Saturday, March 17, 2018

Mini-Lessons Drive Writing Conferences

Students discuss how transitions work by inferring the order of paragraphs in a mentor text.

There is a Japanese saying: Fall down 7 times, get up 8. With writing conferences, I wrote about my last two "get ups" here and here. Hopefully this is the 8th and last and I'm now up for good. The 2 keys for me are mini-lessons and frequency. 

But first, a question: Is conferring with writers that important? Yes! Because it provides formative assessment, offers an opportunity to differentiate, and cultivates a community that talks about writing. It builds writers. Conferring with writers can be hard for me because it exhausts my introvert self to even think about being responsible for that many individual conversations within a class period. But I’ve been working at this over the past few weeks, and I’ve found these 2 keys that not only make it easier, but also motivate me to do it more.

Conferring with writers is easier when I (1) target one writing objective in a mini-lesson at the beginning of every writing period and (2) confer frequently. Habitually. Every single writing period. Having a mini-lesson gives the topic of the conference—both I and the writers are prepared ahead of time. Conferring frequently makes it familiar, takes away awkwardness on both sides, and lets students know they will be getting a chance to ask questions that they have.

What is a mini-lesson? It’s a brief (approximately 10-minute) lesson on a skill that students will then be expected to apply in the rest of the period. Writing mini-lessons can be on any part of the writing process (how to brainstorm, plan, draft, revise, or edit) or component of writing (ideas/content, organization, voice, word choice, sentence fluency, conventions). Some examples of writing mini-lessons I’ve done recently are being aware of occasion, audience, and purpose; making a speech’s thesis memorable with a story or analogy; establishing a logical progression to the order of your points; using paragraph transitions to communicate that logic; varying sentence beginnings; and varying sentence lengths. 

What does a mini-lesson look like? I’ve increasingly come to believe that having a mentor text is an important part of a mini-lesson. Whether that mentor text is a student text from past years, a teacher-written text, or a published text depends on my purpose and on what I have available. We look at how that author handled a writing issue, we practice in on our own pieces, and then I tell students, “I’ll come around and ask you to show me how you’ve done it, and we can address any other questions or puzzles you might have.”

Results? Having a particular purpose (talking about how the mini-lesson has been applied) makes the opening for the writing conference easy. There’s a type of accountability where everybody knows they need to have something to talk about. And if they don’t, then that becomes the conversation, and I’ll help them find a way to apply the mini-lesson. If there are no further questions, I move on. Short and sweet, which also makes them less threatening both to me and to students. Students become more open to talking, more ready to talk about writing, and even disappointed when I don’t get to them in a period. When I didn’t get around to conferring with one student during a particular period, he left questions for me on the Google Doc of the draft he was working on. That’s what real writers do: know when we need help and know where to get it.

A result of using mentor texts is that students begin to learn the way adults learn. As an adult, I notice people doing well things that I want do better—like teaching a lesson or writing a blog. This week a 10th grader commented on the interesting transition between two chapters of the novel we are reading. When I need to do a new thing (like write a proposal or give a eulogy) I look up examples—mentor texts. An 11th grader walked out of class Friday, where we introduced speech writing, watched a speech, and thought about how to address occasion, audience, and purpose, commented to a friend, “I think I’m going to be watching a couple of TED talks this weekend!”

How do you use mentor texts and conferences in your writing classes?

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