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.

Student sharing writing with a teacher
Copyright Thoughtful Learning

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
© Thoughtful Learning

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
Tyler Olson/Shutterstock.com

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
© Thoughtful Learning

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.
Broken Chain
Morrowind/Shutterstock.com

We ask students to develop arguments, problem-solution essays, and literary analyses because we believe they promote higher levels of thinking. However, by making these assignments, we may be restricting their thinking.

Isn’t building an argument, in essence, an exercise in following a formula—making a claim, backing it up, countering the opposition, and so on? Of course, there is thinking going on during the writing, but not the kind that is truly mind-expanding. Instead, the writer focuses on making sure that all of the parts of the argument are stated effectively and arranged in the best way. The same is true with a problem-solution essay. What’s so intellectually stimulating about stating a problem, providing background information, discussing possible solutions, and highlighting the best one? As Thomas Newkirk says in Critical Thinking and Writing: Reclaiming the Essay, “When essays become formulaic, they hinder rather than foster critical thinking.”

Of course, students need to learn how to build academic essays. But really, how many problem-solution essays do students have to write before they get it? The same holds true for building arguments or shaping explanatory essays. In today’s English or composition classes, such essays are often assigned because of state standards and/or to help students prepare for district or state writing tests. But a steady diet of this stuff can be mind-numbing. How much enjoyment and intellectual stimulation do students really get from composing yet another process or comparison essay? It’s like facing a diet of the same things meal after meal. Tuna casserole again?

Summer Reading

At a recent family get-together, a cousin and I were talking about her oldest daughter, Kaitlin, a sophomore-to-be in high school. My cousin mentioned that Katlin had a required reading list for the summer as preparation for Honors English. Frankenstein and Brave New World were two of the titles she mentioned. She then asked me what I thought about the choices. I said that Katlin might be in for a challenging summer. And I left it at that.

Here’s what I really thought: Trying to slog through these novels by herself, in summer no less, may completely frustrate Katlin. Classic literature is best appreciated as a group endeavor, headed by someone who knows his or her literature. By summer’s end, Katlin will have had it up to here with Literature (with a capital L) and, worse yet, the turnoff may affect her feelings about any type of reading, including pleasure reading.

The exchange brought to mind an old blog post entitled  “The Tale of Two Tables” in which the writer, Donalyn Miller, had encountered a high school boy at a bookstore who was ready to buy Kate Chopin’s The Awakening. Miller asked the boy why he wanted to read that particular book. He responded that he had to read four novels from a prescribed list during the summer, and The Awakening was the shortest one of the bunch. He also added that he was going to be tested on his reading in the fall.

Bat Loves the Night
Bat Loves the Night: Read and Wonder by Nicola Davies, Sarah Fox-Davies (Illustrator)

Students in my writing workshops use close reading as a way to learn writing—with no particular directive from the first Common Core Anchor Standard. Through close reading, students analyze the writing style and techniques of their favorite authors. When students discover something that catches their attention, they discuss it with their classmates or write about it in their learning logs.

Here’s how a discussion of the book Bat Loves the Night went during a recent workshop. Notice how the students directed most of the conversation:

Andy: See where she says, “Bat is at home in the darkness/as a fish is in the water”?

Jesus and Kathy: Yeah.

Andy: She is comparing how a fish feels in water to how a bat feels in the darkness.

Kathy: Yeah. I get it.

Andy: Then she explains why: Bats don’t need to see because they can hear where they’re going!

Mrs. Nathan: As I’m listening to you, I’m wondering what you’re learning about writing. Any ideas? Jot down two or three things in your logs; then we’ll talk.

Sample learning log entry (with spelling and punctuation corrections): When she compared the bat to a fish, it worked, so I could do that, too—use comparisons, I mean. She didn’t leave me hanging. I wanted to know why bats don’t NEED to see. Explaining things is important when you write!

Developing Social-Emotional Skills Through Literature
Pavel Kriuchkov/Shutterstock.com

Novels and short stories are filled with emotions. The characters in them experience the ups and downs of the human condition, often in dramatic fashion. And as we read along, we feel things, too—about the characters and ourselves. For these reasons, literature offers a gateway to social-emotional learning (SEL) in your classroom.

Teaching social and emotional skills can improve students’ mental health, reduce anxiety and depression, thwart bullying, and improve academic performance and in-class behavior.

When students analyze the emotions of the characters they are reading about, they not only gain a greater understanding of the text but also a greater understanding of their own feelings.

Asking SEL-based questions at different stages of the reading process can be an effective and time-efficient strategy for building your students' social and emotional intelligence.

The table below compares traditional literature response questions with SEL-based questions for the book Because of Winn-Dixie by Kate DiCamillo.

Open-Education Resources
Maksim Kabakou/Shutterstock.com

You may have noticed a new symbol on some of our resource pages:

Creative Commons License

This is a Creative Commons license. When you see this symbol, you’re free to use, share, and re-purpose the material in your classroom as you see fit. The symbol designates the material as an open-education resource, or OER for short. Open-education resources are part of an emerging content revolution, with the potential for immense impact in the classroom and beyond.

What exactly is OER?

The Hewlett Foundation defines OER as . . .

Teaching, learning, and research resources that reside in the public domain or have been released under an intellectual property license that permits their free use and re-purposing by others. Open educational resources include full courses, course materials, modules, textbooks, streaming videos, tests, software, and any other tools, materials, or techniques used to support access to knowledge.

With OER, you are no longer beholden to static (and sometimes stale) textbook content. Instead, you can adopt, adapt, and share resources to meet your students’ specific needs. Open content can be retained, reused, revised, remixed, and redistributed.

Pages