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.

10 Lessons for Teaching Media Literacy
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In our media-saturated world, students need to analyze the messages they receive. Previously, editors stood sentry over most messages communicated to the public, sorting fact from opinion from nonsense.

No longer. The Internet in general and social media in particular have democratized the production and distribution of information. This change broadens freedom of expression, but with new freedom comes new responsibility. Without editors to sort information, students need to learn these skills for themselves.

Sadly, they do not seem to be. A recent study from Stanford University found that 70 percent of students from grade school through college cannot distinguish fake news from real news.

How can we help our students gain the media-literacy skills they need to sort information?

Analyzing Media

We can start by teaching skills for questioning media messages. These two minilessons can help:

  • Analyzing Point of View in Media: All media messages have a sender—the person or organization that originated the content as well as anyone who is distributing it. That means that every message represents the point of view of a person or group of people. This minilesson will help students think about point of view.
  • Detecting Media Bias: Sometimes the point of view of the sender makes for a biased message: It does not provide a balanced view of the topic. This minilesson will help students detect media bias.
Computer Hand Icons are like Fish gathering to Click a Bait
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“Truth, crushed to earth, shall rise again,” William Cullen Bryant exclaimed in his Civil War-era poem, “The Battlefield.” Nearly two centuries later, it feels like truth is yet again fighting an uphill battle.

We live at a time when the Oxford Dictionary chooses post-truth as its word of the year. Misleading news stories litter our social-media feeds, and we struggle to distinguish credible sources from bogus ones. This swirl of misinformation fuels distrust of accurate news and enhances our own biases.

If truth truly is to rise again, we need to equip our students (and ourselves) with media-literacy strategies for separating fact from fiction, real news from fake news. We also need to encourage students to speak up when they encounter shady stories to prevent their spread.

The strategies in this post can help our students spot and stop fake news.

Debunking Myths About Student Writers

We feel strongly that certain myths about writing must be dispelled to allow genuine learning to take place. This post identifies and counters eight of the most common myths about writing in middle school. In truth, the myths extend to writing in elementary school, high school, and beyond.

Myth 1: Students need a textbook.

Textbooks by their very nature are prescriptive. That is, they are designed so that a language arts curriculum is essentially built around them. As you know, textbook series are accompanied by volumes of supplementary materials that essentially tie teachers and students into the “system” more than they help students develop as independent thinkers and writers.

We believe that students must have a chance to develop their own ideas, to think and write for themselves. Teachers and students—with the aid of a few references (see below)—should help each other develop and refine their ideas in writing. This makes for meaningful learning.

Essential writing references: Internet access, a collection of writing models, a library of reading materials, and a writing handbook.

Myth 2: Students dislike writing.

Students don’t necessarily dislike writing; they just dislike writing about subjects that have little meaning to them. Students learn to enjoy writing when they develop their own ideas. This doesn’t mean that teachers should forgo assigning compositions. It simply means that writing assignments should have enough breadth and scope to allow students to select specific topics that interest them

In addition, students will learn to enjoy writing if they are encouraged to write freely about their own experience. Young learners love to write about themselves in journals, social posts, blogs, narratives, and personal essays. And of course, many students enjoy creative forms of writing—stories, plays, poems—as well.

Persuasive Writing Prompts
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Whether you are working on a persuasive unit or preparing your students for assessment, these writing prompts can serve as a starting point for building persuasive (argument) essays. Encourage students to use the PAST strategy to analyze the prompts.

Beginning Persuasive Prompts (Grades 4–5)

Share these prompts with students who are beginning to write essays.

1. What Season Is Best?

Some people love hot summers at the beach or pool. Others love cold winters with sleds and snowmen. Maybe you like crackling fall leaves or tender spring flowers. Write an essay that names your favorite season and gives reasons why it is best.

2. My Pet of Choice

If you could have any pet, what pet would you choose? Dog? Cat? Snake? Tarantula? Write a letter to your parent or guardian naming the pet you would most like to have and giving reasons why you should get to have this pet.

3. Time for a Vacation

What vacation would you like most? Hiking in a state park? Visiting Grandma? Going to an amusement park? Write an essay to your parent or guardian naming what would be a perfect vacation and giving reasons you would like to take it.

Explanatory Writing Prompts
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When you want your students to practice explanatory writing, present them with one or more of the following prompts, grouped by difficulty. You can also introduce students to the PAST strategy to help them understand what each explanatory prompt is asking them to do.

Beginning Explanatory Prompts (Grades 4–5)

The following explanatory prompts are meant for students who are moving from paragraph writing to essay writing. 

