Build Writing Independence with a Digital Menu of Mini-Lessons

So much of the workshop method is built on the desire to mold students into independent writers who will continue to thrive when they leave our classes. By the end of a year in my ninth grade Reading Writing Workshop, I hope that students will have discovered their own unique writing process, they will know how to use mentor texts on their own for instruction and inspiration, and they will know how to move from the seed of an idea to a polished, published piece of writing on their own.

Screen Shot 2015-11-01 at 1.15.46 PMAt the end of the first quarter, it’s time to start thinking about how to help my ninth graders take workshop writing steps on their own.

About halfway through my ninth graders’ recent memoir study, I had taught all of the skills that really necessitated a deep dig as a group:

  • having a clear beginning, middle, and end
  • writing an engaging lead
  • crafting a resonant ending (or so what)
  • making a movie in the reader’s mind (a.k.a. showing-not-telling).

Each of these lessons led us into mentor text study (even using an episode of The Walking Dead as a mentor!) and conversation as a group. Since I tend to front-load content and structure lessons, the lessons that remained on my to-do list were style /craft lessons: paragraphing, using appositives to add detail, and properly punctuating dialogue.

These lessons are different — they are procedural, black-and-white. You do it, or you don’t do it.  And while students may well have questions about their own writerly choices regarding paragraphing or the use of appositives, these aren’t lessons that are dependent on class discussion. So, I decided these were the perfect lessons to flip!

A couple of weeks ago, I shared how I flip a portion of my mentor text instruction using Genius.com. I would never want to flip all (or even most) of my instruction. It wouldn’t fit me well. However, flipping a little bit of my instruction has some amazing benefits:

  • Students who are absent or need to encounter a lesson multiple times to truly understand the techniques being described have an artifact they can watch again and again on their own.
  • It gives students more crafting and conferring time. When 15 minutes are given back to the students as writing time, they have more time to work and play with their writing during class.
  • When I know that I am going to be absent, digital mini-lessons allow me to be two places at once and feel like my students haven’t sacrificed a day of productivity.
  • I am freed to do even more conferring!  

and, of course,

  • Students begin to be more independent as learners and writers.

I decided to take the three mini-lessons that remained (and one bonus mentor text) and create a menu of mini-lesson options.   I created simple screencasts, using Screencastomatic,  of the three mini-lessons just as I would deliver them live during class. I uploaded them to YouTube so that I could quickly link to them.

Yes, I probably could have found ready-made mini-lessons of some kind on YouTube, but I think it’s important for my students to learn from me. That’s what they are used to. Right now, I know them best. It’s a tiny chore with an enormous personal touch and payoff.  My screencasts (as you can see!) are not polished and crazy professional. They aren’t even perfect (I make a one-take rule for myself to try to ward of perfectionistic insanity). But they are me teaching my students, using my voice and my terminology. I think it’s worth it.

Screen Shot 2015-11-01 at 12.54.02 PMThen, I created a document listing each mini-lesson (linking to the video) and giving a brief description of what they student would find in each. Students were required to watch and take notes on the three video mini-lessons. The bonus mentor text, which I had annotated with Genius.com, was optional for students who were ready to do something more.

When I introduced this new concept to my classes, we talked about the needs of different writers. Some writers might want to learn from all of the mini-lessons up front, with more time to work freely on the back end. That may well be overwhelming for other writers, who need to tackle one mini-lesson at a time — first the video, then application in their memoir, then a new mini-lesson video. Some writers might prefer to do all of the writing until they are completely satisfied, and then go back to polish using the mini-lessons. Each approach is “right”.

Students worked at their own pace over four class periods — we began class with some Notebook Time and a business meeting as usual. I did a status of the class roll call each day to get a sense of where students were working, and then they were on their own — writing, watching mini-lessons, conferring.  They did whatever it was they needed to do that day.

When all was done, I asked my students what they thought. Here are what a few students shared:

“I really enjoyed the mini-lessons because I think I do work better independently. I liked how I had the ability to rewind if I needed to and I could go at my own pace. I would definitely like to do this again in the future.”  – Sydney

“I liked using the small mini lessons because it let me go through my writing process however I wanted to. The first couple days I had a broad idea in my head so I wanted to get that down on my computer as fast as I could, and then I went back and watched the mini-lessons. Even though I knew how to do dialogue, watching the video and powerpoint on it helped my dialogue in my memoir just with little tips of where commas should go, and whether they went on the inside of quotation marks or the outside.” – Josef

“I think that these REALLY helped because I was able to go through and stop where I needed and rewind. I could also watch the lessons in action which helped me to visualize and actually understand how and when I needed to use them. I would definitely suggest doing this again because it gives us a chance to learn on our own, which I think is a better way to learn overall.” – Bella

The first attempt was a success. Both the students and I enjoyed a little bit more freedom than we are used to during writing workshop. I had more writing conferences than ever, and students took a meaningful step toward discovering their own writing process. 

How have you flipped writing instruction in your classroom? Even if it wasn’t digital, how have you offered choice and independence in writing lessons? Leave us a comment below to tell us what you’re thinking about or find us on Facebook or Twitter (@rebekahodell1, @allisonmarchett). 

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