Keeping the ‘Mini’ in Mini Lessons for the Middle School Writing Workshop
One of my core beliefs about the teaching of writing is that students need time and space to write. In my ideal world, I would have endless time to really get to know each one of my 7th-grade students as writers.
But the reality of my situation (and that of many middle school teachers) is that I have 49 precious minutes with the 95 students I see over the course of four class periods each day. 49 minutes to take on the daunting task of helping shape their writing identities.
I know that the biggest portion of class time should be protected for students to write independently. However, if I’m not smart about how I approach my 10-minute minilessons, I risk letting the teaching portion our day run too long, leaving little room for my students to practice the strategy in their own writing.
I have learned a few moves to help me beat the clock in the four years since I’ve implemented the workshop model. These small changes to my approach have had a big payoff when it comes to giving my students meaningful time to write.
Set a timer: One of the promises I make to my students is that I will keep my minilessons short. To hold myself accountable, I set a timer for ten minutes (I just use my iPhone.), hand it off to a student, and start my lesson. I always ask the student who is timing to give me a “one-minute warning” by holding up a finger. When the timer goes off, I stop talking. This is hard to do (There is always more to teach and say.), but I know that what I prioritize and make time for sends a signal to students. Making sure they have time to write is the most important message to send.
Set norms to keep moving forward: I like to start off my minilessons with a short anecdote. These hook my students right away, but sharing stories often starts off a chain reaction –everyone else wants to share too! At the beginning of the year, my students and I agreed on the minilesson expectation to hold questions and comments. Having this norm in place keeps the lesson moving forward so my students get the chance to explore their ideas in writing.
Use student talk to your advantage: I listen closely as students talk during my minilesson, and if I hear a partnership make a good point that will help move us forward in our lesson, I’ll ask those writers to share first when we come back together. Another method is to say “I overheard one of you saying…” as a way to segue into the next teaching point (whether I heard it or not!). Tricky, but effective.
“Write” it out: Modeling a writing strategy is so valuable. It takes a strategy from an abstract idea to a concrete practice. As much as possible, I love to generate writing on the spot for my students. But the physical act of writing out words eats up time. I’ll often “write in the air” for my students, where I’ll voice out what I would write as opposed to taking time to “write it live” for my students. During our realistic fiction unit, when demonstrating how to take a moment from 2D to 3D, I highlighted a 2D moment in my own writing that I needed to “pop out” and voiced out exactly how I would rewrite it, adding details and dialogue to show the moment.
I’ve also written out my example before class and then pretended to craft it in the moment with my students. I “write” in my notebook, voicing over with my thought process (which allows them to hear my inner thinking as a writer). Students see the finished product under the document camera, I don’t have to spend valuable minutes writing a new piece with each hour, and the teaching is just as effective.
Take time to make a plan: At the end of my minilesson, before heading into their independent writing time, my students make a specific plan. Without this piece, writers run the risk of not using their time to its full potential. We do this quickly. Some use a Post-It note to jot a plan on and add it to their class journals. Other times, a simple “turn and tell your plan to their writing partner” suffices. I always suggest options that touch on the writing repertoire we’ve built throughout our unit to help students plan, since not everyone is in the same place with their writing. However, these are merely suggestions. The final decision for how to use workshop time is left up to the writer.
Use music to transition smoothly: When we move into our workshop time, I often play a short song and ask everyone to be in their space and writing by the time the song finishes. Oftentimes, I’ll let students pick the song (I have a running list on my whiteboard.) or I’ll pick a song that sets a tone for the work ahead (The Final Countdown is always a favorite when we’re getting close to publishing time!). Small moves like this give my middle schoolers (and students of all ages) a tangible way to measure how quickly they should be getting into their own individual work.
49 minutes goes by quickly in a bustling middle school writing workshop, and the ten minutes reserved for my minilessons can be gone before I know it if I’m not careful. However, making small, intentional moves in the way I approach this part of my writing workshop ensures that my writers have as much time as possible to do what is most important: write.
Katie Kraushaar is a 7th grade English-Language Arts teacher at Hixson Middle School in St. Louis, MO. She strives to promote the joy of writing in her classroom by taking a student-centered approach with the workshop model and by writing daily with her students. In addition to her seven years in the classroom, Katie is a Teacher Consultant for the Gateway Writing Project, a satellite of the National Writing Project. Connect with Katie through her blog and on Twitter.