Sunday, 7 April 2013

Taking Off the Training Wheels

The time has come.  I know it's not going to be pretty.  It certainly wasn't the last time.  There were tears.  There were bruises.  I even wondered if we'd make it.  In the end we did, and it was totally worth it.  But now, it's my 5 year old daughter's turn.  She's decided it's time to take off the training wheels.

As I get ready to run alongside her with a pocketful of band-aids, I know that it's going to get worse before it gets better.  That's just the nature of learning something new.  I also know that I need be able to explain each step of riding a bike like how to push start, balance, turn, and stop.  A key part of my success will be drawing from not only my biking experience, but every biker around me.  It's our collective experiences that will inform her best.  And finally, when it doesn't work out at first, I'll need to just listen without any immediate answer so that she can reflect, regroup, and refocus.

I can't help but think that this experience is a lot like implementing the workshop model in our classes.  When we first got on our metaphorical bike, it felt clunky and unnatural.  We were teaching maxi-lessons instead of mini-lessons, and when it was time to confer, we didn't know what to say.  That was okay, because with each attempt, we were getting better.  

In many respects, our training wheels have already come off since then.  We're now more comfortable with the routines of the workshop.  We strive for succinct mini-lessons that engage students and build upon transferable skills.  During conferring time, we draw upon teaching points, personal goals, and real time research.  

After bikers' training wheels are long gone, they push themselves towards longer rides and off-road trails by looking for ways to ride more efficiently and effectively.  It's the same with us, and recently, I've been collecting ideas from all of our classrooms and collaborations that may help when it comes to crafting mini-lessons.

Where do mini-lessons come from?

There are a number of resources we refer to when crafting mini-lessons:  
  • We ground our teaching points within the Common Core Standards.
  • We consider what we have taught in the past.
  • We analyze student pre-assessments ("on demands").
  • We consult a range of professional resources including Teachers College units (see video to find online versions on Atlas).
Unfortunately, at times we stop there, but this list is missing something big.  Don't get me wrong, as with anything we learn, it makes sense that we look to the "experts" for their ideas when we're just starting out.  The thing is we often forget about our most valuable resource, ourselves.  When we reflect on our own work as readers and writers, we open ourselves to a wealth of information.

We did exactly this in our recent department meeting where we read two articles on chocolate milk.  By doing the work ourselves, we were aware of our own process as readers.  At the same time, we collected a list of strategies authors use to support their arguments in informational texts.  When it comes time to teach this, we can design a lesson based directly on our own experience as a reader, and this makes us teach with authority.  

We're beginning to incorporate this work into our PLC meetings.  Whether it's reading through a mentor text together or sharing teacher samples as well as student samples, more and more of our training wheels are coming off.

How can we craft powerful mini-lessons efficiently?

The big issue that comes up over and over when I meet with colleagues and teams is time.  Believe me, I get it.  After all, mini-lessons are meant to be less than 15 minutes, shouldn't planning for one take the same amount of time?  Here are some tips that may help us plan more efficiently:
  • Walk through the framework of a mini-lesson with these questions/tips in mind.
    • Connection (Choose one of the following.):
      • What work have students done previously (this unit, this year, previous years) that relates to this teaching point?
      • What is a good metaphor from the real world that relates to this teaching point?
      • What have I noticed lately from the students' work that relates to this teaching point?
    • Teaching Point:
      • Craft a clear sentence that articulates the teaching point in student language.
      • Begin with "Good readers..." or "Good writers..."  
    • Active Engagement:
      • Use a text that students are familiar with to show this teaching point in action.
      • Try to narrow down your process to three easy steps.
      • Plan where students will have a chance to practice the skill in the same text.
    • Link/Share: (No need to do this ahead of time, just keep these in mind.)
      • Have partners go share what they have worked on and how they have improved in reading and writing today.
      • Highlight one student example that you came across during the conferring time.
      • Rephrase the teaching point.
      • Have students complete an exit sticky note with a major take away from the day's lesson.
  • Set a timer when planning a lesson.
    • Sometimes planning gets unwieldy.  Set a timer for 15 minutes to write a mini-lesson and see if you can stick to it. 
  • Use a template.
    • Fill out a mini-lesson template as you plan.  This helps reinforce the parts of a mini-lesson while ensuring consistency with others as  you divide and conquer.
  • Divide and conquer.
    • Instead of dividing up entire units, work on the same unit by doing the first mini-lesson together then dividing up subsequent mini-lessons.  Do this work during a PLC time instead of assigning it for later on. Together, you will have collective ownership over a unit while using each other as valuable resources.
  • Use Google Docs.
    • House mini-lessons in shared Google Docs folders.  One person could be designated to upload the work into Atlas at the end of a unit.
One final thing I keep in mind as I help my daughter put on her helmet is that trying out something new takes courage lots of practice.  When it gets tough because it inevitably will, we both need to reflect, regroup and refocus.  Once we do, I know she'll get better and better until one day she'll be riding with her own pack.  

It's the same with us.  And as we each pedal away fine-tuning our own craft, we'll continue to improve, but when we hit a pot-hole, let's reflect, regroup and refocus.

Photos from:

  • Google Drive Image Search

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