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.

Cats dropped upside down land on their feet. How? It’s not magic. They go through a process.

The cat first realizes it is falling upside down.

It then spins its tail to turn its head and front legs toward the ground.

It continues to spin its tail to counteract the spin of its back legs.

Its feet extend, and its back arches to serve as shock absorbers.

Its legs and back absorb the impact.

Image from Agence Nature/Science Source

Don’t try this at home. (Afterward, the cat usually scratches the person who dropped it and never will love that person again.)

Successful adults act pretty much the same way. Constantly dropped upside down, they land on their feet (and dislike those who dropped them). How do adults do it? It’s not magic. They use the problem-solving process, which is just as effective and undignified as the falling-cat process—and just as likely not to be taught in schools.

To help your students prepare for “adulting,” teach them the problem-solving process.

While most people spend August sipping sun tea and binge-watching Stranger Things, teachers spend it kicking off the new school year. So. Much. To. Do. We have to set up our classrooms on newly shined floors, decorate our boards, deploy our reading materials, get the printer and laminator dancing like a pair of tango champions. . . . If only there were free online lesson plans to teach student-centered writing!

There are.

If you complement your reading program with one of the writing handbooks from Thoughtful Learning, you have a free online Teacher’s Guide that gathers and organizes your resources, all in one place! Relieve a little stress. Find what you need. Seriously, this three-minute video is better than yoga for teachers in August:

How to Nurture a Writing Mindset
Thoughtful Learning

Mindset plays a pivotal role in learning. Students who approach writing with confidence and enthusiasm are much more likely to persist through challenges than students who feel fearful and discouraged by it. Unfortunately, the latter category includes many students in our classrooms.

This year, let's nurture a positive mindset toward writing. But what classroom practices will help, and how can we measure progress?

Empowering Writers

To nurture a positive writing mindset in our students, we can incorporate some best practices into our classrooms.

  • Invite students to write about topics of personal interest.
  • Build choice into writing assignments.
  • Immerse students in examples of good writing.
  • Model effective reading and writing strategies.
  • Balance freedom and structure (by teaching the writing process).
  • Use minilessons to teach skills that writers can immediately apply.
  • Focus your feedback on solutions, not problems.
  • Be flexible about grammar and correctness.
  • Make time for reflection.
  • Point students to effective writing resources.

(Learn more about these best practices.)

Surveying Growth

To measure our students’ evolving mindsets, we can use entrance and exit surveys, like the ones that follow.

Writing and Thinking

With so much content to teach, we often focus on getting students to remember, understand, and apply information. That's no small feat! But Bloom's Revised Taxonomy suggests that we help students go deeper—analyzing and evaluating and eventually creating. Sure . . . but how?

Why not visually? For most of us, seeing is believing. When we can visualize abstract concepts and relationships, we gain a greater grasp of them. You can use a ready-made set of graphic organizers, checklists, and other visuals to help your students analyze, evaluate, and create.


When students analyze information, they break it into its parts, examine each part closely, and study how the parts fit together. Engineers and lawyers and medical professionals analyze constantly, so helping students develop this thinking skill can improve their success well beyond your classroom.

You can use these minilessons with downloadable graphic organizers to help students analyze:

Chain Link

And and or may be little, but they are fierce: They connect ideas not only in writing but also in math and logic. For instance, Boolean algebra uses and and or to determine the logical relations of compound propositions. These little words also make computers work. Because of and and or, you can send an email, share a selfie, like a meme, and access your bank account.

In fact, recent studies suggest that we should do more to directly teach these and other conjunctions. If developing writers can't use them effectively, they will struggle to formulate and express ideas. And readers need help with connectors, too.

And, or, but, nor, for, yet, and so can empower writing in many ways:

  • Connecting two or more words, phrases, or clauses
  • Combining choppy sentences to create a smoother flow
  • Elaborating simple sentences and ideas
  • Expressing relationships between concepts
  • Fixing comma splices and run-ons
  • Signaling comparisons, contrasts, causes, and effects
  • Creating cohesion
  • Creating surprise

The following minilessons help students understand and use these little but fierce words.

8 Best Practices for Mentoring Young Writers
Thoughtful Learning

“There are moments as a teacher when I'm conscious that I'm trotting out the same exact phrase my professor used with me years ago. It's an eerie feeling, as if my old mentor is not just in the room, but in my shoes, using me as his mouthpiece.”

—Abraham Verghese

Who was your mentor? Who first helped you see yourself as a teacher? As a writer?

Every day in class, you have the chance to be that person for someone else. Every time you respond to students' writing, you help them build confidence and competency, help them self-identify as writers. What's more, regular feedback drives revision, a crucial practice that beginning writers tend to misunderstand or ignore.

