For a while, minilessons didn’t seem to fit into my bigger goals of the reading workshop. I realized a few years ago that I was often going through the motions of minilesson work — using the time at the beginning of reading workshop to “share” content with students. I was spending more time thinking about what I would “do” in the minilesson work than worrying about the thinking and learning the students would do. I realized I had never really stepped back to think about what it was I believed about the minilesson part of the workshop and whether my beliefs were matching my practice.
I had to sit back and reflect on my beliefs. I had to force myself to really stop and think about what it was I wanted from my minilessons. What were my big goals for the minilesson portion of the reading workshop? Did I merely want to give myself a pat on the back for “covering” curriculum? Did I spend more time thinking about the chart we would create than the ways kids might use what I was teaching in their own reading? Most important, who owned the minilesson work, the students or me?
Although I had spent years thinking hard about the whole of reading workshop, I had never really thought hard about these things as they related specifically to my work with minilessons. I knew what the minilesson portion of the workshop would look like to a teacher visiting my classroom, but I began to think about them from the students’ perspective. What messages do minilessons give to students in the classroom? Do these messages match my bigger goals for reading workshop?
Much of the professional literature is focused on what teachers “do” during minilessons rather than the role we play. The emphasis is on management, time limits, and content. The things that are most important to me about minilesson work are not so much what I do or the content that I give to students, but the patterns of thinking that I help my students develop independently.
Taking time to identify my beliefs has helped me stay grounded when I am in the planning process. Minilessons are powerful routines that build student independence. Although this understanding makes the planning process much more challenging, being clear about my beliefs helps me stay true to my larger mission of developing independent readers. Here is what I believe about minilessons:
1. Minilessons should be designed with a vision of helping students gain the necessary skills, strategies, and behaviors to become independent readers.
As a high school English student, I listened to lectures, took good notes in class, and passed the tests on every book. My English teacher taught about themes in books, the ways in which characters changed, and symbolism. It never once occurred to me that there were strategies I could learn that would help me read for these things on my own. I did not know that I could interact with the text and make meaning. I just assumed that the teacher’s understanding was the only possible meaning. I had no idea that I could make meaning on my own.
I believe that minilessons should empower students and help them develop strong identities as readers. As Peter Johnston reminds us in Choice Words, “Building an identity means coming to see in ourselves the characteristics of particular categories (and roles) of people and developing a sense of what it feels like to be that sort of person and belong in certain social spaces” (2004, 23). Each minilesson or minilesson cycle should open up possibilities for ways in which students can make meaning.
2. Minilessons should be scaffolded across time to deepen and enrich understanding of concepts. They are not activities delivered in isolation.
Minilessons should build on where kids are, not where they aren’t. The testing environment has trained teachers to look at the things a student cannot do. Although that is important for some student needs, I find that for daily planning purposes, I can teach for deeper understanding if I build from what the students do know and what they can do.
Minilesson work should also be scaffolded across a cycle. Designing cycles so that the concepts are most accessible to students is key. Then we move slowly and explicitly beyond that beginning point to help children understand at deeper levels. Planning high-quality minilessons involves not only thinking about the lessons themselves, but ordering the lessons in ways that make the most sense to students.
Finally, I believe that we must scaffold lessons across grade levels. Because readers deal with the same concepts, strategies, and behaviors across their lives as readers, we need to help them add depth to their reading year by year. We don’t want an inferring study to look exactly the same in second grade as it does in fifth grade. Scaffolding across content is not only about providing harder and more complex texts but also about helping readers think more deeply with these skills. The Common Core Standards help — they give a framework in which to think about how understanding builds from year to year.
3. Minilessons should be part of larger conversations that we as a community have about our reading lives and that these conversations build over time.
Max Brand, author of Word Savvy, helped me see the work of minilessons as an ongoing conversation within a community of readers. This conversation begins on the first day of school and continues through the year. We never finish a topic. For instance, if we end a lesson cycle on inferring, that doesn’t mean that we are finished talking about inferences. What we understand about inferring becomes part of all future learning. Each minilesson adds to the ways our classroom community can think and talk about books.
