Before I knew better, I used to ask students to merely summarize their key ideas in the conclusion. But as I noted in the first post in this series, I’ve come to realize middle school students are capable of much more than I’d allowed myself to believe. Every sentence, even those whose purpose is to remind readers of key points, should build on the previous information. Every. Single. Sentence.
Moving Beyond Summary to Synthesis
Now, if I’m being honest, I do ask students to summarize their key points when drafting the conclusion, but only as a jumping off point. In fact, I ask them to write these summaries without rereading their body paragraphs. This often yields a fresh way to convey each key point—or at least identifies the absence of a single cohesive line of thought.
Next, I have them look for a common thread among the ideas, something other than the topic itself. This is a challenging step as it requires critical and analytical thought. You might want to prime the pump by having them warm up with some analogies. I’ve used this analogies worksheet to get students into the groove of identifying patterns and relationships.
I once had students write about the qualities of a hero, and one summarized their body paragraphs as follows.
If students identify a connection between two of the ideas—in this example they noted #1 and #3 both require self-sacrifice—ask them if that trait might also be true of #2. This often leads to deeper insight into their topic as they recognize previously unseen relationships. In this case, the student noted that justice, too, requires self-sacrifice since it requires the individual to give up personal freedoms for the good of the community at large. Once such a commonality is identified, have students explain the link and note its significance. The result is a sentence that synthesizes the ideas, and one worthy of their conclusion.
Sometimes, try as they might, students just cannot seem to find a connection between their key points. This is where I offer an alternative strategy… the “So What? Why Should Anybody Care?” strategy. Answering these questions about each key point will also lead them to deeper thinking. So what if a hero is courageous? It means they’re willing to face something unpleasant or dangerous, and put their own comfort and safety aside. Why Should Anyone Care? Well, if everyone put their own comfort and safety aside to help others, it would make for a much more supportive society. It would also mean that those lives that someone sacrificed to benefit must have a certain value, maybe even a responsibility to do something important with them.
Remember all of those “Making Connections” lessons we used to teach before Common Core? Text to Self, Text to Text, and Text to World. That’s what synthesis is all about… making those connections and being able to commit them to writing. Synthesizing key ideas is more powerful than summarizing them because it tells readers that the author has had this larger purpose in mind all along (even if they only just discovered the “bigger truth” while crafting their conclusion). Yes, it is a more difficult writing skill to master. But with a little help, your students can learn to do it, and the extra effort is what gives it immense value.