Of course, the awesome pedagogical value of individual feedback also poses an awesome teaching challenge. How can you ensure your responses to student writing are frequent, effective, and efficient? The eight best practices that follow will help you meet the challenge.

Teaching Teenagers
Chris Krenzke/Thoughtful Learning

It takes a special soul to want to teach teenagers. How often have you heard, "I'd never want to teach middle school!"?

I personally love that age. Teenagers haven't yet figured out who they are, so if I can teach them something that empowers them, they grab onto it and transform before my very eyes. They are so full of energy and potential that, given a meaningful direction, they will launch themselves toward a goal or endeavor.

Of course, without a meaningful direction, teenagers can also explode on the launchpad.

8 Ways to Empower Reluctant Writers
Thoughtful Learning

To develop as writers, students need to identify as writers. Instead, many students feel reluctant to write and discouraged by language in general. How can we engage such students, and how can we boost their confidence and belief as writers? This post explores eight teaching strategies for shifting the mindset of reluctant writers.

1. Make a personal connection.

Reluctant writers often feel like outsiders in writing classrooms. To create a welcoming environment, we need to show students that their presence is valued. Simply greeting students by name or asking how their day is going can go a long way to establishing trust. So can identifying and engaging with students’ interests outside of school. For instance, if a student is reading a Field & Stream magazine, we can ask about favorite experiences in nature and share our own. These seemingly small social connections establish bonds that make students more comfortable sharing ideas with us in writing.

16 Writing Prompts for Inspiring Inquiry
Thoughtful Learning

What habits of mind lead to good writing? The National Council of Teachers of English teamed up with the National Writing Project to identify eight mindful habits that produce exceptional writing in school and beyond. In this post, we introduce the habits and share writing prompts that invite students to use them . . . and have some fun along the way.

1. Curiosity

Curiosity is the desire to know more about the world. (Get these prompts in a Google doc.)

Mysteries Next Door

The poet Oscar Wilde said, “The true mystery of the world is the visible, not the invisible.” Take a walk through your neighborhood and closely observe your surroundings. What buildings, businesses, landmarks, or artifacts are mysterious? Pick a mystery and investigate it. “What is that? What goes on there? What function does it serve? Why is it part of my community?” Then write a short report that reveals the amazing mysteries you have discovered.

Multimedia alternative: Create a tourism flyer or video about the topic.

Back to the Beginning

Watch this video about the origin of popsicles. Then write "Foods," "Activities," and "Clothes" on a piece of paper and list favorite examples of each. Choose one example and research its origins. Answer the 5 W’s and H: “Who invented it? What did it first look like? When was it invented? Where was it invented? Why was it invented? How was it invented?” Create an essay that explains its origins.

Narrative alternative: From the perspective of one or more people involved, create a historical narrative about the item’s origins.

2. Openness

Openness is the willingness to consider new ways of being and thinking in the world. (Get these prompts in a Google doc.)

The Other Side of the Coin

Review the controversies at Choose a controversy, state your opinion about it, and list three reasons that support your opinion. Now state an opposing opinion and list three reasons that support it. Write a brief essay arguing for this opposing view, including strong reasons and refuting one of the reasons you initially stated for your own view. Did you rethink your original position? Do you better understand the opposition's view?

Speaking alternative: Create a speech in support of the opposing point of view.

Feeling Like a Stranger

When have you been an outsider (the only girl or boy, a new kid in school, the only young person in a room full of adults)? How did the experience make you feel? Now imagine being someone from a different background in a setting where you are an insider. Write an essay that shares the experience of being an outsider and discusses ways that outsiders can become insiders.

Visual alternative: Create a poster with strategies for making your classroom or school more inclusive of diverse ideas, cultures, and perspectives.

3. Engagement

Engagement is investment and involvement in learning. (Get these prompts in a Google doc.)

Moment in History

Interview an older person about a significant moment from the past. Take careful notes and then (1) write a narrative about the event from the person's perspective or (2) write a nonfiction article titled “What You Should Know About [Event] from Someone Who Lived It.” Research your topic to fill in any missing information.

Multimedia alternative: Create a slideshow presentation using photos from the person's life and providing narration of events.

What’s More Important?

"Imagination is more important than knowledge." —Albert Einstein

How can this quotation be true? As a child, you spent much time immersed in imagination, but now you've spent many years pursuing knowledge. What's the relationship between imagination and knowledge? Write an essay that defines each term and tells how they relate. Explain Einstein's position but then state your own position, supporting it with reasons and evidence.

Visual alternative: Create a poster that represents the relationship between imagination and knowledge.

4. Creativity