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 sits and contemplates in front of laptop computer

We love the title Kelly Boswell chose for the opening chapter of her new book Every Kid a Writer. She called it “The Shrug, the Slump, and the Sharpening of Pencils.” The title is a nod to those all-too-common reactions students have when they are asked to write in class.

You have probably witnessed similar scenes in your classroom, as students fiddle in their seats or stare at the ceiling or race for a bathroom pass . . . anything to avoid writing.

Vintage illustration of boy playing football against a turkey

With Thanksgiving approaching, students seem to be bouncing off the walls. Why not tap into that boundless energy with some fun writing activities?

The following activities work especially well for elementary and middle school students. You can adapt them for in-class writing or expand them into larger projects.

1. Origin Stories

"Family traditions reveal what you value enough to repeat, and—if done with love—build warm, happy associations."

—Daniel Willingham

“How come so many houses here are made with red brick? What animals live in Forest Park? How does the old water tower work? What was that abandoned warehouse near the river used for?”

Students in my freshmen composition course are curious about their community. Their surroundings offer a rich tapestry for inquiry, and I want them to dig in and pursue answers. I invite them to do so through a community-based inquiry project that stands in place of a traditional research paper.

David S. Soriano/Creative Commons

Human beings have always been tool users. Fire let us wake little suns; arrowheads gave us talons like eagles; wolfskins sent us out across Ice Age Europe; and language—whether spoken, written, printed, or coded—fueled every innovation since.

Our brains require such tools. After all, those three-pound puddings of nerve and fat in our skulls haven’t changed much since we first fashioned arrowheads. In fact, in her new book, The Extended Mind, Annie Murphy Paul argues that we’re probably already using our brains at near-peak capacity.

Thinking harder is not the answer. Thinking outside the brain is. We need to grab hold of tools beyond our brains in order to think better.

Let’s start with the first thinking tool our ancestors learned to use: the space around us.

Teenage girl writing on loose-leaf paper

Writing in school poses a unique challenge for ELL students. Beyond the obvious hurdle of using a new language, many ELL students come from oral cultures, so their writing experiences in general may be limited. Now inside English-speaking classrooms, they are expected to write up to grade-level standards while using unfamiliar words and grammar.

It should come as no surprise, then, when ELL students are reluctant to write. But you can change that. Through support and scaffolding, you can grow ELL students into capable, confident writers.

“Trust your hunches. They’re usually based on facts filed away just below the conscious level.”

— Dr. Joyce Brothers

That pit in your stomach, that flutter of your heart, that frisson down your spine . . . sometimes your body knows things before your brain does.

More than odd sensations, these signals from our bodies can actually help us and our students to think.

In her new book The Extended Mind, Annie Murphy Paul explores the power of bodily intuition (what psychologists call interoception). She cites numerous studies that prove that the most successful Wall Street traders, the most unflappable Marines, and the most effective students think with their bodies as well as their minds.

Why? Because much of the input from our bodies is processed subconsciously and instantaneously, meaning we often intuitively know something before we consciously do. Tapping into this intuitive sense can make us wiser and more effective.

Paul outlines four techniques that we and our students can use to strengthen this brain-body connection: bodily meditation, affect labeling, intuition journaling, and reappraising.

Middle school student growing an idea garden with "lightbulb"

What motivates students to learn? Researchers tackled this age-old question in a recent meta-analysis of education studies involving nearly 80,000 students. The analysis showed two significant findings. First, teachers hold greater influence than parents in motivating students to learn. Second, students’ motivation to learn depends on meeting three psychological needs: competency, belonging, and autonomy.

As ELA teachers, we know the importance of using classroom practices that support these needs. We also know one of the best ways we can motivate students is through choice. Choice empowers our students through options, giving them a measure of autonomy in their own learning.

One of our favorite ways to foster autonomy is through choice boards.

What are choice boards?

A choice board is a graphic organizer that gives students a range of options for practicing a skill, task, or objective. Students get to choose their own path for learning, picking activities that fit their interests and learning styles. 

To develop new writing skills, students need something to emulate.

You can have students read models of strong writing to explore new genres and prepare to write. But did you know models can also help your students revise?

One of our favorite revision activities comes from Kelly Gallagher’s wonderful book In the Best Interest of Students.

After Gallagher's students have completed a first draft, he presents two model drafts and asks students to pick which one is better.

In your dream classroom, what does a good discussion look like? For the longest time, my dream resembled a scene from Dead Poets Society. I pictured myself facilitating lively conversations about literature, with energized students speaking up, sharing insights, talking through difficult ideas, and working toward new understandings.

In reality, the reading discussions in my English classes were much more muted. Even the best ones were dominated by a few outgoing students and one loud teacher.

I knew I needed to make some changes, beginning with how I perceived a “good” discussion.

I assumed—incorrectly—that a good discussion must be verbal. By doing so, I excluded quiet students and others who wanted to contribute but needed more time to process new information.

With those students in mind, I began offering more opportunities to engage with reading outside of whole-class discussions, including low-stakes writing such as freewriting, journaling, and chat app conversations.

Those opportunities helped, but I saw the most engagement by introducing collective notes.

What Are Collective Notes?

Collective notes are a virtual space for students to respond to course texts and each other. Each week in a shared Google document, you can post a set of discussion questions about assigned readings. Students pick and choose questions to answer on the main document and post comments to each other in the margins.

This live document grows as the year progresses, becoming a crowdsourced library of notes, conversations, and reflections on books, essays, videos, articles, and other class materials.

Students working together

The first weeks of school feel like a whirlwind. Students enter our classrooms full of wonder but also worry: Am I smart enough? Will people accept me? Do I belong here?

You can ease their worries by building a sense of belonging. If students are to learn with confidence, trust their voices and ideas, and build positive relationships, they need to feel that they belong.

Below we’ve outlined some of our favorite activities for helping students feel welcome and wanted.