engagement · modeling · student engagement

Active Engagement in Modeled Mini-Lessons

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My daughter started high school in the fall of 2020. It was the year she tried volleyball for the first time. The year volleyball became a spring sport and lasted only a few weeks. She showed up to each practice, played in a few games, and at the end of the season, swore she’d never play again. It just wasn’t fun.

Come fall, she gave it another try. This time, more than one team could practice in the gym, more spectators could attend each game, and she was able to watch the varsity team play. This was a game-changer. Literally.

It was by watching that she learned things that girls who had played for years seemed to know by heart. Things that made all the difference, like the cheer after a serve goes undefended or the way to position yourself for a jump serve. She learned by watching and then by doing. 

The same is true of our writers. Yes, modeled minilessons have the power to induct students into practices of more experienced writers and help them to see—with their own eyes—what the process makes possible. And while students may not be cheering us on or high-fiving our efforts (wouldn’t that be great!), choosing a modeled lesson does not mean we have to forfeit students’ active engagement. We get them involved right from the start.

Set the Stage

At the start of any modeled lesson (especially at the beginning of the year) it is important to be clear about what role students will play because we will not be asking students to help us write. In fact, the topic we pick is likely one that they can’t help us write. 

Take for example, when I modeled revising for a class of first-graders. Students were not at my daughter’s birthday, and though some of them had been to the water park I was writing about, none of them had experienced it the way I had. Instead, what I prepared them for was to notice what I was doing as a writer and to be ready to name the kinds of detail I was adding. 

When students inevitably drift toward offering ideas throughout a modeled lesson, this moment spent setting the stage allows us to redirect their attention and gently guide them back toward their role. 

Write Aloud

Writing in front of students may seem daunting at first, but there are a few tricks that help take the pressure off: 

Maintain focus: This group of first graders and I had—in a previous lesson—learned that authors add looks-like, sounds-like, and feels-like details to their writing “So today, I’m going to show you how I add detail to make my writing more like the books we love to read.”

Think aloud, step-by-step: “First, I’m going to reread what I wrote yesterday… Then I’m going to look for a place to add a detail… I stop and put a plus sign in a spot where I could write more… I turn my paper over and write: “Cami screamed on every slide.’” +

Fail forward:  When we write in front of our students, we want them to see that it takes work and multiple attempts: “I can’t think of exactly how I want to say that. Does that ever happen to you?” First-graders nodded. I practiced again, this time able to put my next detail into words and ended up showing them how a sentence can have two details. ++

Keep ‘em Engaged

Did you notice the plus signs in the paragraph above? These are places that, for you, I want to add more detail. One reason we might shy away from modeled lessons is for fear that student engagement will decrease. On the contrary, while we model, we ask students to be detectives, observing closely so that they can notice and name what we are doing and we can make the process visible:

+ “Turn and talk:  What kind of detail did you notice I added to my writing? Why do you think I choose that kind of detail?”

++ “Now that I’ve shown you how to add details to your drafts, let’s go back and review the steps. What did I do first?” I put a sticky note on the top of my draft that showed an image of me looking at my paper. “Yes, first I reread what I wrote. Then what did I do?” As students helped me to name the process, I paired this with two other sticky notes that reminded them of the steps they might take as they got to work.

Link to Their Writing

“Before you go back to your seat, I’m going to give you back your writing from yesterday and ask you to do the first two steps here: reread and find a place. When you find a place, put your finger at that spot, share with a partner what you will write there, and head back to your seat to grab your pencil and get writing.”  

Altogether, this mini-lesson lasted about seven minutes. Students engaged in two turn-and-talks, and we created a visible process that they could use to revise their own writing this and every time thereafter. By giving students a chance to apply the model to their writing before they ever leave the lesson, we can begin to see who might need our help with these initial steps and give those who are ready a chance to begin on their own.  

Modeled minilessons do not require students sit quietly and watch idly any more than a volley game does. Modeled minilessons give students a chance to activate their mirror neurons, the ones that fire whether they are engaged in doing or watching a task. Students get a chance to see a more experienced writer in action and to name what they notice. Minutes later, they get to try it one their own. Learning by seeing makes the doing that follows more intentional, more meaningful, and maximizes the possibilities for growth in our young apprentices.

Modeled Minilesson Infographic

8 thoughts on “Active Engagement in Modeled Mini-Lessons

  1. Thank you. This is so so clear. I especially like how you reminded me that the watching during the modeling of both volleyball and writing is not to offer tips but to watch and be inspired to give it a try. As a MS literacy coach, I’ve made a few videos for my 6th grade teachers to use in their classrooms. Your post today is inspiring me to make one on the steps to take when it is time to revise your draft! I especially like the adding a +sign step for where you can see more, sound more, feel more. Know that because of you, students in VA will be better writers. Thanks for sharing your brilliance today with this post!

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