Writing in college often takes the form of persuasion—convincing others that you have an interesting, logical point of view on the subject you are studying. Persuasion is a skill you practice regularly in your daily life. You persuade your roommate to clean up, your parents to let you borrow the car, your friend to vote for your favorite candidate or policy. In college, course assignments often ask you to make a persuasive case in writing. You are asked to convince your reader of your point of view. This form of persuasion, often called academic argument, follows a predictable pattern in writing. After a brief introduction of your topic, you state your point of view on the topic directly and often in one sentence. This sentence is the thesis statement, and it serves as a summary of the argument you’ll make in the rest of your paper.

WHAT IS A THESIS STATEMENT?

A thesis statement:

  • tells the reader how you will interpret the significance of the subject matter under discussion.
  • is a road map for the paper; in other words, it tells the reader what to expect from the rest of the paper.
  • directly answers the question asked of you. A thesis is an interpretation of a question or subject, not the subject itself. The subject, or topic, of an essay might be World War II or Moby Dick; a thesis must then offer a way to understand the war or the novel.
  • makes a claim that others might dispute.
  • is usually a single sentence somewhere in your first paragraph that presents your argument to the reader. The rest of the paper, the body of the essay, gathers and organizes evidence that will persuade the reader of the logic of your interpretation.

If your assignment asks you to take a position or develop a claim about a subject, you may need to convey that position or claim in a thesis statement near the beginning of your draft. The assignment may not explicitly state that you need a thesis statement because your instructor may assume you will include one. When in doubt, ask your instructor if the assignment requires a thesis statement. When an assignment asks you to analyze, to interpret, to compare and contrast, to demonstrate cause and effect, or to take a stand on an issue, it is likely that you are being asked to develop a thesis and to support it persuasively. 

HOW DO I GET A THESIS?

A thesis is the result of a lengthy thinking process. Formulating a thesis is not the first thing you do after reading an essay assignment. Before you develop an argument on any topic, you have to collect and organize evidence, look for possible relationships between known facts (such as surprising contrasts or similarities), and think about the significance of these relationships. Once you do this thinking, you will probably have a “working thesis,” a basic or main idea, an argument that you think you can support with evidence but that may need adjustment along the way.

Writers use all kinds of techniques to stimulate their thinking and to help them clarify relationships or comprehend the broader significance of a topic and arrive at a thesis statement.

HOW DO I KNOW IF MY THESIS IS STRONG?

If there’s time, run it by your instructor or make an appointment at the Writing Center to get some feedback. Even if you do not have time to get advice elsewhere, you can do some thesis evaluation of your own. When reviewing your first draft and its working thesis,ask yourself the following:

  • Do I answer the question? Re-reading the question prompt after constructing a working thesis can help you fix an argument that misses the focus of the question.
  • Have I taken a position that others might challenge or oppose?If your thesis simply states facts that no one would, or even could, disagree with, it’s possible that you are simply providing a summary, rather than making an argument.
  • Is my thesis statement specific enough? Thesis statements that are too vague often do not have a strong argument. If your thesis contains words like “good” or “successful,” see if you could be more specific: why is something “good”; what specifically makes something “successful”?
  • Does my thesis pass the “So what?” test? If a reader’s first response is, “So what?” then you need to clarify, to forge a relationship, or to connect to a larger issue.
  • Does my essay support my thesis specifically and without wandering? If your thesis and the body of your essay do not seem to go together, one of them has to change. It’s okay to change your working thesis to reflect things you have figured out in the course of writing your paper. Remember, always reassess and revise your writing as necessary.
  • Does my thesis pass the “how and why?” test? If a reader’s first response is “how?” or “why?” your thesis may be too open-ended and lack guidance for the reader. See what you can add to give the reader a better take on your position right from the beginning.

EXAMPLES

Suppose you are taking a course on 19th-century America, and the instructor hands out the following essay assignment: Compare and contrast the reasons why the North and South fought the Civil War. You turn on the computer and type out the following:

    The North and South fought the Civil War for many reasons, some of which were the same and some different.

