A Short & Sweet Minilesson Formula
In this post, I’m going to share a handy strategy for planning short and sweet minilessons. But first, a disclaimer.
I have, on several occasions, had the experience of being timed while teaching a minilesson to young children.
“Sure! No problem!” I always say when asked. And then I quietly freak out.
It’s not that teaching a ten minute lesson is so difficult, it’s that folks carrying stopwatches make me nervous!
Years ago it wasn’t uncommon in a few parts of New York City for administrators to walk the halls with stopwatches, checking to see how long the minilessons were taking. Maybe this still goes on in some schools. While this was part of an effort (with good intentions) to lift the level of instruction across whole schools, it isn’t hard to see how this sort of thing lead to negative feelings toward minilessons and workshop teaching in general. To this day mention of stopwatches in a writing workshop gives me anxiety.
Stopwatches, generally speaking, put the emphasis on the number of minutes instead of student engagement, or understanding, or choice, independence, or any number of other important qualities of strong teaching that I might be aiming for.
A much better gauge of how long a minilesson needs to be would be to watch the kids. When they are looking away, distracted, or disengaged, then the minilesson is too long. Unfortunately in my experience, folks with stopwatches were not even looking at the students during my minilessons. It was all about the minutes.
While I do have some tips for reducing the amount of time kids are sitting, whole-class, for a minilesson, the minutes aren’t really the point. It’s about engagement, understanding, student choice, crystal clear teaching, and independence.
If you’re familiar with the Units of Study for Teaching Opinion/Argument, Information, and Narrative Writing or the Units of Study for Teaching Reading (by Lucy Calkins and Colleagues), then you are familiar with the architecture of the minilessons in the series (Full disclosure: I am a coauthor on both series of books).
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.
You are also probably well aware that many of these minilessons take 15-20 minutes minimum, just to read, straight from the page. There are some very good reasons for why the written version of the minilesson includes more detail than the version you might deliver to children – including clarity for all who might be reading the units. But the side-effect of all that detail and elaboration is that if you were to teach the minilessons exactly as written to a meeting area full of wiggly, squirmy kids, there is very little chance of doing that in less than ten minutes.
Time and time again my colleagues and I urge the teachers we work with to adapt the minilesons that are published in the books. “Make them your own!” we say. “Use your own examples, put your own spin on them!” For some educators, adapting the minilessons comes naturally. For others, especially those who are newer to workshop teaching, it’s a challenge to figure out which parts to keep, and what’s okay to change.
There is a formula that I use, time and time again, to adapt my own minilessons. Yes, this formula helps me keep my minilessons to about ten minutes and makes planning more streamlined, but more importantly this formula helps me with one of my personal goals as a teacher: student engagement.
Connection: I review the anchor chart. I literally ask the kids to read the anchor chart aloud together as a remind for students of what they’ve been doing for the past few days. This takes one minute.
Teaching Point: I name today’s new strategy very clearly and explicitly. One or two sentences max. Perhaps, I hold a finished example or mentor text of this strategy in my hands as I say this as visual support.
Teach/Active Engagement: In this modified version of the “classic” minilesson architecture, I skip the teacher-centered demonstration, and invite the kids to help me practice the strategy on a familiar piece of writing – once. (If they need extra practice, I can always do a mid-workshop interruption and repeat the active engagement, once they are off the carpet and at their writing spots).
Link: I add today’s strategy to the anchor chart and remind kids of all the choices of strategies they might choose from – today, and everyday. (Again, this is basically rereading the anchor chart. One minute.)
Note on one more adaptation: I aim for anchor charts with very little text, and picture clues to support the meaning — at every grade level. This often requires adapting the chart used as an example in the published unit.
Voila. That’s it. It works for almost any minilesson in any unit, for any grade.
I continue to work at keeping my minilessons brief and engaging because I know that less time in the minilesson leaves more time for actual writing. I also know that most kids seem to have about a ten or fifteen minute window for the length of time any whole-class instruction is going to truly hold their attention. And most often, the shorter my minilesson, the clearer and more explicit my teaching becomes. Not only that, I find that when my lesson plan is short to begin with, I can teach at a comfortable pace, with no need to rush. Rushing makes the kids anxious, and changes the entire classroom climate — not for the better.
When I’ve planned a brief, concise version of the minilesson, there’s no need to break out the stopwatches and race against the clock. Instead, I can focus my attention on the kids.
P.S. Shorter minilessons aren’t always better! I write about minilessons often. Here are a few other posts to help you plan and teach minilessons to meet the needs of your particular students: