Inquiry Minilessons: Beyond the Fundamentals of Writing Workshop

Feb 2018 Blog Series - DRAFTMy daughter, Isabelle, recently turned seven. She was looking forward to a birthday cake from the Wegmans bakery.  A few days before her birthday party, I discovered one of her friends only eats food that is certified Kosher, which meant she wouldn’t be able to eat the party cake since Wegmans’ bakery doesn’t have a Kosher certification. Even though I could’ve changed the cake order on my own, I wanted to lead my daughter on an inquiry — of sorts — to see what kind of answers she could find to the problem.
“The Wegmans bakery isn’t Kosher, which means one of your friends cannot eat your birthday cake. How can we make sure your friend gets to enjoy food at your birthday party?”
We talked through possibilities. Isabelle imagined things like her friend only being able to eat fruit or us buying her a Kosher cupcake. Once I clued her in on something she didn’t know — Giant (a local supermarket) has a Kosher bakery — she was able to come up with another solution. “If they can make me a vanilla cake with pink flowers, pink sprinkles, and pink writing, then I think we should get the cake from Giant because I want all of my friends to eat cake with me.” (She’s in a pink phase!) I praised Isabelle for her thoughtful choice and reordered a new cake the next day.
Unlike inquiries we lead in writing workshop, the party cake inquiry had one solution (i.e., change the bakery) that was better than the others (i.e., have a friend miss out on sweets, buy a different dessert). However, just like the inquiries we lead in writing workshop, there are always multiple answers to the question that’s posed.

…..

Inquiry minilessons are opportunities for a whole class to explore answers to a teacher-posed question. In an inquiry minilesson, teachers invite students to study something with you so they can discover something new, name what they’re noticing, and transfer what they’ve noticed to their own writing (Calkins, 2013, 64-66). Rather than guiding students towards a single response, the teacher pulls and charts a range of answers to an open-ended question.

When to Use an Inquiry Minilesson
There are a few times teachers might use an inquiry minilesson in lieu of a demonstration, explanation with example, or a guided practice minilesson.
  • At the beginning of a unit or bend: If you want students to draw upon the things they already know about writing, then you might teach an inquiry minilesson at the start of a unit of study or at the beginning of a new bend.
  • At the end of a bend in the road: After you’ve taught several lessons to students in a unit, you might teach an inquiry minilesson since it allows for more independence. This kind of lesson requires a higher level of thinking so kids will be drawing upon the strategies you’ve taught them to answer the inquiry question.
  • Anytime students have acquired a lot of knowledge: Whenever you feel students possess a good deal of knowledge about writing in a particular genre or the writing process, you might include an inquiry minilesson that will allow them to posit about why a writer may have done something in a particular way.
Here’s an exemplary inquiry-based minilesson taught by Kelly Hohne of the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project that will give you a better sense of when and how an inquiry can be utilized so that you’re drawing on what students already know.

Whole Class Instruction in Opinion Writing: Teaching for Transfer as Students Move Between Persuasive Speeches and Petitions 3-5 from TC Reading and Writing Project on Vimeo.

Why Bother Teaching an Inquiry Minilesson?
Many people think inquiry minilessons are stickier (a la Malcolm Gladwell in Tipping Point) than demonstration minilessons since kids “discover” things on their own. As a result, the learning stays with kids longer since they’ve come to the learning on their own.

How to Write an Inquiry Minilesson
In 2014, Beth Moore published a post entitled “There Are More Ways Than One to Teach a Minilesson.” In that post, she expertly described how to teach an inquiry minilesson. Here’s the excerpt:

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 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  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 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.
Be mindful of time as you’re crafting an inquiry minilesson. Typically, inquiry minilessons take longer than ten minutes to accomplish. Aim for 15 minutes with 20 minutes being the longest you want your students gathered. Anything longer than 15 minutes means students may get wiggly and off-task in the meeting area. In addition, more time spent on the minilesson means losing a chunk of independent writing time.

Sample Inquiry Questions
When I wrote Craft Moves, I intentionally crafted the explanation with example lessons. However, nearly any of those lessons can be turned into an inquiry there is something worthy about providing students with the opportunity to explore how a writer did something or to investigate why one would do something as a writer. Basically, teachers invite students to study a text with them, which helps students to discover the craft, name what they notice, and transfer it to their own writing. Leading an inquiry helps students figure out how to do similar work.
Here are several potential questions you could pose to students if you wanted to lead an inquiry minilesson using a mentor text.

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Click here if you wish to download the sample inquiry questions listed above.

As Lucy Calkins has been known to say, when you vary your teaching methods, you lift engagement and curtail boredom. Therefore, try infusing inquiries into your teaching repertoire in the weeks to come!

Quick Tips:
  • Keep an eye on the time! Inquiry minilessons can go long (and off the rails) if you aren’t watching the clock.
    • You want to give students the time to write after the minilesson.
    • Just like a traditional minilesson, students should leave an inquiry minilesson excited to do similar work in their own writing.
  • Pose a question rather than directing students towards a strategy.
  • Let kids figure out what the writer has done so they can do similar work as writers.
  • Remember to pose a question that has more than one “right” answer. There should be several correct answers to your question.
Link Roundup:
Suggested Reading:

Giveaway Information:

  • Back and ForthThis giveaway is for a copy of Back and Forth: Using an Editor’s Mindset to Improve Student Writing by Lee Heffernan. Thanks to Heinemann Publishers for donating a copy for one reader. (You must have a U.S. mailing address to enter this giveaway.)
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