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.

Boy writing while holding a mirror
© Thoughtful Learning

“The narrative is the first story, the primal story, from which all others come. It is your story.” These thoughts by writer John Rouse speak clearly to the importance of narrative writing. I share them because I, too, feel that narrative writing is a valuable or, dare I say, the most important element in an effective writing program.

Gathering New Words

Words are power. Until you have a word for something, you can't think effectively about it. That's why every discipline has its own specialized vocabulary and why people who study the discipline must learn the vocabulary in order to be conversant.

So, vocabulary-building is as crucial in high school, college, and career as it was when students were first learning to read and write. It helps native speakers and English language learners, alike. You can use any (or all) of these creative word activities to help your students expand their vocabularies and their minds.

Check Writing Assumptions

When we teach writing, our pedagogy includes many built-in assumptions. For example, if we adopt a workshop approach, we make assumptions about choice, collaboration, drafting, conferencing, standards-correlations, student accountability, and so on. Checking those assumptions can help us improve our writing instruction.

A few simple questions can reveal the assumptions in a writing assignment:

Teaching Creativity
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"Imagination is more important than knowledge."

—Albert Einstein

Who needs creative thinking?

Novelists, artists, actors, and composers need to think creatively—sure. But how about rocket scientists? How about Albert Einstein? Absolutely. Everyone needs creative thinking. It works in tandem with critical thinking to allow you to navigate your daily life.

National Novel Writing Month
Image courtesy of National Novel Writing Month.

Since its inception in 1999, the National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) has inspired hundreds of thousands of people to become novelists. Participants sign up at the nonprofit NaNoWriMo.org and track their progress toward writing a 50,000 word novel during November. The organization offers many supports, including encouragement from published novelists.

Since Thoughtful Learning has its own published novelist on staff (J. Robert King), we asked him to offer his advice to aspiring writers.

Creative Writing
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How can we help our students develop writing skills? We can take the rigorous approach, teaching the writing process, academic modes, and integrated grammar. We can also use the creative approach, engaging students' imagination and artistic expression through stories and poems. Unfortunately, the demands of standards-based testing are pushing the creative approach out of many ELA classrooms. Let's not let that happen in ours. Students profit when we make time for both types of instruction, since each approach benefits the other.

10 Lessons for Teaching Media Literacy
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In our media-saturated world, students need to analyze the messages they receive. Previously, editors stood sentry over most messages communicated to the public, sorting fact from opinion from nonsense.

No longer. The Internet in general and social media in particular have democratized the production and distribution of information. This change broadens freedom of expression, but with new freedom comes new responsibility. Without editors to sort information, students need to learn these skills for themselves.

Sadly, they do not seem to be. A recent study from Stanford University found that 70 percent of students from grade school through college cannot distinguish fake news from real news.

How can we help our students gain the media-literacy skills they need to sort information?

Analyzing Media

We can start by teaching skills for questioning media messages. These two minilessons can help:

  • Analyzing Point of View in Media: All media messages have a sender—the person or organization that originated the content as well as anyone who is distributing it. That means that every message represents the point of view of a person or group of people. This minilesson will help students think about point of view.
  • Detecting Media Bias: Sometimes the point of view of the sender makes for a biased message: It does not provide a balanced view of the topic. This minilesson will help students detect media bias.
Computer Hand Icons are like Fish gathering to Click a Bait
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“Truth, crushed to earth, shall rise again,” William Cullen Bryant exclaimed in his Civil War-era poem, “The Battlefield.” Nearly two centuries later, it feels like truth is yet again fighting an uphill battle.

We live at a time when the Oxford Dictionary chooses post-truth as its word of the year. Misleading news stories litter our social-media feeds, and we struggle to distinguish credible sources from bogus ones. This swirl of misinformation fuels distrust of accurate news and enhances our own biases.

If truth truly is to rise again, we need to equip our students (and ourselves) with media-literacy strategies for separating fact from fiction, real news from fake news. We also need to encourage students to speak up when they encounter shady stories to prevent their spread.

The strategies in this post can help our students spot and stop fake news.

Debunking Myths About Student Writers

We feel strongly that certain myths about writing must be dispelled to allow genuine learning to take place. This post identifies and counters eight of the most common myths about writing in middle school. In truth, the myths extend to writing in elementary school, high school, and beyond.

Myth 1: Students need a textbook.

Textbooks by their very nature are prescriptive. That is, they are designed so that a language arts curriculum is essentially built around them. As you know, textbook series are accompanied by volumes of supplementary materials that essentially tie teachers and students into the “system” more than they help students develop as independent thinkers and writers.

We believe that students must have a chance to develop their own ideas, to think and write for themselves. Teachers and students—with the aid of a few references (see below)—should help each other develop and refine their ideas in writing. This makes for meaningful learning.

Essential writing references: Internet access, a collection of writing models, a library of reading materials, and a writing handbook.

Myth 2: Students dislike writing.

Students don’t necessarily dislike writing; they just dislike writing about subjects that have little meaning to them. Students learn to enjoy writing when they develop their own ideas. This doesn’t mean that teachers should forgo assigning compositions. It simply means that writing assignments should have enough breadth and scope to allow students to select specific topics that interest them

In addition, students will learn to enjoy writing if they are encouraged to write freely about their own experience. Young learners love to write about themselves in journals, social posts, blogs, narratives, and personal essays. And of course, many students enjoy creative forms of writing—stories, plays, poems—as well.

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