We’ve all been there. You’ve gathered your students into the classroom meeting area, nice and cozy, with the intention of doing just a quick l’il minilesson. Just a quick tip about writing and off they go, right? Maybe just a quick little demonstration? With a tiny bit of practice? Oh, and a chart… you’ll need to make a chart so that they remember the lesson, right? Oh, and maybe remind them about all the other strategies they already know? And don’t forget about their goals. Definitely remind them about their writing goals…and their writing partners…and to push themselves to write long and strong…and to use everything they know about punctuation…and spelling…and…and…and…
Next thing you know, twenty minutes have passed, and you still haven’t even got to your main teaching point, and there’s barely time for your kids to do any actual writing before they have to line up for lunch. Trust me, we’ve all been there.
If you are familiar with the Units of Study for Opinion, Information, and Narrative Writing for K-8 (Lucy Calkins et al 2013, 2014), then of course you are familiar with minilessons. But just in case you aren’t familiar, I’m referring to a particular kind of lesson structure designed to minimize whole class instruction and maximize time for independent work, conferring and small group work. There are usually four parts to the architecture of a basic minilesson:
1) a quick connection to something familiar to your students
2) a brief demonstration
3) a chance for kids to be actively engaged in trying out the work
4) and a link to ongoing student work and personal goals
This basic architecture keeps things nice and organized, grounded in research about how children learn, and efficient. The less time we spend in whole class instruction, the more time we have for individualized instruction via small groups and one-one conferences. By the way, conferring, Lucy Calkins and other experts will tell you, is the heart of a true writing workshop.
But how to keep those minilessons mini, but still strong enough for kids to understand and remember (and possibly even enjoy)? Here are my top ten bits of advice, gleaned from a decade of traveling around the country teaching reading and writing workshop:
10. State the teaching point VERY clearly. Try saying, “Today I will teach you how to ________________.” With a clear teaching point, everything else falls right into place. Don’t keep the teaching point a secret! If you aren’t used to it, saying these words out loud as part of your lesson can feel a bit canned, uncomfortable, even. But trust me. If your minilessons tend to be maxilessons, making this one small change might work magic for you–and you can always develop your own way of saying this once you get the hang of stating your teaching point clearly every time.
9. Your demonstration should clearly model the teaching point that you named. Try saying, “Watch how I ________,” before you start modeling. You don’t want kids noticing your new nail polish color instead of the strategy you wanted to teach (I am speaking from experience, here). It helps a bunch to just explicitly say what you’re modeling. No guessing games, please!
8. Be consistent about NOT indulging children’s questions and comments during your minilesson. Remind children that the minilesson will be brief and they will have their chance to talk to you in just a few minutes after the lesson (and of course make sure you stay true to your word). If you’re like me, not calling on kids is a challenge. Little Suzy has her hand up… and won’t put it down until you call on her. It’s so tempting to call on her… just this one time, right? But trust me, if you do, you’ll have three hands up during your lesson tomorrow, then six the next day, and then you might as well just cancel your minilesson because, trust me, the kids aren’t listening to you anyway when their hands are up in the air. Often at the end of my minilessons, I invite kids to stay at the meeting area if they still have burning questions.
7. A little repetition is a good thing. Naming the teaching point multiple times is good. Planning three demonstrations is not so good. Try to plan minilessons that your children will be able to understand after one demo, and one active engagement. If, while teaching, it seems too difficult, pull small groups later during the workshop, or revise the minilesson to make it more effective and try again another day. Keeping your kids at the meeting area for a half hour because “they just aren’t getting it” probably isn’t the best way to go.
6. The active engagement should involve the kids in trying the actual strategy you taught that day. This might mean that they actually write something, or help you write something, or say it aloud to a partner. Circulate during this time and coach the kids – if they aren’t doing what you asked, stop them and ask them to try again! Watching an adult do the work, or talking about what they saw isn’t the same as actually trying it.
5. Be expressive while you teach. Don’t rush through just to make it “mini,” but don’t drag it on forever either. Use a dramatic voice, gestures, and try to have fun! There, I said it. It’s okay to have fun while you teach!
4. Constantly ask yourself, “Do my kids really need this lesson right now?” Watch them while you teach – is it obvious from looking at their previous writing, or previous lessons they will understand today’s lesson before you’ve even gotten to the active engagement?” Well, get them off the carpet so they can go write!
3. Ask yourself, and be honest, is this really a strategy that kids can use every time, in almost any piece of writing? (Ahem. Overly specific graphic organizer?) If they cannot use it over and over, on their own, for any piece of writing, then what you are probably doing is giving an assignment, NOT teaching a writing workshop minilesson….just sayin’.
2. My friend Shanna Schwartz long ago taught me the cardinal principles of management: 1)Reasonable expectations 2)Teach, don’t tell, 3)Put yourself out of a job, 4)Consistency, 5) Walk the walk. Be the best student in your own classroom. Wiser words were never spoken, in the classroom and in life. And strong management is one of the most important things you can do to help keep your minilessons from turning into maxilessons.
1. Lastly, nobody wants their minilessons to be forgettable. Use visuals, like charts to help your kids remember what you’ve taught them. Try giving kids special “tools” to remind them of the really important things that they tend to forget. Use color, pictures, images. Act things out, use kids’ writing as examples, display the examples after the lesson. Use stories from your own life, metaphors and images to help kids remember, make a game of the strategy when you can… do anything and everything you can to help kids retain what you’ve taught. But don’t try to do it all in one lesson!
Literacy Coach, Consultant, Author, Graduate Course Instructor, and Mom. Passionate about fostering a love of reading and writing in learners of all ages.