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.

Teacher showing paper to teenage girl during examination in classroom
Tyler Olson/

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

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, Katlin, 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.

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/

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/

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.


In this featured lesson plan, Writers Express author and former elementary teacher Ruth Nathan shares a fun way to wrap up a biographical writing unit.

Putting Biographical Knowledge to Work:
“Dates with the Greats” Interview Party

After your students write reports about important people, give them another opportunity to put their knowledge to work! Explain that your class is going to have a “Dates with the Greats” interview party. During this party, students will play the roles of the special people they have written about and will answer interview questions.

Prepare the Party

Ask students to review their biographical writing, individually or with a friend, and jot down questions visitors might ask about their characters. (These questions are simply to have on hand in case the interviewers have trouble asking questions.)

38 Ways Students Can Create Digital Content

Our students spend a lot of time using screen media but not much time creating digital content. According to Common Sense Media, teens spend only three percent of their time creating new things. With an average of 9 hours a day spent consuming media, teens could accomplish great things if they devoted a larger slice of their digital time to making stuff.

We can encourage our students to become content creators by exposing them to opportunities to write, record, film, build, design, and code using digital media.

Here are 38 ways your students can use screen media to create content. Each idea can be integrated into a classroom lesson, used as a stand-alone project, or featured during genius hour. Inspire your students to . . .

Celebrating Black History

Inspire your students to explore black history and culture through writing. Present any of these engaging writing prompts in your middle school or high school classroom during Black History Month or beyond. Each activity requires students to inquire about the people, places, events, and issues that have shaped African-American history.

Writing a Historical Dialogue

Mae Jemison

Ask your students to imagine what a conversation would be like between them and a significant African-American contributor to social studies, science, math, or English. What would they ask? What would they want to know?

Present them with the following lists of famous figures and encourage them to choose a person they don't know much about. Then have them research the figure and create a dialogue (written conversation) between themselves and the person. The dialogue should discuss important experiences in the person’s life and work.