1. Defining Friendship

Everyone needs friends. What qualities make someone a good friend? How can you be a friend for someone who needs one? Write an essay that explains ways to be a good friend.

2. A Job for Me

People do all kinds of jobs. Some people build. Others serve. Some teach. Others sell. Some people work on ships at sea, and others in skyscrapers in cities. What kind of job would you like to do? As a future worker, write an essay that names a job you would like, describes the work, and tells why you would like it.

3. An Admirable Person

We all have people we admire. They might be family members or friends. They might be singers, dancers, or actors. They might even be fictional characters. Whom do you admire most? Write an essay that names a person you admire and describes the qualities that make you like the person.

Student sharing writing with a teacher
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Writing assessment doesn't exactly have a warm and fuzzy reputation. You probably labor for hours through stacks of essays, marking and grading and wondering if you are "doing it right." Your students meanwhile anxiously wait to see how much red ink their essays will be "bleeding."

Such feelings don’t have to define your writing classroom. You can apply a few simple dos and don'ts to develop a classroom culture that views writing assessment with a growth mindset.

DO set expectations.

Effective writing assessment begins with clear expectations. Students need to know what strong writing looks like and how their writing will be assessed. To set expectations, introduce your students to the traits of effective writing. With younger students, you can use a simplified version of the traits called the qualities of writing.

Imagine trying to build a two-story tenement building on a one-story community-theater stage—all on a tight budget in two weeks. That's a problem a friend and I recently faced. First we planned our work: I designed a structure with shortened stories, and my friend turned my pencil sketches into 3D CAD drawings. Then we worked our plan, framing walls and floors, removing low-hanging lights, and installing pool noodles around rafters to keep actors from hitting their heads.

When we finished, the director was thrilled. The show even had a couple linebackers singing songs from the second-story windows. That's the power of problem solving.

Did you notice the dynamic between my friend and me? I love to think creatively, and he loves to think analytically. I came up with the broad strokes of the design, and he made sure all the details worked. Left alone, I would have come up with a grand vision and been unable to bring it to life. Left alone, my friend would not have known where to begin.

Critical and creative thinking have to work together to solve problems.

Illustration of an artist
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None other than John Dewey, one of the most influential voices in the history of modern education, suggested that art should be the center of education, rather than a “nice embellishment.” Why did Dewey place so much value on the discipline of art? And why did he feel that the artistic process is so essential to learning?

In Mind Matters: Teaching for Thinking, authors Dan Kirby and Carol Kuykendall answer these questions. They explain that developing a piece of art requires close observation, attention to detail, sensitivity to pattern and form, and selectivity. In addition, the authors refer to an artist’s unique ability to get up close to his or her work, of opening up the senses, and of doing and undoing elements, time and time again.

One Artist’s Process

An artist named Judy Sebranek knows all about this process. She says getting started on a piece of art “involves all my senses, moving my muscles, sorting through gobs of visual material, and drawing on my experiences.”  Eventually she asks herself, “‘What do I want to express?’ If I figure that out, then the detailed work begins.” Here is a more thorough explanation of her process:

Teacher showing paper to teenage girl during examination in classroom
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Why do the new standards place so much emphasis on multi-paragraph writing? Because multi-paragraph writing helps students develop fluency in building arguments, explaining ideas, and telling stories—thinking skills they need for college and career.

Yet we often struggle to get more than a paragraph at a time out of our students. A recent study found that fewer than 1 in 10 writing assignments in urban middle schools produce multi-paragraph responses, and just 16 percent include evidence drawn from sources. The middle school assessments for the Common Core require this rigor, but how can we create a writing program that fosters this kind of writing and thinking?

Step 1: Make Time for Writing

Make Time for Writing

The first barrier to rigor in writing instruction is time. Multi-paragraph writing requires time. Students can't write at length and think deeply if they write for only five minutes at a time. Just as we have traditionally carved out time for reading, we must also do so for writing.

Writing is like weight lifting. The only way to build writing muscles is to do it routinely and purposefully. The very act of crafting words develops thinking skills. And just as every weight lifter is consciously working to get stronger, every writer should be consciously writing to get smarter.

Illustration of student with pen in ear
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With the new school year beginning, make it your goal to help your student writers accomplish and/or experience the following things.

We’d like students to . . .

  • Establish a regular writing routine to develop their writing fluency.
  • Know that improvement is a certainty if they make a sincere effort.
  • Feel good about writing because it gives them an opportunity to explore and shape their own thinking.
  • Understand the value of pushing their thinking to the brink of confusion, if need be, to form their best ideas.
  • Write about topics that truly interest them.
  • Participate in a writing workshop with students and teachers writing and learning together.
  • Interact comfortably with one another about their writing.

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