Ready to use mini lessons in your writing workshop, but not sure how? This post will take you the entire process from choosing your lessons to teaching.
Let’s get started!
What’s a mini lesson?
A mini lesson is a short, 10 – 15 minute lesson that you teach by modeling a skill for your students.
After you’ve taught the mini lesson, your students will complete a similar task — using what they learned in the mini lesson you modeled.
- model the lesson – show students what you want them to do.
- keep it mini — your modeling should be short and to the point.
Why should you use mini lessons in writing workshop?
Writing is hard – and teaching writing is even harder.
What is easy and obvious to you as a teacher, isn’t clear to your students.
How often have you heard a student say, “You told me I needed four sentences in a paragraph. There are four sentences in this paragraph!”
We know that four sentences alone don’t make a paragraph — but what is the best way to teach this? Yep, a mini lesson.
By breaking down writing elements into “baby bites” that your students can practice and master, you are simplifying the complex writing process that is so difficult for many of our students to learn.
Mini lessons are the perfect way to do this.
What mini lessons should I teach?
Start by looking at the elements that will go into a writing assignment.
If you need Mini Lesson planners, I’ve got you covered. You can grab them by filling in the form below.
But don’t forget to use your standards. Although you’ll want to add more lessons, your standards will help you set up an outline for your mini lessons.
For example, let’s say you want to teach narrative writing.
You know that your students will need to brainstorm, narrow their topic, organize their thoughts, determine important and unimportant details, formulate paragraphs, include sensory language, use transitions…the list goes on!
First, decide the order to teach the skills. Usually you’ll start from the general (brainstorming, gathering ideas) to specific (word choice, sentence structure).
Include the big writing tasks, but don’t get overwhelmed with the details. You’ll be able to adjust the lessons as you go along.
Put the mini lessons you’re planning to teach into your calendar or plan book — one lesson per day — or per day of writing workshop (because you may not have writing workshop each day).
Pro Tip! Build “work days” and “catch up” days into your calendar. That will give your calendar flexibility.
You can find a mini lesson planner and tip sheet in my resource library. (new funnel and opt in – editable calendar)
How to engage students
Before you jump in, be sure to get the student “buy in.”
If this is your first time using mini lessons, you’ll find there is a
bit of a learning curve for both students and teacher.
I think it helps to spend time talking about what a “workshop” means.
What happens in a workshop where someone builds or creates something? In this website, there are 11 different ways to build a chair! And just Googling, “How to make a chair” resulted in tons of hits!
Get your students thinking about what happens in a workshop where someone is building a chair:
- the creator has an idea
- they may sketch out the design
- gather materials
- start building
- add what is needed to the construction
- complete it by adding finishing touches
This sounds like the steps to writing something!
By taking time to get your students on board with the workshop style of writing, you’ll take away some of the anxiety that writing brings.
Focus on this matra:
We are working on our writing.
This can be actually very exciting and liberating for students.
How do I structure the lesson?
First, remember that the structure will be flexible. You may not use a 45 or 50 minute class period. Your lesson timing will depend on the particular mini lesson, your students, and your teaching style.
In general, you’ll follow this circle graph for your lesson:
However, you may find your students need less time to complete the mini lesson. Be ready for this.
This blog post can help: What students are doing during writing workshop?
Remember: When you are first starting with writing workshop, your students probably won’t have the stamina to write for more than ten or fifteen minutes — maybe even less.
Be prepared for this! Make sure you aren’t asking your students to write a draft of a 300 word essay right out of the gates.
Planning your mini lesson
For our narrative writing example, your first mini lesson might be simply defining the elements of a narrative.
Before class: Think about how you are going to teach the mini lesson. You want to create an anchor chart that includes the elements of a narrative.
1.You can either create a simple anchor chart (or list of elements) on your white board or make a poster board that you can tack up on your classroom wall.
2. Provide your students with a graphic organizer that they can either recreate in their writing notebook or resource book.
Don’t skip this. This is important since it helps your students engage with and remember what your mini lesson is about.
3. Gather up books that are examples of narratives. Your librarian can help you collect a variety of picture books, easy readers, novels, graphic novels, and so on.
You will turn to these foundations again and again as you teach narrative writing. Your students can refer to the chart and look at examples of narratives as they write their own.
The mini lesson part
This is where you, as the teacher, will give the mini lesson.
Start by modeling the lesson.
Your mini lesson shouldn’t last more than 10 – 15 minutes (at the most!). Remember to keep it mini!!
Here’s an example:
Open class by introducing your new writing assignment — creating a narrative. But before you get started writing, you want to make sure everyone understand what makes a narrative a narrative.
Use one or two of the books you’ve gathered to model how you are analyzing the elements of a narrative.
You can start the anchor chart (or list) by writing down something you notice about a narrative.
For example, you can say, “I know these are all narratives because they are telling a story. They aren’t a science book or a math text. I can see by flipping through that the writer is telling a story.”
Then write that on your anchor chart: “a narrative tells a story”
You can see why you don’t want this step to last too long. The kids are watching you work and listening to you “think.” It can get boring!
Pro tip: Use a timer!! Set it for 10 minutes while you teach your mini lesson. This will help prevent you from running over your allotted time.
Once they understand the task, you want them to start working.
The writing workshop part
Next 15 – 20 minutes.
Here is where the “workshop” of writing workshop comes in. Students are going to:
- take what they learned from your modeling mini lesson and
- do the same thing
So, you’ve modeled how to do the task, now they need to complete the graphic organizer using a few of the books you’ve gathered.
This may not take 15 minutes. You know your students best — and know how much time they need. Some tasks in writing workshop last longer than others.