4. Minilessons should be interactive. Students should be the ones doing the thinking, not the teacher.
A while ago, I realized that I had been taking too much control of minilesson work — I was the only one talking and thinking. It was the only chance I had to pull the whole group together and teach something, and was the part of workshop that felt traditional. Then I realized that not only was I the only one talking, but I was also the only one interacting with the text. I was talking at my children. I knew that if I wanted students to control their reading lives, I needed to let go of the notion that I was imparting knowledge. I realized that minilessons need to be interactive in nature, and that it was the students who needed to be the ones doing the thinking and interacting.
Even though the minilesson work is often thought of as the “explicit teaching time” in the reader’s workshop, the ways in which we run these lessons give our students messages about what is valued in the classroom and what it means to be a reader. If the minilesson is a time when I as the teacher do all of the talking and thinking, I am giving my students the message that I am in charge of reading in this classroom. Instead, I want them to own their reading lives and to come to know the power they have as readers. Katie Ray reminds us, “Expert teaching invites students to act with initiative and intention in shaping what happens to them throughout the day”. I want my minilessons to give students this message every day.
5. Minilessons should be planned with the needs of current students in mind. They can’t be canned, scripted, or duplicated year after year.
I gave up keeping a filing cabinet years ago. Early in my teaching career, I discovered that repeating the same lessons year after year did not yield the same results with different groups of students. I quickly learned that different groups of children bring different things to each lesson, and I needed to be responsive in my teaching.
Even though the curriculum is similar year after year, the way in which I teach has to vary. I cannot rely on a set of canned, prewritten lessons (whether written by some publisher, by local colleagues, or by me) for my minilessons. Instead I have to take into account what the curriculum tells me about what needs to be taught and connect that to the information I learn from my students about their needs. Of course, I have resources I refer to, and every so often a “canned” lesson is a perfect fit, but overall, I have to rethink and re-create cycles based on the current students I am teaching.
6. Minilessons should be the right length to match your teaching point. There is no magic number of minutes for an effective minilesson.
Minilessons can be effective only when embedded in an authentic reader’s workshop, with an emphasis on independent, choice reading. Because independent reading is the key, minilessons can be only a very small part of the reading workshop. Usually this means the minilesson is only 5–10 minutes out of a 45–60 minute block. The lessons work only if students have time to practice what they are learning in texts of their choosing. During reading workshop, the majority of a student’s time is spent reading books of his or her choice independently, and the minilesson shouldn’t cut into that precious time.
Ideally, I love when my minilessons are seven to ten minutes long, but there are some great minilessons that have happened in two minutes, and others that took much longer than ten minutes. Every so often, we need to have whole-class learning in a larger chunk of time. For me, it is about the patterns of my minilessons. If most of my minilessons are twenty minutes long, I need to rethink the time I am taking away from student independence. I want my students to know that the thing we value most is independent reading time, and that can’t happen if too much of our time is spent in minilesson work.
7. Minilessons should be organized in a way that makes the most sense to the teacher, school, or district. There is no one right way to organize lessons.
The minilesson portion of our work is critical, because in a workshop setting, this is the time when the whole group is involved in one conversation. But I don’t believe there is one right way to organize teaching. There are many options about which cycles to focus on. Some districts or teachers focus on strategy cycles, whereas others teach through genre. One of the biggest decisions we make as teachers is which long-term lesson cycles to teach. I have found that these lesson cycles are really only the anchors for our planning. Teachers who teach strategy cycles are still talking about literary elements and genre. Teachers who organize their planning through genre study embed strategy work. The cycle becomes both the umbrella for planning and the vehicle to connect the content.
8. Minilessons should be based on what we know about teaching and learning. Regardless of the mandates and pressures of state testing, there is no reason to compromise best teaching practice.
The testing environment has made teaching a bit more challenging as schools move toward pacing guides, mandates, and required lessons. But this is not an excuse to give up what we know about good teaching.
We know what makes a high-quality lesson, and we know when students truly understand a concept. It is important in minilesson planning that we hold on to those things that we know about good teaching. It is tempting to spend an entire year giving students work that “looks like” the mandated test, and to make every assessment one that mimics the state test. It is tempting to teach only to the way a concept is tested. But testing and test practice are not teaching.
9. Minilessons should be designed to teach the reader, not the book.
The key to planning, no matter what your limits or mandates, is to work within them to teach the reader and not the book. Lucy Calkins discusses this in her landmark book The Art of Teaching Writing. She writes, “[We] are teaching the writer and not the writing. Our decisions must be guided by ‘what might help this writer’ rather than ‘what might help this writing’”. I believe the exact same thing about readers. I believe that if we remember to keep our focus on readers, and not the book, we can work within any mandates that are given to us.