This weak thesis restates the question without providing any additional information. You will expand on this new information in the body of the essay, but it is important that the reader know where you are heading. A reader of this weak thesis might think, “What reasons? How are they the same? How are they different?” Ask yourself these same questions and begin to compare Northern and Southern attitudes (perhaps you first think, “The South believed slavery was right, and the North thought slavery was wrong”). Now, push your comparison toward an interpretation—why did one side think slavery was right and the other side think it was wrong? You look again at the evidence, and you decide that you are going to argue that the North believed slavery was immoral while the South believed it upheld the Southern way of life. You write:

    While both sides fought the Civil War over the issue of slavery, the North fought for moral reasons while the South fought to preserve its own institutions.

Now you have a working thesis! Included in this working thesis is a reason for the war and some idea of how the two sides disagreed over this reason. As you write the essay, you will probably begin to characterize these differences more precisely, and your working thesis may start to seem too vague. Maybe you decide that both sides fought for moral reasons, and that they just focused on different moral issues. You end up revising the working thesis into a final thesis that really captures the argument in your paper:

    While both Northerners and Southerners believed they fought against tyranny and oppression, Northerners focused on the oppression of slaves while Southerners defended their own right to self-government.

Compare this to the original weak thesis. This final thesis presents a way of interpreting evidence that illuminates the significance of the question. Keep in mind that this is one of many possible interpretations of the Civil War—it is not the one and only right answer to the question. There isn’t one right answer; there are only strong and weak thesis statements and strong and weak uses of evidence.

Let’s look at another example. Suppose your literature professor hands out the following assignment in a class on the American novel: Write an analysis of some aspect of Mark Twain’s novel Huckleberry Finn. “This will be easy,” you think. “I loved Huckleberry Finn!” You grab a pad of paper and write:

    Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn is a great American novel.

Why is this thesis weak? Think about what the reader would expect from the essay that follows: you will most likely provide a general, appreciative summary of Twain’s novel. The question did not ask you to summarize; it asked you to analyze. Your professor is probably not interested in your opinion of the novel; instead, she wants you to think about why it’s such a great novel—what do Huck’s adventures tell us about life, about America, about coming of age, about race relations, etc.? First, the question asks you to pick an aspect of the novel that you think is important to its structure or meaning—for example, the role of storytelling, the contrasting scenes between the shore and the river, or the relationships between adults and children. Now you write:

    In Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain develops a contrast between life on the river and life on the shore.

Here’s a working thesis with potential: you have highlighted an important aspect of the novel for investigation; however, it’s still not clear what your analysis will reveal. Your reader is intrigued, but is still thinking, “So what? What’s the point of this contrast? What does it signify?” Perhaps you are not sure yet, either. That’s fine—begin to work on comparing scenes from the book and see what you discover. Free write, make lists, jot down Huck’s actions and reactions. Eventually you will be able to clarify for yourself, and then for the reader, why this contrast matters. After examining the evidence and considering your own insights, you write:

    Through its contrasting river and shore scenes, Twain’s Huckleberry Finn suggests that to find the true expression of American democratic ideals, one must leave “civilized” society and go back to nature.

This final thesis statement presents an interpretation of a literary work based on an analysis of its content. Of course, for the essay itself to be successful, you must now present evidence from the novel that will convince the reader of your interpretation.

SPECIAL THANKS TO: Mr. Brynes of Leonardtown High School

The redesign has brought a great deal of uncertainty and confusion amongst APUSH teachers.  In many ways, we are all “rookie” teachers, as all of us have the challenge of implementing fundamental curricular and skills-based changes into our classrooms.

One of the more significant changes is to the structure of one essay on the AP exam, the Document Based question (DBQ).  The rubric for the DBQ was previously a more holistic essay that combined a strong thesis, and use of documents and outside information to support the argument.  This has been transformed into a much more structured and formulaic skills-based rubric.  The change has led to a healthy debate about the pros and cons of both types of essays, but in general the core of the essay has remained the same: write a thesis and support it with evidence in the form of documents and outside information.  If students continue to apply these basic writing skills, they are likely to earn 3 or 4 out of the seven total points for the Document Based Question.

In this post, we will explore one of these points students will be looking to earn to help their chances at passing the APUSH exam this May: the Contextualization point.

What is Contextualization?

According to the College Board, contextualization refers to a:

Historical thinking skill that involves the ability to connect historical events and processes to specific circumstances of time and place as well as broader regional, national, or global processes.
(College Board AP Course and Exam Description, AP US History, Fall 2015)

Contextualization is a critical historical thinking skill that is featured in the newly redesigned course. In my opinion, this is a skill of fundamental importance for students to utilize in the classroom.  Often times, students find history difficult or boring because they don’t see connections between different historical time periods and the world they live in today.  They assume that events occur in a vacuum, and don’t realize that the historical context is critical in helping explain people’s beliefs and points of view in that period of time.  Putting events into context is something I always thought was important, but now that the College Board explicitly has established the skill, it has forced me to be more proactive in creating lessons and assignments that allow students to utilize this way of thinking.

