Minilessons: It’s All About the Link

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It’s the beginning of the school year, so I’ve been doing a lot of minilesson plans these days. Last week, I wrote a post about all kinds of minilessons, and the week before that I wrote about how to plan a minilesson from scratch.

In case you missed those, the minilessons in the Units of Study for Teaching Opinion, Informational, and Narrative Writing (by Lucy Calkins and Colleagues) usually have four main parts to them:

Connection: Remind kids of something familiar. 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. Be explicit and direct in naming it.

Demo: Demonstrate the teaching point with one very clear example. Use your own writing, 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 child tries the strategy. Invite them to try something quick and small. Just a sample. 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.

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Usually, it’s the demonstration and the active engagement parts that get all the attention. Those are the parts, after all, where you’re really teaching the new strategy to the kids. But lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about the link. The link is that last little part of the minilesson, usually just a few sentences, that links today’s teaching to kids’ ongoing work as writers.

I’ve definitely been guilty of just tossing a sentence or two on to the end of my minilesson, just to make it complete. But the link is the part of the minilesson that can make the difference between simply giving out writing assignments each day, or teaching a writing workshop where kids are independent, strategic decision makers.

The language you use as you send kids off to work on their own writing lets kids know what you really expect them to do. The link in a minilesson serves a number of purposes:

  • names the strategy you just taught (when kids have a name for it, they can talk about it with you and others)
  • lets kids know when and why to use the strategy
  • reminds kids of all the other strategies they also know
  • invites kids to make choices of which strategies to use
  • asks kids to make a plan for their own writing

Some food for thought:

What Not To Say (if you are trying to foster independence and problem solving) What You Might Say Instead (to foster choice, decision making, and building a repertoire of strategies)
“Today I want you all to _________________.” “One thing you could always try is ________________.”
“Today you have to ___________________.” “Now you know many strategies you might try. You might try __________________ or _______________________ or ______________________.”
“When you get back to your seats, you need to _________________________.” “Whenever you are stuck for ideas, or you’re not sure what to do, you can look at the charts from our minilessons to get ideas. Otherwise keep writing!”

The link is my chance to make it very clear to kids that have lots of choices as writers. They can be problem solvers. This is much higher level thinking than simply telling my kids what they must do each day.

Usually my minilesson is just one of many choices available to kids. If we’re in a personal narrative unit, the only real “assignment” is that every kid is working on writing the best personal narrative they can. Other than that, it really doesn’t matter how they get there, or which strategies they choose to use or not. Often I say this to kids explicitly in the link.

Of course, when I confer with kids, or when I meet with small groups, then I can check in on which strategies each child is actually using and guide them toward choosing the strategies that will help them the most.

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Here are a couple of examples of links that offer up choices and encourage kids to be independent writers and problem solvers:

A link where I name my expectations that kids will make their own choices:

“Writers, the only assignment you must do today is to write the best small moments you can in your notebooks (or your folders). It’s up to you to decide which strategies to use. You can use today’s minilesson to help you, but you can also use all the minilessons that I’ve taught you. Take a look at this chart that we’ve been adding on to all week. These are all choices you can make whenever you are looking for ways to make your writing even stronger.”

A link where I invite kids to make plans for their own writing:

“Writers, today and every day, you can always use the strategy I just taught you to make your writing even stronger. You also know all these other strategies as well (point to chart that lists other familiar strategies). Right now, pick two or three strategies you know you will probably try today. Thumbs up when you’ve made a plan for your work today. Now turn and tell your partner your plan. (I listen in to several partners talking). I heard lots of different plans for today’s writing! Excellent. Off you go.”

It’s all about the link. Make sure your minilessons link to ongoing work. Link to making choices. Link to all the other minilessons. Link to the charts and resources in the room. Most of all link your minilesson always to problem solving and independence.