When we start planning for reading and writing on my campus, the initial step is to get to the teaching points and plan their order based on student need. It is so very important that those points are clear and precise so students can easily follow along, but is not the be all, end all. We have to make sure that we give the other parts of our mini-lessons almost as much time and consideration as well. They are all needed for the great instruction we want out kids to have. If you are wanting to focus your energy on your mini-lessons, let’s delve in a little deeper.
The mini-lesson has four components. They are the connection, the teaching, the active engagement, and the link. They are separate and need to be clearly distinguishable when we are teaching. The mini-lesson is called mini for a reason. They need to be short, preferably between 7 and 10 minutes. To do that, we need to make sure we are teaching one thing and one thing only through the four components.
The connection is a time to hook your students into today’s learning. I’m a story teller. I like to tell stories that get students hanging on my every word and make the connection to the learning. My stories are usually from my life. Sometimes I embellish them (I actually do that a lot, but don’t tell!), and I sometimes completely make them up. They get my students hooked and engaged and ready for learning. I don’t tell random stories though. They do connect, in some way, to what my teaching point is. That’s what works for me. I have colleagues that don’t do that because that isn’t them. Instead, they give purpose to the learning and connect to previous learning without adding all the crazy adventures of their pets or kids. It completely works for them. Whatever your method, it needs to be short, sweet, and neat to hook students and get them primed for learning.
The teaching part of my lesson is easily distinguishable. It always starts with, “Today I am going to teach you…” I do that for a specific reason. It’s a cue that the next thing I’m going to say is verbal gold. It is so important that you don’t want to miss it. Then I name my teaching point, remembering to make it short and easy to understand. My teaching points teach what a reader or writer does, how they do it, and why they do it. All three are important. If we don’t know how or why we are doing something, we really aren’t going to use it. About 80% of the time I go on to model the strategy I’m teaching, but that’s not the only way.
In addition to demonstration lessons, we can also lead the class on a guided practice, or lead an inquiry lesson. They all work, but they all have different purposes. I usually do demonstration lessons, as it is something completely new that I am showing the students. I use guided practice lessons to add on or touch up a strategy we have previously learned about. Inquiry lessons are used when I want the students to notice, discover and name a strategy that may work for them. They aren’t easy to do, but are so worth it when the lightbulb starts to glow.
The active engagement is the “now you try” part of the lesson. I like to have students try the strategy with their partner. I’m not expecting perfection here, as it’s something new. I walk, listen and coach into the many approximations that they are using. This is a great time for me to reflect on my teaching. If they totally aren’t getting, it I’ll have to come back to the lesson in a different way the next day. Maybe I need to add something extra in the next lesson to make it more concrete. Maybe they already know it, and I can move on. Whatever the case may be, it gives me good formative feedback about where the students are as readers or writers and it helps me reflect on my instruction.
The link part of my lesson involves me restating the teaching point, naming the what, how, and why. It also includes an invitation to try the strategy when reading or writing and the three famous words, “Off you go!” I chose my words carefully here by saying an invitation. It is exactly that. I may say something like, “When you are reading and your character does something, one thing you may choose to do is stop and ask yourself why the character is acting that way.” The student can choose to use it, if it applies to what they are doing and where they are as a reader or writer. They may choose not to. That’s okay too. I hesitate to make the strategy mandatory work based on past experiences. If I made a strategy mandatory, it took away the independence from my students and became another thing to do because the teacher said so. The whole point of our instruction is for our students to be independent and use strategies when needed. If we make it mandatory, where’s the independence? Yes, students may choose not to use it, and fall flat. That’s a complete learning experience in itself. We can be there to talk through the situation, and coach in to the strategy that may help, yet it is still their choice. I refuse to believe that students, given a choice, will choose to purposefully and repeatedly fail. They may be scared to succeed, but they definitely don’t want to fail. We, as teachers, need to show them the power they have to be successful that each one of them has and how to tap into it even through setbacks.
So, think about your mini-lessons. Perhaps you need a planning template to help you. If so, here is one that I am fond of. Are all four parts of your mini-lessons distinguishable? Have you tried different formats aside from the demonstrating? Do your teaching points include a what, how, and why? Is this where you want to really focus your energy this year?