Never Underestimate the Importance of Mini Lessons

I want to walk you through the steps of my most effective process to improve student writing on a large scale. Volume is important. Students need to write a lot. Conferences are great, too. They may be the best method to move one writer at a time, but when you have over 125 students it’s nearly impossible to confer with them for every piece of writing.

Volume works well because it forces students to transfer their thinking into action, and that is a process that needs to be repeated over and over again. But assigning a lot of writing it is not the be-all and end-all to improve student composition.

Let me use an analogy. As a basketball coach, I can order my players to take 500 shots a day, they will become more comfortable and confident as shooters. But if their mechanics are poor, their balance is off, or their footwork lacks fundamentals, they will likely continue these bad habits. They may make significant strides as a shooter if they are exceptionally self reflective and can analyze their own mistakes.  But more likely, they will see slow, gradual improvement, if they do at all.

Yet, if they are coached with highly specific constructive criticism, their growth will accelerate.

Mini lessons provide the highly specific feedback that students need. They need to be taught the principle, they need to see effective models, and they need to practice the skill for mastery. This is why mini lessons are essential; they hit all three targets.

Deep Practice

All of this comes from a book I read a few years ago by Danny Coyle, The Talent Code: Greatness Isn’t Born. It’s Grown. Here’s How.

 In it he writes:

“Deep practice feels a bit like exploring a dark and unfamiliar room. You start slowly, you bump into furniture, stop, think, and start again. Slowly, and a little painfully, you explore the space over and over, attending to errors, extending your reach into the room a bit farther each time, building a mental map until you can move through it quickly and intuitively.”

“Deep practice is built on a paradox: struggling in certain targeted ways—operating at the edges of your ability, where you make mistakes—makes you smarter. Or to put it a slightly different way, experiences where you’re forced to slow down, make errors, and correct them—as you would if you were walking up an ice-covered hill, slipping and stumbling as you go—end up making you swift and graceful without your realizing it.”

TED has a great video on the need for deliberate practice:

The Nuts and Bolts of a Mini Lesson

A mini lesson is a short lesson with a narrow focus that provides instruction in a skill or concept that is situatued into the larger unit of study. A mini lesson typically last between 10-20 minutes and can be used to teach particular skills, extend previous learning, create interest in a topic and generate questions, or introduce strategies.

Writing mini lessons provide the opportunity for students to be in situations in which they’re “forced to slow down, make errors, and correct them.”

Here is how you can maximize that time.

The 4 Steps to Mini Lesson Mastery

1. Impact — I believe you must start writing mini lessons with bold statements. Please don’t begin with, “Now class, today I’m going to teach you how to properly use the comma.” You must capture their attention in a more demanding way.

Here’s why.

As Simon Sinek advocates in Start with Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action:

“Very few people or companies can clearly articulate WHY they do WHAT they do. By WHY I mean your purpose, cause or belief – WHY does your company exist? WHY do you get out of bed every morning? And WHY should anyone care?

People don’t buy WHAT you do, they buy WHY you do it.

We are drawn to leaders and organizations that are good at communicating what they believe. Their ability to make us feel like we belong, to make us feel special, safe and not alone is part of what gives them the ability to inspire us.”

If you are going to teach a mini lesson on comma use YOU have to know why the comma matters. YOU must believe in its necessity. YOU must understand what happens when it is used incorrectly. And YOU must find a captivating and interesting way to present it to your students.

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The comma does matter. See what I mean.

If you succeed in making an impact, you will have your class in the palm of your hand for the rest of the mini lesson. But it doesn’t happen by being meek, obvious, or uninspired.

2. Strategy and Skills — Stephen Covey, author of the mega bestseller, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, believes that a habit is the intersection of “knowledge (what to do), skill (how to do), and desire (want to do).”  If we want the skill of the mini lesson to transfer into a repeated practice, students must understand the strategy and see it in context. There must be knowledge imparted (the strategy) and their must be a fundament (the skill) demonstrated.

Here are my five comma rules that I see students violate the most:

1. Use commas to separate independent clauses when they are joined by any of these seven coordinating conjunctions: and, but, for, or, nor, so, yet.

2. Use commas after introductory a) clauses, b) phrases, or c) words that come before the main clause.

3. Use a pair of commas in the middle of a sentence to set off clauses, phrases, and words that are not essential to the meaning of the sentence. Use one comma before to indicate the beginning of the pause and one at the end to indicate the end of the pause.

4. Use commas to separate three or more words, phrases, or clauses written in a series.

5. Use commas to set off all geographical names, items in dates (except the month and day), addresses (except the street number and name), and titles in names.

That information will be abstract to my students, that’s why I never teach them all at once. Instead I teach each in context, responding to what I see in my student writing. When I teaching each rule in the mini lesson, I follow the public speaking maxim of “tell them what you are going to say, say it, and tell them what you just said.” Seeing it in context and hearing it over and over again over the course of the mini lesson reduces the abstraction and helps makes the concept stick.

3. Guided Practice — The crucial part of the mini lesson is when students implement the strategy and skill. They need that deliberate practice. Let them explore their own facility in the concept, feeling their way through the process, and gaining feedback along the way. Let them get their hands dirty and mess around with a skill in a risk-free environment. I like to give them a new piece of writing that is missing the specific comma rule for that lesson. They must add it to the essay, and I am flying round the room, getting down to eye level with students, and asking questions of their thinking.

4. Bridging — The last part of mini-lesson mastery involves bridging the lesson back to prior knowledge or a relevant life experience. Like the impact of Step 1, bridging must leave a lasting impression. It must validate what students have learned and provide a sense of empowerment and accomplishment.

Your Turn

What is your favorite mini lesson to teach? Is it w writing lesson? Background on an author? A reading skill? I would love to read about your experiences in the comments section.


2 thoughts on “Never Underestimate the Importance of Mini Lessons

  1. I have always wanted to teach my AP students how to use semicolons and colons effectively and this was a great post for me to read to think about how that might work in class. Thanks!

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