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.

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.

Abstract illustration of high school writer

Teachers often ask us, “How do I motivate my students to write?” One solution is to create engaging prompts.

What makes a writing prompt engaging?

The best prompts are clear and relevant. If the topic or task is not relevant to students, they will be less motivated to persist through the steps of the writing process and do their best work.

As an example, suppose your class is working on a persuasive writing unit. Consider the following prompts. Which is most effective? Why?

Two students discuss a piece of writing. One points to it. The other has a question bubble above head.

Do your reading discussions ever feel a little stale? Are the same talkative students the only ones responding? Are you doing most of the talking?

Thankfully, whole-class discussion is not the only way students can converse about reading.

When your class gets in a discussion rut, have students work on text rendering.

What is text rendering?

Text rendering is the practice of picking out, sharing, and reacting to a short section from a reading. At a basic level, the process asks students to do the following:

As you prepare to teach grammar this year, focus on fundamental questions: What do my students know? What do I want them to know? How can I help them learn?

At the start of the school year, you may have a decent understanding of the last two questions. But what your students already know about grammar—that can feel like a mystery.

Rather than making assumptions, why not give a grammar pretest?

Our students, ever the digital natives, are awash in images. They scroll through them—scrutinizing, liking, and commenting. They capture, share, and meme-ify them. They create their own images and even break news with them.

As writing teachers, we can tap into this energy for imagery by inviting students to incorporate visuals in their writing and storytelling. But when we do so, we should also teach how to use images ethically and effectively. Captions can help.

To become a better writer, volume and frequency matter. According to literacy experts, students are not getting enough of either.

The teachers we talk to agree. They want their students to write more, but they question the logistics. They wonder, “How can I carve out the time? How can I create motivation? What will I do about reluctant writers? What will I do about feedback? Do you really expect me to grade even more writing? Again, where is the time?”

These high-stakes concerns have a low-stakes solution: daily freewriting. No matter what subject you teach, having students freewrite in class for 10-15 minutes every day builds important writing skills, creates community, and deepens learning.

Eyes on Editing

My freshmen recently turned in a lengthy inquiry project. They had been working on it for weeks, and it was thrilling to see their research and writing take its final form. I was particularly excited to review one student’s exploration of a historic neighborhood. And indeed her work was engaging, insightful, and well-researched.

There was an issue, though. The project included erratic capitalization and numerous misspelled words. Reflecting on this, I realize I should have done a better job of preparing her and the rest of the class to edit their final drafts.

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