4 Tips for Successful Active Involvement in a Minilesson

Nervously shuffling into the gym, we all gathered near the stage.  A large, tweed-covered speaker ominously sat poised at the edge, ready to brusquely launch us into our seventh grade dance unit.  “Okay boys and girls,” began Mrs. Camp.  “We don’t want you to worry, this won’t be hard.  Before we ask you to dance, Mr. McNally and I will tell you the steps, then we will show them to you.  After that, you’ll have a chance to try.”  Although my anxiety about dancing did not dissipate completely, I could feel it come down a little bit.  At least there would be a demonstration…whew. And I knew I wouldn’t learn anything without a chance to try.

Most of us are familiar with the architecture of a minilesson.  This four-part instructional framework is a tried-and-true method for designing writing lessons that are both explicit and supportive.  In a minilesson, we work to not only demonstrate a strategy sometimes employed by professional writers, but also to provide a quick opportunity for young writers assembled before us to apply it, either in their own writing or in a co-authored class composition.  This short segment of the minilesson during which writers ‘give a strategy a go’ themselves, often called the “Active Involvement” or “Active Engagement,” allows writers an immediate opportunity for application in the supportive environs of the meeting area.

Over my many years of both honing my own craft and coaching teachers, I  have witnessed times during which the Active Involvement part of the lesson has gone quite smoothly.  I have also been around during times when… well, opportunity may have been lost.  When setting up an active involvement in a minilesson, consider the following tips and ideas to maximize these few precious minutes.

Tip 1.  Ask students to mirror what you just demonstrated. When teaching a minilesson, teachers strive to provide steps for writers to follow (similar to steps in a dance or a recipe).  Just before transitioning from a teaching demonstration to the active involvement, teachers will often review the steps of the strategy they just demonstrated by saying, “Writers, did you see how first I. . . then I  . . . and finally I  . . .?”  Many times, we will reference a strategy chart that lists these steps, pointing to the chart as we reiterate what we just “tried out” as a writer.  Then, we shift our gaze to our writers and say, “Now you’re going to have an opportunity to try.  Remember, first we . . . then we . . . and finally . . .”  When addressing writers, we want to be absolutely sure that what we are asking them to try is the exact sequence of steps they just watched us execute.

Although this tip may sound obvious, all too often we can lose sight of the purpose of active involvement.  And in doing so, we sometimes may ask kids to do something different than what we just demonstrated.  Too often, I have heard the Active Involvement sound like this:  “You just saw me do A, now you do B.”  While well-meaning, we can, if we are not careful, take away an opportunity for our writers to apply the strategy we just taught.  Or worse yet, we can confuse them!

Tip 2. Treat Active Involvement as an assessment point.  I often tell teachers that writing workshop is an assessment-based teaching framework (it’s not a program).  Now, this certainly does not mean “assessment” as in tests, quizzes, and standardized assessments.  Definitely not!  Rather, assessment in a writing workshop takes the form of: studying student writing, listening in to partner talk, conferring and small group work, etc.  So during minilessons, we can treat the Active Involvement as an assessment point.  This means, after inviting students to try out the strategy we just demonstrated, we physically get up and listen in to a few partnerships or triads (meeting areas make this much more convenient).  Who is grasping the strategy?  Which students still need support?  Keeping a small pad of paper or post-it notes at hand can be invaluable as we jot names down of those who might need reteaching or extra accommodations later during independent writing time.

Tip 3.  Use Active Involvement as a check for the clarity of teaching– Oftentimes, we wonder, was I clear? Did I do a good job teaching that lesson?  (Well, at least I wonder these things).  We can use the Active Involvement as a check for this. Since most Active Involvement involves turning and talking with partners or oral rehearsal, it is a good idea to get up from our teaching spot and insert ourselves into the fray of conversation.  Listen for what students are saying and doing as writers.  If it feels like too many of them are either confused or talking about something other than what you’ve asked them to try, do something!  When this happens to me, I’ll often stand up, raise my hand, and say, “Writers!  I don’t think I was very clear.  Let me try again…”  This situation likely happens to all of us at one time or another- we thought we were clear, and we weren’t.  No worries!  Address it head-on by quickly responding to what you’re hearing.  After all, workshop teaching is meant to be responsive to learners.

Tip 4:  Keep Active Involvement short.  Minilessons are meant to be, as Lucy Calkins once said, brisk.  Pacing in a minlesson is everything.  We don’t want to teach so fast that learners become disoriented.  But we also don’t want to allow too much time for minds to disengage from the learning process we’ve designed.  Thus, when asking students to try out or apply a writing strategy or skill in front of you in the meeting area, keep the allotted time for that to a minute or so (at least in middle school).  Two minutes can even be too long.  One way to do this is to let go of the requirement that each student “have a chance.”  In fact, partnership talk doesn’t necessarily have to turn over.  If one partner talks while the other actively listens, that is okay.  Remember, writers will ALL have a chance to try the strategy during independent writing time (if they so choose).

I must admit, although our seventh grade dance unit was not perhaps the greatest memory of that year, I did enjoy it.  Our teachers did an excellent job both demonstrating and allowing us opportunities to mess it up in a somewhat supportive environment.  When it comes to writing workshop, not all Active Involvement segments are written the way I have described in the Calkins Writing Units of Study series (Heinemann, 2014).  But it is always important that students are actively involved somehow across a lesson.  As Dale Carnegie writes (2004), “Learning is an active process.  Only knowledge that is used sticks in your mind” (Simon & Schuster, p. 19).   Every minute is precious.  Treat them as such.

What are your trials and successes during Active Involvement time?  We would love to hear from you!