I said this before, but it bears repeating:
When you first start with writing workshop, your students may not have the stamina to write for ten minutes. Be ready for this by making sure you don’t give them too much time.
You want to be flexible here.
Students who finish early and have nothing to do can become a problem. You may want to have a list of “what to do next” on your board, or you may just want students to read part of one of the books they are analyzing for the anchor chart.
What to do while students are working
While they are working, you’ll want to circulate around the room. Try not to spend time with one student for too long. Encourage them to keep working. They’ve already seen you model. (speaking from experience here — they will try to get you to complete the chart for them!!)
When time is up, you move on to the “wrap up and share”
Wrapping up writing workshop
Last 5 – 10 minutes: This is time for sharing, wrapping up, and addressing any questions.
For our narrative example, project your anchor chart and ask students to help you complete it.
As they add information, encourage them to check their own graphic organizer to make sure they have the same information. They can add anything they’ve missed.
How long should writing workshop last
The timing in writing workshop can be tricky. Students surprise me — one class will finish quickly and another will need more time!
Be mindful of the time! Use a timer to keep your mini lessons short and track the time your students have to work. You will learn how much time your class needs.
Remember that your students may not have a lot of writing stamina when they first get started.
As the writing process for these lessons progresses, students will need more time to complete their tasks. Base the time you allot students to work on the task’s complexity.
For example, the narrative anchor chart may not take students more than 10 minutes to complete, but writing a draft of a narrative essay may take a few workshop sessions.
What about grading writing workshop
You have many options here.
- have students use exit cards to share with you what they accomplished in workshop
- students can respond to a journal prompt
- you can collect the activity to assess how they are doing as a formative assessment
- keep a “walking grade book” or checklist that you can use to keep notations on student work as you walk around the room
- if you want to wait until all of your workshop activities are over, you can have students staple them together and turn them in
- you can assign points for each mini lesson activity — and students can earn points as they complete work
If your students have trouble staying on task, it can be helpful to collect their work each day. If they know you will be reviewing, they will take it more seriously.
Rather than grading each item, you can scan to make sure you don’t need to reteach a lesson.
Additionally, by reviewing your students’ work regularly, you can group students for conferences and determine what mini lessons they need next.
Frequently asked questions:
Where do mini lessons come from?
One of the wonderful things about writing workshop and mini lessons is that you can tailor the lessons to meet your students’ needs.
Mini lessons can come from:
1. Your standards. Take a look at this one for writing an expository essay from the Common Core:
W6.2.A: Introduce a topic; organize ideas, concepts, and information, using strategies such as definition, classification, comparison/contrast, and cause/effect; include formatting (e.g., headings), graphics (e.g., charts, tables), and multimedia when useful to aiding comprehension.
Whoa! There is a lot in there!
But, if you take it apart, you can see that there are several mini lessons that you can teach:
- ways to introduce a topic
- methods of organizing ideas
- organizational strategies like definition
- using headings
- creating meaningful graphics
- using multimedia to clarify
You can probably imagine a mini lesson for writing introductions.
That small piece of the writing process is so important! And also a mini lesson!
2. Are your students writing run ons and comma splices until you’re ready to scream?
Use your students’ current writing problems as a springboard for your mini lessons.
As you are reviewing work, keep a pad of paper or notebook nearby so you can take notes on what you are seeing. These can be mini lessons.
What about students who finish early?
Of course, you’ll have students who work at different rates. Fast finishers can be a distraction when they proclaim, “I’m finished!”
To handle this, simply keep a list on your white board titled “What to do when you’re finished writing.”
Your list might include:
- read your independent reading book
- pull a journal prompt stick and respond to it in your journal
- complete a vocabulary activity
- work on your graphic novel page
- complete an item on the choice board
Four things to keep in mind:
1. Teach your students how to do the items on the list.
Before you even start workshop, teach your students complete items you may have on the list. If you don’t, they will interrupt you and other students with questions.
You can find help with that in this post on writing workshop expectations.
2. Don’t make more grading work for yourself!
If you want your students to write in a journal, you can assess those once a month. Or, you can have a class period in which students choose a journal entry to clean up and turn in for an assessment.
3. NO BUSYWORK!!
Students are quick to see what is valuable work and what it simply busywork. Crossword puzzles and word finds are fine in a pinch — but call them what they are. They really are not meaningful work!
4. What about students who don’t finish early?
Decide how you want to handle this. You don’t want to penalize students who work more slowly by giving them more work. AND you don’t want to be chasing after work.
That’s why I like having independent reading as number one on the “what to do when you’re finished” list. Most of the time, students who finish early will have 5 – 10 minutes of time before workshop is over, so independent reading works well.
What should I do if workshop doesn’t fill the entire class period?
In reality, most of our students won’t be able to write for 15 – 20 minutes when they first begin workshop. And, you may have a group of students where this will never be the case!
That can mean that writing workshop lasts for 20 – 25 minutes. What about the rest of the time?
I like to think about teaching in blocks. So your class might look like:
- warm up
- read aloud (yes, even in middle school!)
- writing workshop
- grammar lesson or mentor sentence of the day
- vocabulary review
Even if you just teach writing, there are other aspects you’ll need to teach. Prioritize your teaching with most to least important (well — yes, they are ALL important!) — remember that your students will have the most energy at the start of class.
Writing workshop is a BLAST to teach — and makes the huge task of writing manageable for our students!
The keys are to take time to organize your plan, help students understand what they need to do each week — and jump in!
Need extra help?
If you need additional ideas or mini lessons that are done for you, check out these items in my shop: