Every year, teachers are asked to do more–close the gap, make learning fun, use technology, encourage independence, provide quality feedback, collaborate, and so on. It’s not easy finding a class structure that perfectly meets the needs of students, administrators, and classroom evaluators. When it comes to teaching writing with mini lessons, however, you can get pretty close.
How I Discovered Mini Lessons
During my first year of teaching, I tried really hard to create long, dynamic lectures. My favorite teacher in high school had been able to lecture for hours at a time without losing my interest; I wanted to be able to do the same.
But no matter how interesting or well-planned I thought my lessons were, my students always eventually lost interest. Plus, they didn’t have any time in class to put their new knowledge to use. And I was spending a ton of time outside of class grading and providing comments.
When I discovered mini lessons, many of these issues disappeared!
Mini lessons are now one of my favorite structures for lesson planning (especially for creative writing). When done well, I believe they lead to more independence and confidence in students and they get this introverted teacher out of the spotlight–wins all around.
In this post, I’ll cover the benefits of using mini lessons, especially for writing, and how to structure your own.
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What are Mini Lessons?
If you pick up any number of professional development books on mini lessons, you’ll find many definitions.
Some say that mini lessons have to cover a certain topic or content areas.
Others give strict requirements for time limits.
Here, I’ll give you my own definition of mini lessons.
Mini lessons are exactly what they sound like–short (mini) lessons or lectures. Those little lectures are followed by activities that let students immediately implement what they’ve learned.
A mini lesson includes a short period of direct instruction followed by independent practice for students. Within this framework, the direct instruction and practice components can vary greatly, but this will be our general working definition for now.
How “Mini” is Mini?
The term “mini” will vary depending on your class structure and time. I teach in ninety-minute blocks, so my mini lessons can go on for up to forty-five minutes sometimes.
A teacher with a forty-five minute class time, however, will probably find that fifteen to twenty minutes for direct instruction is the sweet spot.
The independent practice portion can be anything from a worksheet to working on a project. Typically, mini lessons involve more creative thinking activities–writing,
Why Use Mini Lessons When Teaching Writing?
There are many reasons that mini lessons are effective. Mini lessons provide:
There are benefits for the instructor, as well.
Direct instruction is an essential part of teaching. I think it gets a bad rap–there’s always a new activity, a new fad, or new technology that tries to replace it.
But sometimes in order to teach, you just have to get up there and, well, teach.
Mini lessons allow for direct instruction, but limit the instruction time to prevent lectures from becoming stale, boring, or losing students.
Gradual Release of Responsibility
My students tend to be very dependent. They wait for me to go over the answer, approve of a response before they write it down, or ask questions they already know the answer too.
For some, it’s laziness. For others, it’s the fear of getting it wrong or disappointing their teacher. With mini lessons, students are eased into working on their own.
This might not be true with every mini lesson from every teacher, but it’s how I run my mini lessons usually. For example, in my “Show. Don’t Tell” mini lesson, I give examples on how to turn a telling sentence into a showing paragraph.
Then, we work as a whole class to turn a telling sentence into a showing paragraph.
Students randomly draw a telling sentence. They brainstorm details that could show rather than tell than sentence.
And then, finally, they write a showing paragraph.
Each step is built to build the student’s confidence. By the time we get to the activity, the know the expectations and what success will look like. They don’t need my approval.
Scaffolding ties in with the gradual release of responsibility. It is the scaffolding that allows for the release.
Again, this isn’t true of every mini lesson from every teacher, but I think it’s easy to build scaffolding into a lesson. Usually, you show an example and you do some modeling.
You may also provide a graphic organizer, a handout, or some other support for students to use as they work.
I do this in my tone mini lesson.
In this lesson, students randomly pick a strip of paper with a neutral situation on it like “eating in the cafeteria” and then they pick a random strip with a tone word like “humorous”. They would have to combine the two to write a paragraph about eating in the cafeteria in a humorous tone.
But before that, they write shorter practice situations that aren’t random. I also give them a tone handout, should they forget what tone is in the process.
Here’s more about scaffolding techniques in another post. I also talk about scaffolding specifically for creative writing classes here.
This, to me, is the biggest instructional benefit to using mini lessons.
If I only teach for, say, twenty minutes, that gives students more time to actually do the work, practice, critique one another, get feedback, and make revisions.
When students are working on a writing activity, I always walk around the room. Sometimes, I’m aimless and wander, giving unsolicited feedback.
Other times, I let students work for a bit before purposely sitting and chatting with each student about their writing so far.
What is important, however, is that students get immediate, in-the-moment feedback. They can quickly course correct or revise. That’s where the learning happens.
Personally, as an introverted teacher, I love mini lessons because they take the focus away from me. I do my thing for just a short amount of time, and then the focus is on the students. Walking around, checking in, and giving one-on-one feedback is way better than trying to entertain twenty teenagers at a time.
I believe my students prefer shorter lectures, too. I see so much learning happening while students grapple during independent practice.
