What is the difference between a lesson and a mini lesson? Minilessons are responsive to students by design. They can be planned for many purposes, to meet a variety of needs. Recently, I participated in a webinar where Cornelius Minor said, “Teaching does not lead to mastery.” Rather, he pointed out, “Practice leads to mastery.” Minilessons position student ownership as a priority outcome, making them all about practice, not perfection. Thinking about my own classroom, I have identified five types of minilessons that help put ownership in the hands of students.
An Answer-the-Call Minilesson
Sometimes, a minilesson idea surfaces when students are in the midst of working independently. When my sixth graders were drafting a literary analysis essay, there was a pattern to where they were getting stuck. Students knew that after a claim, they had to include supporting evidence in the form of a direct quote from the text. They also knew the quote should be introduced with a sentence starter. Students who were almost ready to move from a universal sentence starter, such as “The text says,” were repeatedly asking for help.
As I bounced around the room to support writers, I found myself repeatedly prompting these students with questions like, “Who said this in the story?” “When did this happen?” “Where did this happen?” I realized that these questions would make the perfect minilesson. Unless I wanted students to always rely on me to prompt them, I needed to put these questions into their hands.
The next day I presented a minilesson on how to introduce textual evidence by providing context. I gave students this list of question prompts to help them generate a specific, appropriate sentence starter for each quote:
Who said it or to whom did it happen?
Where was it said or where did it happen?
When was it said or when did it happen?
With the list of questions in their hands instead of mine, students were able to take ownership and no longer had to ask me to help them generate ideas to introduce quotes.
A Next-Level Minilesson
Next-level minilessons are some of my favorites to plan. When students grasp a concept or skill more quickly than expected, it is a welcome challenge to figure out how to move them to the next level. As my sixth graders drafted body paragraphs of an essay, I noticed they were including all the necessary information to make their points clear. So, I went back and looked at essays to identify something they were almost doing well. I noticed the paragraphs often felt repetitive. Although their ideas were thorough, they were not quite writing fluently yet.
I planned a minilesson to help students avoid repetition in a formal essay. I shared the Rule of N2SSWTSW, which stands for No Two Sentences Start with the Same Word. I explained that this rule applies to each paragraph. I demonstrated three techniques for students to try.
Replace a name with a pronoun:
Reina is an everyday hero.
She is an everyday hero.
Replace a word with a synonym or similar phrase:
Another thing heroes do is encourage people.
In addition to saving people, heroes encourage people.
Flip the order of ideas in a sentence:
The theme is developed through Sophie helping Miz Wilson.
Helping Miz Wilson is a heroic act that develops the theme.
A Refresher Minilesson
Occasionally I notice students become too comfortable with a routine. When this happens, the complacency usually manifests itself through poor-quality work or lack of work altogether. One way to counteract this decrease in productivity is to proactively plan a refresher minilesson to reinspire students to commit to the work.
After a short break from school, I noticed students stopped keeping up with reader-response entries in their notebooks. Most students had tried out a few response formats, such as character webs, lists, and T-charts. Then they seemed to settle on a single one of those formats and use it repeatedly, until they no longer used a response strategy at all. My first reaction was frustration. I considered grading notebook entries to hold students accountable, but I realized coercing performance through grades would not result in student ownership of reading strategies, which is the ultimate goal.
I wondered if breaking the routine might reengage them in the work of responding to text. I decided to introduce a new response style—sketchnotes. I demonstrated with a story we had read recently, then had students practice on a different story. Once students were confident with the strategy, many decided to try a sketchnote response with their current independent reading book. The minilesson swept most students back into the habit of notebook entries, making it easier to catch the rest with individual conferences.
An Introductory Minilesson
The first time I introduce a skill, I plan carefully for a minilesson. This almost always involves me trying out the skill myself to anticipate and account for challenges students may face. To introduce Kylene Beers’s and Bob Probst’s Notice and Note nonfiction signposts of “Quoted Words” and “Numbers and Stats,” I began with a video. Before practicing identifying and using the signposts in a written article about Moko the dolphin who saved whales, we watched a video about Moko and practiced the skill.
Because I tried to capture signposts in the video myself, I recognized that students would need something to write with and a place to record the numbers/stats and information from experts (quoted words) they heard. I found I was unable to hold the numbers in my head until the end of the video. Having a place to write them down helped. We also paused the video a couple of times to stop and jot.
Students noticed that Moko saved more than one whale. They were shocked to hear the whales had beached themselves four times. Malcolm Smith, a local rescuer and expert, shared that Moko managed to save the whales in minutes after rescuers had been trying for more than an hour and a half. Holding on to this information by jotting allowed us to have some discussion about why the author included the information he did. Students determined that the author wanted us to think highly of Moko. By trying the strategy first, I surpassed the goal of the minilesson and reduced distractions that might have disrupted learning.
A Crowdsourced Minilesson
Although all minilessons involve planning, sometimes it is most effective not to plan every detail, but rather to jump in and make a minilesson work using input from members of the class. My favorite time to do this is during writing lessons. Thinking aloud can be a powerful way to model writerly thinking for students. However, a straight think-aloud can be disengaging for many learners. By infusing a teacher think-aloud with crowdsourcing, students remain more engaged and try on the decision-making processes a writer must go through.
While we were working on writing a comparison/contrast essay, I asked students to brainstorm ways in which two stories were different. All I had come up with was that the first story contained a character whose exceptionality was accepted by others and the second story featured a character whose exceptionality was not accepted. Through the beauty of crowdsourcing, we identified that the setting of each story affected whether the characters were accepted. The first story took place in the present, and the second story took place in the past, during a time when exceptionalities were less understood and more likely to be met with rejection. Crowdsourcing turned out to be more engaging and resulted in a more complex demonstration.
By focusing on responding to students rather than a predetermined curriculum, minilessons put strategies in the hands of students when the need is present. As Cornelius Minor reminds us, it is not the teaching, but rather the time students spend practicing that leads to mastery.