What are the makings of a good mini lesson for writing?
Today on the podcast we’re talking with author Ralph Fletcher about the effectiveness of a good writing mini lesson in particular the value of having a visual in your mini lesson.
Ralph is the author of a new digital resource called Get Focused, a series of 23 On-Demand video writing lessons with an accompanying PDFs to help students start putting the lessons into practice. Ralph likes to think of it as utilizing this resource as a co-teacher.
Below is a transcript of this episode.
Brett: Ralph, you've been a professional writer for a long time. You've taught lots of students how to write within a workshop model. What makes a mini lesson so effective for helping kids learn how to write better?
Ralph: Well, a mini lesson ideally is short and punchy. And I realized that most children can only absorb so much instruction at one time. And actually, I don't think that's just true for kids. I think it's true for adults also. I've taken ski lessons and if the instructor says, "Just work with these five things." You know, you quickly get overwhelmed.
Ralph: So I think that a mini lesson in writing is short, it should build the energy. And I also think that because writing is such a complex activity, there's so many things that are going on. I think that for many people they're receptive to an idea of instruction, just something to think about as they get going. And it's interesting to think back that I think that the mini lesson is relatively, in education, is a new innovation, but I think that a lot of the reason that it's caught on is that I think teachers have seen that it is an effective way to get kids to focus on something as they move into the writing that the going to be doing that day.
Brett: What's something that every writing mini lesson should have?
Ralph: Well, a couple of things. And I can think of it from the point of view of the teacher who's delivering the mini lesson, and also from the student who's receiving it. But a couple of things that come to my mind, first of all, the question of a specificity and purpose. I think that it's really helpful if we, as a teacher, can say in one sentence, what our purpose is, what are we trying to do here? Secondly, I think it's important that we ground what we're saying in something specific. And what I'm talking about there is a model or an example. I think that's really important that we have something to show students that they can pay attention to as we talk about the issue or their craft element.
And then the third thing I think is really important to hold onto is the issue of how long it should go on. I think brevity's really important. And I'll talk about this some more, but I think there's such a tendency for all of us to go on. I think that we have a tendency to take an issue and just keep talking.
Ralph: And then you could almost make a graph of the kid's interest as we keep going. And, you know, it's not going in the right direction.
Ralph: So I think the brevity, and I'm talking not just to whoever's listening, but also I'm talking to myself, because I think it's something that I've noticed in myself as a life thing that just sometimes in a mini lesson, less is better.
Brett: Yeah. Less is more.
Ralph: Yeah. Less is more. That's right.
Brett: Well, and in a way, too, when you're doing that, when you're doing the mini lesson, you're modeling how the writing should also come through as well. Right? Because you don't want to run on sentence. You don't want too much. What do you think about that? Do you think this is a good modeling?
Ralph: Yeah, I think so. It's interesting seem to think about that because oftentimes with our students, you know, going on too long is almost not their problem.
Ralph: You know?
Ralph: I remember one of my brothers when, I'm the oldest of a bunch of siblings, but I remember one of my brothers got a piece of paper and the teacher said, "This is brutally short." And you laugh because you can see for, I think a lot of students, their pieces are fairly short.
Ralph: So maybe kids are already modeling that idea of the brevity in the piece of writing, and maybe we're trying to get them to elaborate. But I guess the thing is that I would agree with you in the sense of clear thinking about something. Try to say what you have to say, say it in a way that is understandable. And also just like in a good piece of writing, if we have a generalization, we back it up with an example of some evidence. And so in a way, when we give kids a model for what we want them to think about, we're also providing evidence for that element of craft.
Brett: So that must help them if you've got some tougher topics that you're trying to teach kids with some of the writing lessons. How have you helped students work through challenging ideas and tough topics?
