“Okay, writers, off you go.” Students began to move, and so did I: Grabbed my clipboard. Checked my frequency chart. Jumped into my first conference (often before the last student was settled). This was a transition we practiced throughout the year, one that we included in our “Writers’ Expectations.” My goal is to meet with every writer at least once a week; that means we had to move.
Sound familiar? I used to jump right from the minilesson into my first conference.
I have discovered that giving minilessons a chance to breathe actually improves my interactions with student writers. In other words, in the no-more-than-five minutes that follow whole-group instruction, a few simple routines can improve small-group and one-on-one conferences. Whether in my own classroom or in my work as an instructional coach, I can make space to:
- write while students write
- extend the minilesson; or
- read the room.
Write While Students Write
“Off you go, while I keep working.”
I often leave my writing up on the document camera and I’ll notice—and make a mental note of—a few students who are still watching, waiting to see what decisions I make. Most students will have moved into their own work by now, and we will all be simultaneously engaged in the work of writers.
Teachers I’ve worked with turn to their own writing for a variety of reasons: to tie up loose ends, lean into their writer identities, and reinforce expectations, all based on the needs of their students. This certainly doesn’t happen every day, and we certainly don’t write for as long as we want to, but we do write.
Taking a few minutes after a minilesson to write—whether a continuation of a modeled or shared writing or an authentic draw to our own writer’s notebooks—helps us to model the work that our minilessons inspire and so much more.
The impact: Writing ourselves sends a powerful message: That we are part of the writing community, too. That we hold ourselves to the same expectations. That we need time and space to develop our ideas, just like they do. That we trust them to get started without us. As Ralph Fletcher and JoAnn Portalupi told us more than twenty years ago, “You’ll be surprised to see how such a simple thing—writing with your students instead of supervising them—has a remarkable way of setting a serious tone” (Fletcher and Portalupi 2001, 38).
Extend the Minilesson
“Off you go. And if you [fill in the blank], let’s keep working for a few more minutes.”
A second-grade teacher I worked with this year often ends her mini-lessons this way. She moves from her chair to a seat on the carpet among a few writers who share a need as the rest of the class moves out to work time. She reframes the target, offers guidance, and often pairs students to support each other toward readiness. Sometimes students are released as they are ready. Sometimes, she realizes that this small group is able to continue without her, and she gets up from the carpet to begin conferring with other writers.
Taking a few minutes to extend the minilesson to a targeted group can ensure that everyone has an entry point to the day’s work. Maybe a few need to extend beyond the target. Maybe a few need more time to decide on a topic or rehearse an idea. Maybe a few would benefit from more guided practice or simply accept an open invitation to continue working together.
The impact: A small-group extension of the minilesson has the power to reduce interruptions during conferences and ensure students enter into workshop ready to write. Other students have had a chance to get started without someone hovering over them. And these students—the ones in this small group—when we conference with them again later in the workshop or the week, we will set out from this starting point rather than the jagged end to a minilesson they weren’t yet ready to apply.
Read the Room
“Off you go.”
A fourth-grade teacher and I started a coaching cycle this year to answer the question, “How do I know if students are learning?” We started with a focus on what she was doing after she released students from the minilesson. I created a quick one-pager for what Holly Slaughter calls “Researching the Room,” and we explored what can happen when we use the minutes after the minilesson to help us answer this question (see image).
The first time I joined her, I used a simple checklist she had created for narrative writing to watch for things like: Were students using their plan to draft? Were students incorporating dialogue? In our debrief, she was excited to see how much information could be gained from a quick over-the-shoulder check. Our work together then shifted to how to use it to inform small-group and one-on-one conferences as well as whole-group instruction.
Taking a few minutes to read the room can give us a general sense of where students are in their process and application of learning. This might involve looking over students’ shoulders, engaging in a few brief check-ins, using a checklist to keep track of certain skills that are “must-dos,” or simply observing the behaviors and processes in which students are engaged.
The impact on conferring: The practice of reading the room provides critical formative assessment data. What we learn from this brief balcony view of student writers and their writing has the power to make the instruction that follows more intentional and targeted. It allows us to observe not only what students are writing, but how they are engaging in the work of writers, all things that we can support as we move out among them.
Whatever we do between the minilesson and our first conference reinforces the expectations we’ve set as writers in our workshop. We expect students to contribute to our community, so we join them as fellow writers. We expect them to be independent, so we make sure they are ready. We expect them to apply their learning, so we monitor their progress from both the balcony and beside them. Making space for any of these three practices can maximize the interactions we have with writers throughout the workshop.
Fletcher, Ralph, and JoAnn Portalupi. 2001. Writing Workshop: The Essential Guide. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.
Slaughter, Holly. 2009. Small-Group Writing Conferences, K-5: How to Use Your Instructional Time More Efficiently. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.
This giveaway is for a copy of Answers to Your Biggest Questions About Teaching Elementary Writing. Many thanks to Corwin Literacy for donating a copy for one reader.
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A writer who found myself in the summer workshop after my third year of teaching. The summer before my daughter was born. The summer after my first wedding anniversary. The summer before my dad died. The summer that changed my life forever because it added to my identity in a way that unlocked a way of life. That writing could be a tool, not just for thinking, but for being, was the greatest gift of that summer.