As an educator responsible for more than 125 students, my quest to enhance their writing skills significantly necessitates a highly effective, scalable process. Crucially, it involves more than simply assigning substantial amounts of writing, though this does play a significant role.
Consider this in terms of my experience as a basketball coach. I can encourage my team to make 500 shots a day, no doubt leading to increased comfort and confidence in their shooting ability. But, should their technique be flawed, or their footwork imprecise, their progress will likely be hampered, with only slow, minor improvements. The same is true in writing. Mere repetition, devoid of specific guidance, only serves to ingrain bad habits.
In both basketball and writing, what truly drives accelerated growth is the provision of targeted, constructive feedback. Without coaching or instruction, even the most reflective individuals might struggle to pinpoint and rectify their errors.
This brings me to the heart of my method for improving student writing – mini lessons. They’re crucial in delivering that very specific feedback that students need to develop their writing skills. Each mini-lesson aims to teach a writing principle, provide an effective model demonstrating that principle, and finally, allow students the opportunity to practice and master the skill.
This way, akin to refining a basketball player’s technique with personalized advice, I can instigate significant improvements in my students’ writing, while ensuring my methods are scalable to large classrooms.
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 situated into the larger unit of study. A mini-lesson typically lasts 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.
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.
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 an 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 repeated practice, students must understand the strategy and see it in context. There must be knowledge imparted (the strategy) and there must be a fundament (the skill) demonstrated.
Here are my five comma rules that I see students violate the most:
- Use commas to separate independent clauses when they are joined by any of these seven coordinating conjunctions: and, but, for, or, nor, so, yet.
- Use commas after introductory a) clauses, b) phrases, or c) words that come before the main clause.
- 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.
- Use commas to separate three or more words, phrases, or clauses written in a series.
- 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 teach 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 throughout 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 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 around the room, getting down to eye level with students, and asking questions about 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.
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.