Architecture of a Mini-Lesson: A Structure for Effective Teaching

Effective teaching through mini lessons
If you have been teaching for a while, you have likely heard the term “mini-lesson” used quite a bit. You may have even heard about the “architecture of a mini-lesson.”

Lucy Calkins is widely credited with engineering the mini-lesson (at least the way it is used in Writing Workshop.) That is probably correct, but the truth is that her structure is really just based on what we know about effective teaching.

Years ago (I’m dating myself now) back in the 80s and 90s, Madeline Hunter’s methodology for lesson design was all the rage. Every lesson plan I wrote in college had to follow these steps:

1- Hook (AKA Anticipatory Set) – Get student attention and focus their thoughts on the learning to come.

2- Objective and Purpose – Clearly state the purpose of the lesson. What will students learn and why is it important to know?

3- Input – Deliver the new information in an effective manner. Direct instruction.

4- Modeling– The teacher demonstrates how to use the new information/skills. Students have a chance to “see” it done correctly.

5- Check for Understanding– The teacher uses questioning (hopefully through active response strategies) to make sure students understand the new information. At this point the teacher decides whether to move on or stop and reteach.

6- Guided Practice– The students have an opportunity to apply the new knowledge/skill under the direct supervision of the teacher. The teacher provides immediate feedback.

7- Independent Practice– The students are released to apply the new learning on their own.

8- Closure – The teacher “wraps up” the lesson, summarizing what was learned.

I swear, if I wrote 1 lesson plan within that format I wrote 1,000! At the time it felt torturous (they made us write out every word, like a script!) However, in hindsight, it was a blessing. Those Ed professors knew what they were doing. Forcing us to think about each step of our lesson in that manner trained our minds to teach that way subconsciously. It’s a powerful model and really hasn’t changed too much over the years. Yes, we add a little more authenticity to our tasks these days- a little more kinesthetic movement- a little more technology, but the basic framework for successful teaching still stands!

That brings me to Calkins’ architecture.

When you teach Writing Workshop, your mini-lesson lasts from 5-15 minutes (generally the rule of thumb is one minute per year of student age. So, 5 minutes for 5 year olds, 10 minutes for 10 year olds, etc.) That’s not a hard and fast rule, but if your kindergarten mini-lesson lasts 20 minutes, you are going too long.

Notice how the recommended steps for a Writing Workshop mini-lesson closely follow Hunter’s model above!

1. Connection: Explicitly state the teaching point of the day’s lesson and explain how it relates to the ongoing unit of study.

2. Teach: Provide concise and direct instruction about the lesson’s main teaching point. This often will involve telling, thinking aloud, explaining, noticing examples from mentor texts, and modeling.

3. Active Involvement: Students are invited to quickly “try it out” before being released for independent writing. This may involve “turn and talk” with a neighbor, trying something independently, or planning for writing time. The teacher stays involved and watches closely, often ending this segment with something she overheard or observed students saying/doing/writing.

4. The mini-lesson ends and students are released for independent practice. During independent writing, the teacher conferences with students, providing immediate feedback and coaching.

5. Share: Bring closure to the writing time, often validating student work, problem-solving, or emphasizing the teaching point from the mini-lesson.

Did you notice how closely aligned those two models are? Good teaching is good teaching.

Even if you don’t currently teach writing through Writing Workshop, examining those steps is powerful. I know that I have often been guilty of neglecting guided practice in my teaching. I have to make a conscious plan to add that element to my lessons. It’s easy to skip but really important!

Do you use a model like this when you plan your instruction? Is there something you would add or change?

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What is Writing Workshop? An Overview

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What is Writing Workshop?

The simplest answer is that it is a structure for teaching writing. However, that answer doesn’t quite do the job because Writing Workshop (WW) springs from a philosophical point of view called constructivism. It’s based on a belief that children are capable people who learn best when given the opportunity to construct their own understanding (“learn while doing.”) Therefore, teachers in a WW see their students (even those who are quite young) as competent writers with interesting ideas and stories to tell. They also believe that with intentional instruction and support, those children are perfectly capable of learning how to write meaningful and interesting pieces just like “real” writers.

What is the teacher’s role in Writing Workshop? [Read more…]

What Do Kids Need To Learn About Writing?

What Do Kids Need to Learn About Writing I got some great responses to my last post– many of them in person in school hallways or grocery store aisles, but also via text and email. The overarching themes were:

1- Writing is about so much more than conventions! 

2- Teachers want to be excellent writing teachers but often feel they need some coaching and support to get there.

I agree and am thrilled to engage in this topic here on Wonder Teacher!

Did you try my little exercise from the last post? (You know- the one where you wrote down all the things “good writers” do and then examined your practice to see if you are teaching those things to your students?)

I did! Here’s what I came up with. This is not a comprehensive list, by the way, just a bit of my brainstorm. After each point, I’ll list an implication for our teaching practice. [Read more…]

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