Sunday, September 7, 2014

Developing a Great Mini Lesson- Learned the Hard Way

Imagine this Chris, a fifth grade teacher, is at the front of her classroom delivering a mini lesson on author's use of repetition in memoir writing.  She is holding up a mentor text while talking with her students, who are sitting in the mini lesson gathering area in front of her. Chris is speaking

"As you can see, the author used this phrase here again to emphasize how she was feeling at that moment in time.  Another example of when Sandra Cisneros used repetition is when..."  Then, she noticed it.  She stopped mid-sentence.  They were gone.  Completely checked out.  Her students were not with her.

As Chris looked out at the familiar mini lesson gathering area, she noticed Caleb was doodling in his notebook- which usually doesn't bother her as she knows he needs to do this to focus.  But then, she noticed Greg and Sophia were doing the same. Anna's eyes were glazed over as she blankly stared at the back of Marc's head.  Marc was poking Harry in the back.  Harry was nervously squirming while whispering, "Stop it, stop it..."  Michael stood up to get a drink of water and was just hanging out, staring at a poster on the wall by the water fountain.  Gina was reading her independent reading book that was carefully nuzzled in a great hiding spot between the pages of her writing notebook. "This is not working," Chris thought to herself.  She lost them.

Her carefully planned mini lesson (that she spent 45 minutes preparing before school) was a bust.  “How could this be?” she silently wondered.  She spent so much time planning the lesson.  After the two minute connection piece, she went into the teaching portion of her lesson.  Then, it dawned on her.  She had been talking at her students for going on 15 minutes, and she felt like she wasn’t even done yet.  "This just isn't going to work," she continued to think to herself, "I went on way too long, and I lost them."  

Does this scenario sound familiar?  Have you ever thought to yourself, "But, they have to know more! I have to give another example.  I have to make sure every single one of them knows everything he or she needs to know before I set them free to write."  These thoughts have wandered through my head during planning and delivery many times.  In fact, the above teacher in the story is me- I am Chris.  This is an exact scenario that played out in my own fifth grade classroom during our memoir unit last year.  This misstep in delivery and planning woke me up to honing in on my own mini lessons.  I realized, less mini lesson truly equates to more student writing.


Four Parts to a mini lesson: Connection, Teach,
Active Engagement (seen here), and Link.

Tips for Planning and Delivering a Great Mini Lesson Learned the Hard Way:

  • First and foremost, know exactly what it is you want your students to be able to do at the end of the lesson. Clearly be able to name your teaching point.  Be ready to say, "Writers, today I want to teach you that_____________."  Teachers must clearly understand the teaching point before getting down to the business of planning.
  • Remember, there are four specific parts to every mini lesson. Rather than spending 45 minutes planning a 7-10 minute mini lesson, try to identify the parts to your lesson using a simple planning sheet. You can easily make one or feel free to use mine, linked here. Really- feel free to copy it, then change or edit it to meet your needs. It's a simple chart based on the Lucy Calkin's Units of Study in teaching writing. It has really helped me organize my thinking when planning. Use what works best for you.
  • Once your planning is done, think out your delivery of the lesson. I found it helpful to take a minute or two to visualize my mini lessons. Once you've thought out your lesson- it's showtime!
  • Carefully and expressively deliver your connection.  The delivery of your connection to students should take roughly no more than 2 minutes.  In fact, shoot for less than 2 minutes.  

  • At the end of the connection, clearly name the teaching point! I also found it helpful to write it in simple language on the board or smart board for students to refer back to during writing time.  

  • Immediately after, launch into the teaching portion of the lesson.  Do not take questions during this time.  Set up this routine early.  Interruptions disrupt the lesson’s flow, and may disrupt many students' internal processing.

  • Quickly transition into the active engagement portion of the lesson.  This gives students an opportunity to practice the teaching point.  During these few minutes, walk around, get down on the floor with your students, look and what they are doing and what they are not doing.  This is a great time for teachers to formatively assess how students are grasping the teaching point.

  • Give the link that connects back to the teaching point, and send students on their way to write!  With less lesson, students are more engaged and have the opportunity to produce more writing with more time.  

  • Remember, all of this should take no more than ten minutes. Ideally, it will take no more than seven minutes. It's not easy to accomplish. The more you do it, the more natural it will feel.

  • Try to spend some time watching mini lesson videos (some great ones are linked below). Identify the four parts of the lesson while watching. Doing this helped me tremendously.

  • Follow The Two Writing Teachers blog. I can't even tell you how helpful they have been in my journey as a writing teacher and now coach. I've learned more from them about the teaching of writing than I have from any other online source.

Three mini lessons success factors:
Be prepared, be intentional, be explicit. 


Resources that Directly Helped Me Improve The Quality of My Mini Lessons

*I wrote this piece during Mary Ehrenworth's week-long session on informational writing at The Teachers College Reading and Writing Project June Writing Institute this past summer.  I revised it over the past week (first week of September 2014).  Thank you for the inspiration, Mary! And, thank you to my fellow writing teachers and coaches in that session this past June.  I continue to draw inspiration from all of you- a lot!

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