Thoughtful Learning Blog

Thoughtful Learning Blog

The Thoughtful Learning blog features articles about English language arts, 21st century skills, and social-emotional learning. Insights come from the teachers, writers, and developers at Thoughtful Learning, who have been creating top-notch instructional materials for more than 40 years.

One of the most thought-provoking works we've read lately is Bad Ideas About Writing, edited by Cheryl E. Ball and Drew M. Loewe.

This open-access book from the University of West Virginia examines popular myths and assumptions about the teaching and learning of writing. You’ll find brief, “opinionated encyclopedia entries and researched mini-manifestos” from experts in writing studies. These pieces will get you up-to-date on research and conversations about writing and help you reflect on your teaching practices.

Below is a sampling of “bad ideas” from the book. Do you agree or disagree with the arguments? 

Quick summary: No two writing situations are exactly alike. Expectations vary from one writing situation to the next, so it is difficult to generalize what good writing is and how to do it.

Key quotation: “[E]very new situation, audience, and purpose requires writers to learn to do and understand new possibilities and constraints for their writing.”

“But this isn’t bad news. Rather, it gives all writers permission to keep learning, to fail, and to engage in new kinds of writing in new situations.”

A better idea: Instead of teaching writing in general, show students how to adapt to new writing situations, such as studying examples and considering the purpose, audience, and context. Assure them that the messy, feeling-out process of writing is normal and not a sign of failure.

Near the end of the school year, my freshmen embark on a multi-week advocacy unit. During this time, they must plan, research, write, revise, and polish a final project.

The first few times I assigned the project, students struggled out of the gates. They waited too long to commit to a topic, perform preliminary research, and find a focus for their writing. As a result, they had to scramble to finish, affecting the quality of their work.

The mini deadlines I set up along the way were not enough. I needed something to jolt planning and research into motion so students had enough time to do their best work.

The solution: project elevator pitches.

With the availability of tools like Grammarly and ChatGPT, it may be tempting to spend less time teaching grammar. Wouldn't it be more efficient to let technology detect and correct grammar issues for students, and leave it at that?

Efficient? Maybe. Effective? Not so much.

The presence of grammar checkers and chat bot assistants does not diminish the need to learn grammar, just as calculators did not eliminate the need to learn math.

Calculators did alter the way math was taught, though. The same is true of teaching grammar in the age of AI. Instead of reducing grammar instruction, let’s reflect on why and how we teach grammar.

Boy glancing at book while writing

For far too long, the ELA community treated reading and writing a bit like rival siblings. Everyone knew the two were related, but many believed they were better off taught separately. Curricula often focused on reading, while writing was cast aside as secondary, the Harry to reading’s William.

Today, we know we had it wrong. The two literacies not only belong together but also get along splendidly when taught in tandem. Indeed, a recent report from Education Week renews the call to connect reading and writing instruction, beginning in the earliest grades.

But what does this look like in practice? The following tips and activities can help you create a reading-writing connection in your classroom.

Do your students use quotations in their writing? This common practice allows writers to engage with experts, marshal evidence, and create dialogue. But the practice also comes with potential pitfalls.

Some students overuse quotations, adding so many that their own voice gets lost in the mix. Other students drop in quotations without enough context. The quotes just hang there with no clear connection to the surrounding ideas. And then there are students who find great quotations, offer effective context, but stumble over tricky punctuation rules.

Illustration of two young people. One holds and points toward a large lightbulb.

You may have heard that empathy involves “walking in someone else’s shoes.” But this tidy metaphor misses a crucial aspect of empathetic behavior: close, compassionate listening. Brené Brown addresses the missing component in her book Atlas of the Heart:

Rather than walking in your shoes, I need to learn how to listen to the story you tell about what it’s like in your shoes and believe you even when it doesn’t match my experiences.

To show empathy, then, we must learn to listen carefully, understand what was said, and withhold judgment. The last point can prove difficult, even discomforting, when our own experience does not jibe with the speaker’s.