When students are able to engage in guided practice, they’re forced to try new skills. Instead of bailing out when concepts become challenging–like they might be tempted to do with homework–I’m there to help them get unstuck.
How Do You Structure Writing Mini Lessons?
Again, every instructor will have his or her own style for mini lessons. This is how I do mine.
Structuring Writing Mini Lessons Step 1: Identify the Goal
First, you need to know what you’re teaching of course. I love mini lessons for teaching or reinforcing skills. I love mini lessons for grammar and writing especially.
It’s important to narrow down your focus. One of the hardest parts about creating a mini lesson is keeping it, well, mini.
Writing an essay is way too much content for a mini lesson. How to write a thesis statement, however, is perfect.
When planning your class, it’s nice to know what your end goals are. Are students writing a speech? A short story? A poem? Use that end goal and work backwards, breaking apart the skills students will need to be successful.
Structuring Writing Mini Lessons Step 2: Choose the Student Task
Wait, wait! Why plan the student task before I map out the lesson? Isn’t that backwards?
Well, yes it is! I love backwards design!
Knowing what we want students to be able to do by the end of class or by the end of the lesson will force us to really concentrate our short lesson on only what students absolutely need to know.
You don’t have to do it this way–you could certainly plan your lesson first and then create an assignment to go with it. I’d be lying if I said I haven’t done that, too. But I do think working backwards almost always yields better results.
So, what kind of task would you like students to perform?
Notice that I used the work “task”. We want students to do or create something here. That rules out quizzes and worksheets as the end goal.
(You can totally use quizzes and worksheets! I use these as an intermediary step sometimes, like in my dialogue mini lesson. But ultimately, students should have a small performance task.)
Earlier, I used the example of a mini lessons on writing thesis statements. If that was your topic, you’d obviously want to students to write a thesis statement by the end of class.
If you want to teach students how to properly punctuate and construct a dialogue between characters, you’ll probably want them to actually write a conversation between two characters.
Keep these tasks short. They’re practice, after all, not a major assessment.
Structuring Writing Mini Lessons Step 3: Create Your Lesson
You know the end goal. You know what students are going to have to complete by the end of class.
Now, what will the need to know in order to do task?
My mini lessons are usually pretty straightforward presentations. When the lesson is short, you don’t have to do as much to keep students engaged.
Generally, my lessons follow the same structure:
- Introduce the topic, along with any need-to-know definitions or terms
- Provide or model an example
- Do an example with the class
- Go over the assignment
For our thesis creation example, you can see how this would work. You’d first tell students what a thesis statement is and why we’d use it. You would show students an example of one and talk about it.
Then, you might work with the class to create a thesis for an example question.
Lastly, you’d have students write a thesis statement for their own papers. As they work, you’d walk around, checking on their work, and offering feedback.
In my “Show. Don’t Tell” mini lesson, I have students select a random “telling” sentence and then turn it into a “showing” paragraph. (It’s a really fun activity!)
Teaching the Mini Lesson
Once you have your goal, your lesson, and the student task all worked out, you’re good to go! I do have some tips for you, though.
First, there is an art to the mini lesson. The first time I teach any mini lesson, I usually end up running long. It’s way, way too easy to create a lesson that is just too long.
If you find that your mini lesson is not-so-mini, that’s ok! Take note and adjust for next time.
I recommend having students do at least some practice in class immediately after the mini lesson. That way you can help them course correct if they don’t understand the skill or concept at first.
But in a pinch, if your lesson runs long you can always assign the task as homework or leave it for the next day.
I also recommend touching base with each student as they work, if possible. While students work, walk around and look over their shoulders. Give lots of praise for work well done or concepts mastered. Give gentle suggestions to students who haven’t quite mastered the skill yet.
I love my walking feedback. Not only does it help students learn and make corrections in the moment, but it gives me time to make connections with them, too. I’ll often note some cool new shoes or ask about their weekends while passing by.
You’ll have to be careful, of course, to make sure conversation doesn’t dominate the whole class, but getting some casual conversation going sometimes encourages my students to talk to another about the assignment.
I might remark on a student’s creative approach to a poem, which will then lead another student to ask to read the poem. They end up trading work and giving one another feedback–all without much from me.
For this alone, I love mini lessons. It takes instruction out of my hands and puts it back into the students. I prefer being a facilitator and a coach than a boss.
Learn More About Mini Lessons
I use mini lessons routinely in my classroom, but I’m no expert!
I mention several times in this post that every teacher’s style of mini lesson is going to vary. If you’re truly interested in diving deep into mini lessons, there are some fantastic professional development books on this topic.
Mini lessons are a must-have in your teaching arsenal! They include a little bit of everything–direct instruction, guided practice, and opportunities for meaningful feedback.
Plus, they keep you from talking nonstop for eight hours, which my voice box totally appreciates.
I have some great mini lessons right here if you’d like to save time by using someone else’s!
I also encourage you to grab this FREE Mood and Tone Student Handout to help you with any future mini lessons on those topics.