Explicit Teaching- The Mini-lesson

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Students will learn teacher and student expectations for mini-lessons.

Big Idea

Maximize effectiveness of your mini-lesson through explicit teaching of student behaviors

My Lens

Over the next two weeks I am going to "fold in" teaching points about the structure and expected student behaviors during Readers Workshop.  Basically it starts with a mini-lesson, followed by independent reading with teacher- student conferences/ and or strategy groups, concluding with time for partners to talk about their books.  But this lesson is just focused on the "how" of a mini-lesson.

What is a Mini-lesson?

10 minutes

Here is what Lucy Calkins has to say, “Workshops are deliberately kept simple and predictable, like an art studio or a researcher’s laboratory, because it is the work itself that is ever changing and complex.…Each day’s teaching in a workshop does not set up a new hoop for the students to all jump through in sync. Instead, for the bulk of time during each day, students carry on with their work. As they do so, they draw upon a growing repertoire of skills, tools, strategies, and habit.”

A short but powerful component of the reading workshop is the mini-lesson, followed by independent reading with conferring and/or strategy  groups, ending with a  partner share.  The mini-lesson typically happens in the gathering place in your classroom.  A place where you have the students up close and personal- now a days most likely sitting on a rug with an easel and access to a doc camera and computer.  I think this started back in the 1990s when the whole language movement was in full swing and teachers were recreating what happens between an adult and a younger during the preschool years.  Commonly known as lap reading.

It's called a  mini-lesson because it is just that:  Mini! I strive to keep my mini-lessons between 10-12 minutes long.  To assist me with keeping my mini-lessons short I use a timer.  An important part of the mini-lesson is a demonstration of a skill for the students to see it in action.  Another important aspect of the mini-lesson is active engagement, where the students might turn and talk. The reason for this is we want the bulk of the reading workshop to be for students to be reading.  We get better at a new and complex skill with practice.  Lots of Practice! I bet you have heard of the book Outliers:  The Story of Success by Malcome Galdwell.  He discusses the 10,000 hour rule.  No, kids do not need to read for 10,000 hours, but the message is clear.  They need time in books; reading books.  Not listening to a teacher talk about how to read books. Time to read is important because standard R.10 requires students to read and comprehend a range of complex texts by the end of the grades 4–5 text complexity band independently and proficiently. 

A mini-lesson starts with a connection- where the objective is woven in.  Then you move on to a demonstration that models a strategy that develops the skill you're teaching.  I write my objectives in this format:  Readers _______________by __________________.  The skill goes into the first blank and the strategy goes into the second blank.. I do this so students can explicitly practice using a strategy to develop a reading skill.  Next it is important to have the students actively engaged with the practice aspect.  Sometimes you might have them bring up their books, notebooks and post-its so they can apply the strategy you are teaching on the spot.  Other times you can have them turn and talk.

After the active engagement end your mini-lesson with a link where you restate the objective before sending the students off to read.  Your students will hear the objective 4 times. Once in each section of the mini-lesson.  As you can see, there is a lot going on in a mini-lesson- and that is the danger.  It is common to keep the kids on the rug longer than 10-15 minutes.  That is a mistake because then they will not have enough time to actually read.

Time is important. We all feel a great sense of urgency.  Teaching explicit behaviors on the rug are imperative so that you can teach the mini-lesson within the limited amount of time.  Students need to know what is expected of them.  In my classroom, and actually school wide we have norms for each part of the reading workshop.  This year we have developed school wide discussion norms for the content areas.  These norms bleed over into other content areas, so our time is well spent teaching expected behaviors.

Teaching Explicit Behaviors

10 minutes

Before class, make a seating chart of their just right spots on the rug.  See video clip. I match up personalities and reading levels best I can. Be prepared to make changes as you get to know the different personalities of your students. (Students sit next to their reading partner at their desks, too, so they share with the same partner everyday at the end of the workshop. Remembering to allow time for the partner share is important because it takes time for these relationships to bloom and flourish.  I want the students to care about their reading partner and be interested in the books each other is reading.  In other words, I want the experience to be authentic.  At the beginning of the year it feels a little forced but teacher effort used on teaching routines  and developing powerful partnerships will really pay off as the year progresses.  The gains will be in time spent reading and the discussions the students have with each other and the whole class discussions based on the mentor text.  Are you picturing those kids who are hard to partner up?  Yes I have them as well.  Sometimes it takes a while to figure out kids and for them to feel safe enough to be themselves.  But, teaching how to be a good partner will help.  (More on that in another lesson.)

Begin by calling students one at a time to show them where they will sit each day.  Once they are all seated in an array on the rug, use the chart to let students know who their turn and talk and reading partner will be.  I have kids practice turning and talking with their partners by asking a question for them to discuss observing our discussion norms. As a staff, we have developed school-wide discussion norms that we use across content areas.  I also have developed talking prompts that I hold up to guide students in repeating, adding on to what someone has said, explaining their thinking and giving reasons (because).  Click here to learn more about discussion prompts that I provided for my students at the beginning of the year to scaffold their talk.  Something that works well for me is to label the columns ABAB.  Students in columns 1 and 3 are Partners A and students sitting in columns 2 and 4 are Partners B.  Developing invisible structure to the seating and procedures on the rug allows you to accomplish important tasks in 10 minutes or less.