Ralph: Well, I think that it is definitely true that a lot of elements of craft, not just what to write about, but how do you write about it, that's what I think of craft, a lot of those elements like tone, like voice, like mood, and we could probably think of some other ones, they're hard to teach, frankly. And I think that also, one of the reasons that they're hard to teach is that sometimes we, as the instructor don't really understand them well enough ourselves, so we may flounder around explaining them. So let's just start off with the idea that teaching some of the elements of writing are not always simple. It's not like a little formula. It's something that's hard to teach, even as an adult writer, who's wrestled with this in my own writing, I find some of these elements, like the difference between tone and mood I'm not sure I could explain that in a way that would be absolutely correct.
So let's start with the idea that they are hard to explain, but I think that the way that I found success is to give an example. And I would say that one thing that I've learned is that there's a lot of power in using a student example if you can. A lot of time, kids know that certain authors, Nikki Giovanni or Cynthia Rylant are powerful writers, and they are masterful with language, and very important to share those kind of pieces. But I think that kids listen in a different way when we show example of student writing. And I do want to say something about that, too, because I think that sometimes, this is probably an obvious thing, but it's something I had to learn and stub my toe on myself, which is that I would only use a student piece of writing to portray something that's done well.
Ralph: Because one time, I had a kid, the kind of kid who had the rock solid ego in the class and all his sentences began with letter I. "I, I, I." And you know, it's this common thing. And I said, "Do you mind if I share this with the class? Because a lot of kids are wrestling with this." and he said, "Sure." And I shared it, but I could see him crumble a little bit.
Ralph: And so-
Brett: That's tough.
Ralph: I feel like, "Now, if somebody's going to take a bullet, I'll take it myself."
Ralph: If I want to show an example of what not to do, it's pretty easy to construct that. But if you share a piece of writing that's done well by a student you're honoring that piece and you're also showing them something that's accessible. They're thinking to themselves, "If Damien could do it, I sit next to Damien at lunch." You know.
Ralph: "Then I could do it, too."
Brett: Yeah. Well, speaking of, what kind of mistakes have you made when you're planning and teaching mini lessons? And how have you overcome those?
Ralph: Yeah. I think that one thing is that overly ambitious.
Ralph: I think that I can do a lot in a mini lesson. And you just keep forgetting that it's such a short amount of time. I really think that whole five to seven minute, I wouldn't make a absolute arbitrary limit there, but I think that's the zone you're looking for.
And so oftentimes, as I said before, I'm overly ambitious. And then they go on too long. And I almost feel like, the metaphor in my mind is like having your car in the garage and the tire is slowly deflating. And you can feel the energy in the class as you're just saying one more thing. So I think that's one of the things that I've had to learn, that sometimes just to stop and send them off to write. And the other thing is that if you look at the curriculum, or just the things that you'd to cover in a piece about writing during a year, almost at any grade, there's a lot of things on there.
And so sometimes I've made the mistake of seeing a kid in, let's say fourth grade, who has written a long piece with no paragraphs in it. And so I say to myself, "Okay, this would be a great time to teach paragraphing." But sometimes I think that's a mistake early in the writing workshop because if you get kids to be paying too much attention to mechanics and grammar early on, it impedes the flow their language. So I really do believe that, of course those things are important, but I think that we should think strategically about when is the best time to introduce them? So oftentimes holding off those mini lessons that are about more grammatical issues or mechanical issues is a good idea.
Ralph: Because early on, the metaphor that I always think to myself is that I've got a great big B body of water, like a little pool or a pond in the middle of the playground. If it's just sitting there and I had to move it would be a lot of work to move it.
Ralph: But if the water's flowing, I can redirect it and then maybe get it going new direction. So I'm really trying to get the water flowing. I want to get the kids to be writing. I think fluency's really important. So I want my mini lesson to always have that underpinning of like, "You can do this." And also that, "We're going to be trying stuff." I think that's this atmosphere of experimentation, like, "Let's see if we could try this and see what happens."
And it may not work that well, but I mean I try stuff all the time in my writing and sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn't.
Brett: Yeah. Give them that space to fail in the writing. And if it doesn't work, it doesn't work, and try something else.
