There Are More Ways Than One To Teach A Minilesson

More Than One Way...

Okay, readers. Last week I wrote a post titled How To Plan A Minilesson From Scratch, and I outlined a very simple way to plan minilessons, based on the work of my wonderful colleagues at the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project. Now, I am going to backtrack a bit and revisit just a teensy weensy bit of what I said. I wrote, “Every minilesson can pretty much go the same way.” And this is absolutely true, most of the time. Except for those times when it’s not true.

Like anything in life, there is not just one way. In addition to the basic architecture I wrote about last week, there may be a zillion variations including but not limited to inquiry minilessons, repertoire minilessons, interactive and shared writing minilessons. There are minilessons that skip the demo and go straight to the active engagement, there are minilessons that intentionally (gasp!) have more than one demonstration and last longer than 10 minutes. The truth is, it’s all about good teaching, and being open to experimenting a bit, while still remembering the number one priority: kids need time to write. There’s a time and a place for various methods, and good teaching matches the methods to the learners, not the other way around.

Here are some of the types of minilessons that you might find in the Units of Study in Opinion, Informational, and Narrative Writing. As you sit down to plan your first unit of the year (or to revise your plans if you’ve already begun), maybe you’ll be inspired to consider some of these alternative minilesson structures to meet the needs of your students.

BASIC MINILESSON ARCHITECTURE (for more on this see last week’s post).

Connection: Remind kids of something familiar. Perhaps remind kids of some prior knowledge, or a story from your classroom, or an anecdote from your own personal life that will connect to today’s teaching point.

Name the Teaching Point: Tell the kids exactly what strategy you are going to teach them today. Don’t be mysterious. Don’t make them guess. Be explicit and direct. Just tell them!

Demo: Demonstrate the teaching point with one very clear example. Use your own writing, or a piece of student work, a class story, or a published mentor text. Act out all the steps of your teaching point, do some actual writing on paper, and think aloud as you do it.

Active Engagement: Make sure every kid tries the strategy before you end your lesson. Invite them to try something quick and small. Just a sample is enough. Plan that this will take no more than one or two minutes.

Link: This is where you make it very clear to kids what the choices are for their ongoing work. Today’s teaching point is now just one of the many strategies they can choose from. Often, you’ll add today’s minilesson teaching point onto a chart, so that kids won’t forget it come tomorrow.

INQUIRY MINILESSON

Connection: (see above)

Name the Inquiry Question: Name the question your kids will be thinking about. Be explicit about the question, unless you are inviting kids to come up with their own questions. In that case, the kids should name their questions clearly at this stage of the minilesson. Perhaps you’ll invite students to examine a mentor text, asking, “What does this writer do that I could do in my own writing?” Or for another example, maybe you’ll ask kids to observe two partners at work, thinking, “What do I notice these partners doing that is helpful to each other?”

Inquiry Set-Up: This is where the kids will actually do the inquiry. Plan that it will be short, probably a few minutes is plenty. For example, you might read a page or two of a mentor text, or ask a partnership to have a conversation while the rest of the class looks on. You might model some of your own “noticings”at this point to set the stage. (For a longer, more involved inquiry, the minilesson is probably not the right structure. Maybe your designated read-aloud time, or a separate time set aside for an in-depth inquiry would make more sense.)

Active Engagement: This is where kids might talk to a partner about what they noticed, or jot something down on a post-it, or maybe even try something in their own writing. Just like in a classic minilesson, this should be something brief for kids to try, just a small sample. In in an inquiry, it may help to chart some of the “noticings” to help kids remember the lesson later.

Link: As always, this is where you can make it very clear to kids what the choices are for their ongoing work. In an inquiry, there are usually multiple things that the kids have gleaned from whatever it was they studied, whether it was studying a mentor text, or watching a partnership work together. The list of noticings gets added to the many other strategies they can choose from.

REPERTOIRE MINILESSON

Connection: Remind kids of the last week, or more, of minilessons. Bring out the charts, highlight kids’ work, do everything you can to really recall those lessons. If you’ve got photographs (which is a very smart thing to have for this), use ’em!

Teaching: Demonstrate a short bit of writing in which you use ALL the recent strategies you’ve taught. This way kids can see how to orchestrate a whole repertoire of strategies, not just one in isolation.

Active Engagement: Use a class story, or a sample piece of writing, or have kids try this out in their own writing. This is where they can practice using ALL the recent strategies (obviously this may or may not work for all pieces of writing, depending on what the recent strategies were!)

Link: Remind kids, as always, that each strategy you teach is something they can always choose from, not just on the day it was taught, but every day, for the rest of their lives!

SHARED WRITING OR INTERACTIVE WRITING MINILESSON

Sometimes, particularly in the primary grades, instead of a basic minilesson that names just one clear teaching point, it might be more appropriate to use interactive writing to teach kids how to put multiple strategies together as they write. Teaching kids to write sentences, for example, involves stretching out each word to hear all the sounds, maybe using an alphabet chart or a blends chart to remember how to form the letters, starting with a capital letter, remembering to put a space in between, maybe using the word wall at some point, remembering to write with lower case letters, rereading as you write, and then putting end punctuation at the end. Phew! That’s a lot for a little kid to do! When each of these is taught in isolation in separate minilessons, it’s very clear and explicit and helpful for kids to learn how to do each thing–but there comes a time when it is ALSO really helpful to put it all together and have kids “share the pen” and write a sentence with you as an interactive writing session in place of basic minilesson. For more on shared writing and interactive writing, see a post I wrote here and Betsy’s recent post here.

SOME ADVICE ON WHEN TO CHOOSE EACH TYPE OF MINILESSON:

TYPE OF MINILESSON WHEN DOES IT MAKE SENSE?
Basic Architecture Almost always. The basic architecture is very clear and explicit and engaging. Use this method especially when you want to teach something new that kids don’t already know how to do. Like I said, this is almost every single day of writing workshop!
Inquiry Minilesson At the start of a unit, or at the start of a string of minilessons, inquiry can allow you to informally assess what kids already know about something. Instead of explicitly teaching something new, you’re allowing kids to use what they already know from past experiences as writers. At the end of a string of minilessons, inquiry allows kids to use all that they they’ve learned with a little less scaffolding from you and more independence. Inquiry generally requires a higher level of thinking when it’s successful. Inquiry is also more difficult to pull off successfully, since it’s more unpredictable, and (in my experience) tends to require more time than direct instruction.
Shared Writing or Interactive Writing Minilesson This makes sense to do when you want to show kids how to put together a lot of small strategies. For example, when you’re teaching them to write complete sentences when they’ve been doing a lot of labeling with single words.
Repertoire Minilesson A repertoire minilesson makes sense to do at the end of a bend in the road (i.e. part of a unit), or after you’ve taught a string of minilessons on a topic. For example, perhaps you’ve just taught five minilessons on separate days showing kids different ways to bring characters to life with vivid descriptions, actions, dialogue, thinking, and more. On the sixth day, you might do a repertoire minilesson showing kids how to use all of it in one piece of writing, or how to decide when and when not to use each of the strategies.