Does anyone have a magical way to get this concept across? I am working with some low level sophomores who have trouble with anything beyond a book report. I cannot seem to get the concept of a thesis and topic sentences throughout the essay across.
Perhaps if you approached the thesis as something the students get to argue about. I don't know any kid who hasn't wanted to argue about something. Have them decide what they would like to argue about. Make them put their idea into a sentence. Have them present it to you in verbal form. If it's not something you can argue say, "I agree" or "This is true." Then work with them to find another point they could argue.
I cut up examples from paragraphs and get students to place them in order, working out which one is the topic sentence. Then we look at the kind of language that is used in a topic sentence. Normally works pretty well. I find giving students an activity where they have to piece together (literally) fragments is a great intro to a topic.
You can also try the "Build Me A House" method. Sort of the same concept as the sandwich, but I like it better since upon the foundation you build the bricks and the cement/mortar that holds it all together is the thesis statement woven tightly within. Whichever you use, it is a good way to get the kids to visualize it...I have created graphic organizers using both methods. Roof (conclusion)...3rd floor (third reason/idea and support), 2nd floor (second reason/idea and support), 1st floor(first reason/idea and support), Foundation (thesis/main idea) for the house image.
Have you tried the "make me a sandwich" method? You can find a graphic organizer at this address:
The top bread is the topic, the bottom bread is the conclusion, and everything in between is details. I used this in my 10th grade class last semester, and had some success. A student asked me how to do a conclusion, and another one answered, "You know, the bottom piece of bread thing."