Brett: How do kids react to that? Because you've written so many books, you've gotten an amazing body of work. When you go into classrooms today and kids hear you talk about trying, and experiments, and, "Maybe this doesn't work. And maybe I cast that aside." Students must really relate to that in a way that helps with their writing, connect them to their work.
Ralph: Yeah. And I think that you're hitting on something that I think is really important and that is the whole idea of writing with kids. So teachers not just sharing models of student writing, but also sharing models of your own writing. And you can laugh about this, too, because I always say that if you're teaching second grade, the chances are good that you're probably the best writer in the class. I know this one teacher said, "I'm teaching second grade because I still want to be the tallest one by the end of the year." But I think that as the kids get older, it's not too long before you have got some really strong writers and it's not unrealistic to think by sixth grade, seventh grade, eighth grade, you are not the best writer in a class. And so it takes a certain kind of humility and courage to put your piece out there as a teacher and the kids are thinking, "Yeah. But Rafael could have probably done better."
But I think that when you do that, first of all, a lot of kids don't have adults as models, as writers. So we put ourself as a model, but also you're in the community with the students. we're all learning about writing.
Ralph: "I tried this, you tried this, this work pretty well. This didn't work so well." And so instead of it being the transmission model of the teacher bestowing the pearls of wisdom, it's more like, "We're side by side, we're all learning together."
Ralph: And I think that's powerful. And I've said this before, but I just want to reiterate it, that if the atmosphere in the classroom, if it gets noisy and really chaotic, which it is wont to do with a bunch of students after they came in from recess or whatever, I think that you can legitimately say, "Hey guys, I'm having trouble hearing myself think." And so by taking the first couple minutes of a workshop to actually write, which can be frustrating, five minutes to write, three minutes to write is just a tease in some ways. But I think it does help to settle the tone.
And the message isn't just, "I want you to be quiet." The message is, "What kind of environment do we need in here so we can all work?" And if you write, then you have things to share with students because you're part of the community.
Brett: Well, and it shows too that we're still learning as adults, even. We're still learning about writing. We never really stop honing our craft and growing in that space. Well, let's talk a little bit about the power of a visual medium. What does the visual medium bring to the writing mini lesson?
Ralph: Yeah. Well, I think it's interesting to think about what kind of people go into teaching. And I'm going to generalize, here, and there's obviously many different kinds of people, but I think that when you go to a teacher conference and somebody reads a beautiful poem or passage, you can just look around the room. Everybody's swooning and loving it. And I think the reason for that is that a lot of educators, certainly language arts educators, are what I would call text based people, language people. We love words. I always joke, I can't fix a window if it get broken, but I can write. And also, I speak when I do my presentations or at conferences. So we're comfortable in that textual world. I think for students, many of them, And I think this is increasingly true, are image based people. You know, the world is becoming more and more visual.
Brett: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Ralph: I wrote about that in focus lessons. And so I think that we have to just recognize that first of all. And so when we try to talk about, for example, an issue in writing, let's just say creating a mood for the reader, that's the kind of thing that, as we try to explain it, using words and I do, and I have, it's not always the easiest thing to do. What I'm finding is that the visual world, examples from images, and pictures, and photographs, give students something that's concrete. We can all look at it and it's a new kind of reference point. And it's a new way. It gives us a chance to approach these issues from a different perspective.
Speaking of perspective, for just the idea of whose story is it? Is it, if you're writing a mother and a kid, is it the kid's story? Is it the mother's story? And a photograph will often show different points of view. And so I'm finding that images give us a new way to talk about writing. I guess one of the dangers, when we talk about the craft of writing is that our language can get very amorphous and vague. So whatever we can do to make it specific and concrete without making it a formulaic cookbook kind of thing.
But I think that good writing teachers are always trying to find that line. Let me give you an example, when I wrote What a Writer Needs, I was talking about that a lot of times, if you think of a waterfall, the water going of waterfall, you probably wouldn't want to start the story right at the waterfall, although some people do.