The place that contextualization is most directly relevant on the actual AP exam itself is the Document Based Question.  In order to earn the point for contextualization, students must:

Situate historical events, developments, or processes within the broader regional, national, or global context in which they occurred in order to draw conclusions about their relative significance.
(College Board AP Course and Exam Description, AP US History, Fall 2015)

In other words, students are asked to provide background before jumping right into their thesis and essay and paint a picture of what is going on at the time of the prompt.  Although there is no specific requirement as to where contextualization should occur, it makes natural sense to place it in the introduction right before a thesis point.  Placing this historical background right at the beginning sets the stage for the argument that will occur in the body of the essay, and is consistent with expectations many English teachers have in how to write an introduction paragraph.

I explain contextualization to students by using the example of Star Wars.  Before the movie starts, the film begins with “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…” and continues with background information on the characters, events, and other information that is crucial to understanding the film.  Without this context, the viewer would not know what is going on, and might miss key events or be lost throughout the film.  This is what contextualization aims to do in student essays.  It sets the stage for their thesis, evidence, and argument that is to follow.

Contextualization vs. Historical Context

One aspect of the DBQ rubric that can be a bit confusing initially is that students are asked to do this contextualization, but there is also another area which gives them the option to use historical context.  So what is the difference?

Contextualization refers to putting the entire essay into a broader context (preferably in the introduction).  However, when writing their essays, students are also required to analyze four of the documents that they utilize by either examining the author’s point of view, describing the intended audience of the source, identifying the author’s purpose or putting the source into historical context. The latter sounds similar to contextualization (and it is essentially the same skill), but historical context is only focused on the specific document being analyzed, not the entire essay, like the contextualization point.  For example, if a document is a map that shows slavery growing dramatically from 1820 to 1860, a student might point out that this growth can be explained in the context of the development of the cotton gin, which made the production of cotton much more profitable and let to the spread of slavery in the Deep South.  While essentially the same skill, historical context focuses on one specific document’s background.

Examples of Successful Student Contextualization Points

One of the biggest pitfalls that prevent students from earning the contextualization point is that they are too brief or vague.  In general, it would be difficult for students to earn the point if they are writing only a sentence or two.  Early in the year, I assigned students a DBQ based on the following prompt:

Evaluate the extent in which the Civil War was a turning point in the lives of African Americans in the United States.  Use the documents and your knowledge of the years 1860-1877 to construct your response.

This was the third DBQ we had written, and students were now getting brave enough to move beyond a thesis and document analysis and started attempting to tackle the contextualization point. However, the attempts were all over the map. One student wrote:

The Civil War was a bloody event that led to the death of thousands of Americans.

Of course this is a true statement, but is extremely vague.  What led to the Civil War?  Why was it so deadly?  Without any specific detail, this student could not earn the contextualization point.

Another student wrote:

Slavery had existed for hundreds of years in the United States.  It was a terrible thing that had to be abolished.

Again, this is a drive-by attempt at earning contextualization.  It mentions things that are true, but lacks any meaningful details or explanation that would demonstrate understanding of the time period in discussion.  What led to the beginning of slavery in the colonies?  How did it develop?  What made it so horrible?  How did individuals resist and protest slavery?  These are the types of details that would add meaning to contextualization.

One student nailed it.  She wrote:

The peculiar institution of slavery had been a part of America’s identity since the founding of the original English colony at Jamestown.  In the early years, compromise was key to avoiding the moral question, but as America entered the mid 19th century sectional tensions and crises with popular sovereignty, Kansas, and fugitive slaves made the issue increasingly unavoidable.  When the Civil War began, the war was transformed from one to simply save the Union to a battle for the future of slavery and freedom in the United States.

Now THAT is contextualization!  It gives specific details about the beginning of slavery and its development.  It discusses attempts at compromise, but increasing sectional tensions that led to the Civil War.  The writer paints a vivid and clear picture of the situation, events, and people that set the stage for the Civil War.  Students don’t want to write a 6-8 sentence paragraph (they will want to save time for their argument in the body), but they need to do more than write a vague sentence that superficially addresses the era.