So often, we want our students to understand a book in the ways we understand it. Often we bring years of experience to books we share with our students. We have read the book as an adult and may have read it with several groups of students. We know the book well, and may force the deep understanding we have of the book (because we have read it so many times) onto our students. This does not allow students to do their own thinking, practice strategies they’ve learned, and build understanding as they go into a book. I am most concerned that my students be able to use the skills and strategies developed with one text in the future with other texts. I am less worried about whether they know the “correct” theme in Jerry Spinelli’s Wringer than I am about giving them time to practice ways to find theme so that they can use these skills in all future reading.
10. Minilessons should be designed by the teachers who are doing the teaching, not corporations.
Planning and teaching are complex. Each lesson builds on what a student or group of students brings to it. The teacher is the person who spends time with the students in her care, and is the one best suited to create lessons that will meet her students where they are. Because lessons are designed to help build understanding, it is important that teachers develop the lessons they teach so that they can revise and replan as needed, based on student response.
When we plan, we think about all that we know about our students — their strengths and challenges. We bring in our knowledge of the content as well as our knowledge of child development and learning. The planning process allows us to synthesize for ourselves where to go next.
Identifying my beliefs about minilessons has been an important step for me in learning to plan effectively. Ultimately, I want my students to change and grow as readers, and I have limited time for the minilesson work that will invite this growth. As Michael Fullan says in Motion Leadership, it is all about “finding the smallest number of high-leverage, easy to understand actions that unleash stunningly powerful consequences”.
Reclaiming the Joy of Lesson Planning
It is hard these days to remember that teachers are the people who know our students best and that we are the ones who are well equipped to plan lessons that will help them move forward in their learning. We are being made to believe that our students are not doing well, and that we need outsiders (who do not know our students) to come in and help us be successful. The work of planning is being taken away from teachers. Districts are being encouraged to buy programs that are “teacher-proof.” Teachers are being asked to stay on the same page or lesson as the teacher next door, regardless of the level of understanding each teacher’s students have.
Many of us are drowning in data. Don’t get me wrong . . . I love to analyze my students’ work and thinking to determine where to go next with their learning. I have spent many Friday nights throughout my career with student work spread across my kitchen table, looking at work samples with an eye toward instruction. Yet we are now sometimes forced to spend so much time looking at and analyzing isolated test data that we have no energy left for using the data to plan instruction. The flip side is that when we look to isolated data, we tend to teach isolated skills. I think it is time we put the same amount of time and energy into planning for instruction as we do into analyzing data.
Kelly Gallagher writes in his book Readicide, “Standards are critical in helping teachers plan and align their instruction. If the powers-that-be took away every mandated test tomorrow, I would still want to know the state’s definition of good teaching. I would continue to read the standards carefully, with an eye for preparing meaningful lessons for my students. Standards are necessary, and having them has made me a better teacher.” I agree with Kelly. When we know where we need to focus our teaching and what our students need, then the hard work of planning and the important work of teaching can happen.
Lesson plan books have not changed much since I began teaching. I imagine they haven’t changed much since the beginning of time. For years, we have been asked to think in terms of individual days and lessons — to fit our lessons into small boxes. Although we plan with a vision in mind, the daily lesson planning sometimes goes against big-picture planning. The problem with daily lesson planning is that the process invites planning without the guide of a vision. Lessons can easily turn into unconnected “activities” instead of interconnected building blocks that lead to something bigger.
In contrast to the concept of isolated daily lesson plans there was a time in the 1980s when we learned big-picture planning through what we called “integrated units.” These thematic units had a good premise. Learning had to be connected for students. If it wasn’t, it didn’t make sense to them. I learned a lot by thinking about how to connect skills and content in a lesson cycle. The missing ingredient in this type of planning for me was that the connecting topic was also one that was randomly selected. Common themes in the 1980s were teddy bears, ladybugs, or pumpkins. We connected everything we knew about the topic to the unit, without focusing on a few key concepts or skills we wanted students to come away with.
If we can combine all that we know about thematic units of study with the understanding we have of standards-based teaching, we can create powerful learning experiences for our students. The key is to use standards to rebuild focused, integrated minilesson cycles and to think about the ways these cycles build on one another and are revisited throughout the school year.
This essay is an excerpt from Franki Sibberson’s book The Joy of Planning.