Ralph: And on the other hand, you don't want to start the piece of writing way upstream. I always say to kids, "You should probably try to see if you can try to start the piece of writing close enough that you can start to hear the waterfall."
Ralph: And so that's an image. And I'm still using language there, but I think that we have to find tangible, concrete ways to talk about writing.
Brett: Yeah. Well, over the years you've seen teachers lead amazing mini lessons and you've seen concepts be presented to kids in new and engaging ways. Share a little bit about your new resource, Get Focused that helps support teachers incorporating many lessons into their curriculum.
Ralph: Yeah. In Get Focused, I talk about I there's 23 different videos. And in each one I take an element of writing or an aspect of writing. And I do draw a lot, as I talk about it on images that are included in each one of the videos. And I guess I'm hoping those images can spark kids in a couple ways. First of all, they can be a springboard into writing a topic that the kid might not have thought to write about. But also, as we've been talking about here, a way to talk about a lead, for example, or conflict, or tension in a piece of writing, so that the photos that, when we take an issue of writing. I use a lot of photos to explicate it, to bring it live. And at the same time, when I end most of the videos, I try to segue the students into doing some of their own writing.
And it's interesting, too, because I received some feedback that I just want to talk about for a second, from a language arts coordinator who heard about the product that we had worked on. And she said, "I'm a little bit hesitant to use prepackaged lessons." This is the interesting thing she said. "We want our teachers to become up with their own mini lessons. We want our kids to hear the mini lessons come out of our teacher's mouth." So I thought about that. And first of all, I think that she's onto something. I do agree that we want to empower teachers to ... I think Lucy Calkins used to use the phrase, "To live off the land, to find ways of things just right around us that we can use to teach the element of our writing."
So I think that's true. And we would never advocate just relying on commercial programs. But at the same time, I think it's important to realize that writing teachers are not alone. We're all coming out of this pandemic and many of us have felt isolated. And I think it's important to realize and to recognize that strong writing teachers, and really any writing teacher, any teacher draws on other voices to teach. For example, when you take a poem by Langston Hughes, and you share with your kids, and we talk about circular ending or whatever, that's modeled in that poem, the students see you, but they also see the poem. And then the shadow of the poet is also there, too, that person who wrote the poem. And when that happens, it seems to me that the mentor text becomes the co-teacher of the class. You know? That's why I look at it.
Ralph: It's like you're not alone.
Ralph: It's like you're explaining something, but you're also relying on a wonderful author. And I think that's valuable for students when they hear that. It enriches the classroom. But it's also, the kids get to see that the teachers are co-learning with them. And that they're enjoying the piece of writing and they're savoring it with them. So when I think of these videos, I think of, I would never want to supplant the wisdom, and the intelligence, and all the things that the classroom teacher sees. But I would to be one of those co-teachers.
Ralph: I'd like to. I think of these video offerings as a thing that a teacher could offer to the classroom as another voice to share some of the important elements of writing. I've been teaching and thinking about the craft of writing for my entire writing career, I think it's really important. I don't want the kids just to be writing, although that's very important. I want them to be really writing well.
I think that nothing raises the quality and the energy and the classroom like when you start to see the writing improve. And that's true as a collective thing, but it's also true for the individual students. So I'm hoping that the ideas put forth in Get Focused can help students get a grasp on the writer's craft in a new way. So they can begin to bring those strategies into their own writing. And they can start to see their own writing, improve in quality.
Ralph Fletcher has been a mentor to teachers and young writers everywhere. He has helped hundreds of thousands of teachers understand the importance of letting go and trusting their writers. Ralph's professional books are part of this tradition.
Students know Ralph as the award-winning author of more than 20 books for children and young adults, including Fig Pudding, Twilight Comes Twice, The Writer’s Notebook, Marshfield Dreams: When I Was a Kid, and most recently Marshfield Memories: More Stories About Growing Up.