Strategies for Teaching Contextualization to Students

Analyze Lots of Primary Sources
One of the best ways to prepare for the DBQ is for students to practice reading and comprehending primary source texts, particularly texts that are written by people who use very different language and sentence structure from today.  This helps them understand and analyze documents, but it also can be helpful in practicing contextualization.  Looking at different perspectives and points of view in the actual historical time periods they are learning is key in allowing students to understand how the era can impact beliefs, values and events that occur.

Assign Many DBQ Assessments and Share Specific Examples
The more often students write DBQs, the more comfortable students will get with the entire process and skill set involved, including contextualization.  One thing that has been especially successful in my classroom is to collect a handful of student attempts at the contextualization point and share them with students.  Students then get to examine them and look at effective and less effective attempts at earning contextualization.  Often the best way for students to learn what to do or how to improve is to see what their classmates have done.

Incorporating In-Class Activities
The course is broken into nine distinct time periods from 1491 to present.  In each period or unit students are assigned activities that force them to put a specific policy, event, or movement into context.  For example, we did lecture notes on the presidency of JFK, learning about the Man on the Moon Speech, Cuban Missile Crisis, and creation of the Peace Corps.  Students had to write 3-4 sentences that asked them to put these events in historical context using the Cold War.  This allowed students to understand that each of these seemingly unrelated historical events were shaped by the tension between the United States and Soviet Union: winning the space race, stopping a communist nuclear threat less than 100 miles from Florida, and spreading goodwill into nations that might otherwise turn to communism all are strategies the United States used to thwart the Soviet threat.  By doing this activity, students gain an appreciation for how historical context shapes events and decisions of the day.

Teach Cause and Effect in United States History
It is very easy to get caught up as a teacher in how to best get lots of minutia and factoids into students heads quickly and efficiently.  However, if we can teach history not as a series of independent and unrelated events, but as a series of events that have a causal relationship that impact what happens next, this helps students grasp and understand contextualization.  For example, in the lead-up to World War I, students create a timeline of events that led to America entering the conflict.  As students examine the torpedoing of the Lusitania, unrestricted submarine warfare, the Zimmermann telegram, etc., they gain an understanding that it was not a random decision by President Wilson, but rather a series of events that precipitated the declaration of war.  This is what contextualization is: the background that sets the stage for a particular moment in American history.

Examine Contextualization with Current Events
I know what you are thinking, I have one school year (less if your school year starts in September) to get through 1491 to Present and now I am supposed to make this a current events class as well?  The answer is yes and no.  Will stuff from the news pages be content the students need to know for the exam: absolutely not.  However, it is a great opportunity for students to understand that our past explains why our country is what it is today.

For example, President Obama’s decision to work towards normalizing relations with Cuba makes more sense if students think about it through the lens of contextualization.  The United States invaded Cuba in 1898 in the Spanish-American War and set up a protectorate.  Cubans, upset with what they perceived as U.S. meddling and intervention led a communist revolution in 1959, ousting the American-backed government and setting the stage for one of the scariest moments in the Cold War: the Cuban Missile Crisis.  Looking at how the past shapes current events today helps students understand this skill, and it also helps them gain a deeper appreciation of how important history is in shaping the world around them.

Any time changes happen, there is a temptation to be reactionary and reject them.  I have found that by being more deliberate about helping students understand historical context, their engagement and understanding have improved significantly.  Teachers always are fighting that battle between covering the content (which is daunting in an AP course) and helping students understand the “so what?” question.  Why does this matter to me?  By making connections, students can see that history does not every happen in a vacuum.  Our shared narrative is a series of events and ideas that continuously evolve and build off of each other.  When students gain a firm understanding of how the past impacts their lives today, it makes learning way more meaningful and fun.

Contextualization is tough for students at first, but it is a skill application that can be perfected and improved to maximize your students’ chances of earning that point and rocking the AP exam.

Looking for AP US History practice?

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Ben Hubing is an educator at Greendale High School in Greendale, Wisconsin.  Ben has taught AP U.S. History and AP U.S. Government and Politics for the last eight years and was a reader last year for the AP U.S. History Short Answer.  Ben earned his Bachelors degree at The University of Wisconsin-Madison and Masters degree at Cardinal Stritch University in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

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