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Be the Synthesis Question 2

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This post was originally published on the HS Bits Blog, which was active from 2008-2013.

Earlier I outlined how I asked students to analyze the elements of the synthesis question: the information provided in the introductory instructions and the types of sources that are provided. The next step is to have students create their own synthesis question, designing their own task and finding the sources that provide a balance of perspectives for someone who would argue any given position. By creating their own synthesis question, students better understand what purpose the source materials serve and also how the question might be approached from different positions.

Students better understand the synthesis question if they realize that it is essentially just another form of argument question. So first, they should create an argument question. This is actually harder than it sounds. Many students struggle to create a question that is open, yet focused, and that invites arguments from different positions. They need to test run thesis statements that take different positions. They may have to do so after trying to find source material, since they may not be able to imagine what the other side would say until they see some examples.

John Brassil, a Language teacher and College Board consultant, outlines the process of putting together a synthesis question from the teacher's perspective in his article "Developing a Synthesis Question" in the Special Focus package Using Sources. In it, he says:

Writing a question and selecting sources is an organic activity. The question and the sources interact, and the entire task is subject to revision throughout the development process. As the whole task takes shape, the assignment and its introduction can evolve during the search for and work with the sources. Although the question appears on the task page and thus precedes the sources, it doesn’t necessarily come first in the making of a synthesis question. A good question can spring into being from one or two engaging sources just as a good question can spark a search for sources.

So, with their draft argument question in mind, they can now set up a "wish list" of sources, just as they did for the existing prompt. In doing so, they will need to go back and tweak their question, depending on what they find. Then they will have to go back and tweak their source selection, ensuring balance and a range of information.

Choosing sources involves evaluating each one, so I ask them to create a source annotation for each source too. Evaluating the source ensures that they are selecting items that don't simply provide the same information over and over, which is what I've found students tend to do when "researching"—they like to find sources that reinforce their existing ideas. Finding many sources that say the same thing and then using the same basic point from each isn't synthesis; instead, they need to find sources that say different things so that, as a writer, they would be able to bring them together to "talk" to one another in the essay.

Having generated a basic question, found a variety of sources and evaluated them, the students assemble all the parts using existing synthesis questions as templates. Ideally, I would have liked to have students test-run the questions and then critique their peers' success in creating a balanced, accessible, and interesting question, but this was the first time I tried this particular exercise, and I underestimated the amount of time they would need to run through the entire thing: We worked on this whole process for about 3 or 4 periods of 75 minutes, and students also researched their sources for homework. The collaborative effort of writing argument and synthesis prompts was the culminating activity in our study of 1984, and you can find my handout for the activity here. Each class did get to write one argument and one synthesis question that had been created by students in the other section, so it was good practice overall.

In generating a synthesis, if you want to start with some smaller steps, you can't ask for a better grouping of sources than the series often created by newspapers like the New York Times. Renee Shea points to this series on the life and role of the immigrant in today's America, complete with visuals like interactive maps and charts. The "Room For Debate" blog entries linked to the different sections in the series suggest possible topics, which students can use as starting points for wording of synthesis writing prompts. They also model the kind of civic discourse that we want students to appreciate through the process of understanding the synthesis essay.