Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Why I Only Teach Mini Lessons: A Workshop Model

Hi everyone! I am so excited to write this post. It is about something I've been wanting to transition to over the past few years, and this year I dove in and tried it. Essentially, I have given up all* whole group instructio and teach content during mini lessons, rotations, and small groups. It feels like a workshop model classroom which I love, my students have content that is differentiated to their ability level and interest, and I am truly getting to know my students way more than I would if all I did was whole group style teaching.

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*I do meet with my students as a whole group for certain times of the day like morning meeting, shared reading, and read alouds. Also, my math, word study, reading, and writing times always start with all students on the rug for a mini lesson or warm up. Not every mini lesson is taught in a small group (like reader's and writer's workshop mini lessons), but I do teach mini lessons during math and word study in small groups.

What is a "mini lesson?"
First, let's define a mini lesson. I have come to understand mini lessons as short instructional periods during which you can explain and model a strategy that you want students to immediately apply or use. None of my mini lessons last longer than 10 minutes, they always involve student talk and modeling, and the skill or strategy that I talk about is one that students immediately walk away and apply in their rotation or work time.

I teach mini lessons during all of our major content areas: math, word study (phonics), reading, and writing. We do not explicitly have a science/social studies block in our schedule because our day is fairly short, so we integrate that content into read alouds and shared reading. We also set aside every other Monday as our unit study day where all content areas revolve around our current science/social studies unit.

Our Workshop Schedule
Next, let's look at the general structure of our instructional day. Below is a chart that shows an overview of how our major content areas are taught.

I use a rotation model during math and word study. That means that both of those times begin with a mini lesson, then students go to designated rotations for each day of the week. In both content areas, students visit 2 rotations per day, each rotation is 15 minutes long. During a 5-day week, some rotations are visited 3 times (Monday, Wednesday, Friday) while other rotations are visited 2 times (Tuesday, Thursday). Here is a chart that shows how my Word Study Rotations are scheduled:


I have 4 groups of students during word study time (Groups W, X, Y, and Z). Each group visits 2 rotations per day for 15 minutes each. On Mondays, Group W visits games for 15 minutes, then at our transition they clean up and move to my teacher group.

How I Group My Students
I believe in flexible and strategic grouping. My students are grouped together my skills, abilities, or interests, and they move in and out of groups as needed. Here is the breakdown of my current groups:
  • Math groups: 3 groups, 8 students each, grouped by skills such as number ID and one-to-one counting, making groups up to 10 and writing numerals to 10, and decomposing numbers into parts and joining/separating
  • Word Study groups: 4 groups, 6 students each, grouped by skills such as name writing and letter ID, beginning sounds and letter sound ID, and onset/rime and rhyming
  • Reader's Workshop partners: 12 sets of partners, one partner being more verbal and descriptive about their text to provide a peer model for partner talk
  • Writer's Workshop partners: 12 sets of partners, one partner being further along the writing continuum to provide a peer model for skills
I frequently progress monitor and assess (mostly informally) to gauge my students' needs. Having mini lessons and rotations/small groups allows me to do this in a more genuine way. I use exit tickets, pull work samples, use rubrics, or just use general observations in order to assess my students. I love using blank checklists that I can use for multiple skills. I have checklists (and a lot of other very useful forms) in this set of editable forms for teachers, click on the picture below:



Transitions, Support, Questions
If you think that students won't be able to handle all of this movement, I can reassure you that they can. My kindergartners have only been in school for 15 days and we've only been doing rotations for about 8 of those. It may not be pretty or refined, but they are doing it! Just know that implementing rotations or a workshop model is louder and busier. Your students will not all be at the same voice level or in the same spot in your classroom. And that's ok! A tip for transitions: use a chime or song. When it's time to transition, ring your chime or play a snippet of a song. When students hear that, they will learn to stop, clean up, and move to their next rotation. Right now, I am helping to direct my students to their second rotation or to find their reading partner, but eventually this will be independent. I promise!

I have an aide in my classroom with me for all of these times except for writer's workshop. During math, our aide works with the MyMath group at their tables. She leads them through the lesson by reading directions to them and providing models if needed. MyMath is our adopted math curriculum, by the way. During word study, our aide works with the games/collaboration group wherever they are meeting. Right now, she is working on phonics games at the horseshoe table, but once we start collaboration groups, she'll walk around and support as needed while groups are working. During reader's workshop, our aide walks around and individually checks in during independent reading time.

This can be done without an aide. Just adjust those rotations or be more engaging or independent. Typical "center" style games would work well as they are more predictable. I have some fun phonics centers that can take your students through the whole year. Once you show them the first set, they will know the routine and be independent all year long! Click below:


When students want to come up and interrupt you to ask questions, use the "Ask 3 Before Me" rule. It's a tried-and-true method of keeping questions at bay and empowering other children to support their friends. Also, use a signal to show that you are not available when you're working with a group. I use a hat instead of the light that is popular with other teachers because I move around the room when I work with my students. Here's a pic :)

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How to Get Started
So, if all of this seems too much, I understand! I am still tweaking, still working on transitions, still trying to get kiddos independently working. Eventually, I want to be sure that my students who are supposed to be working on independent rotations are truly independent and don't need any help. Eventually, I want to have more of our rotations based on interests and less on ability levels. Eventually, I want my students to hear the chimes and go without having to ask me any questions. Check back with me in a couple of months!

Here are my recommendations for a smooth roll out of a workshop model classroom:
  • Start with only 2 rotations that all kids rotate to together. For example, you can do your number talk with all students, then have the entire class do counting collections for 15 minutes. Ring the chimes, then have them all clean up and do a lesson in MyMath. This is how we started, and we did this for about a week. It helped so much with mindset, knowing they may not get all the way finished, and time management, knowing that if they want to finish they need to stay focused!
  • Time yourself during mini lessons. If you're worried you won't be able introduce, explain, model, and scaffold for a skill in 10 minutes, you should literally set a timer on your phone. Stop when it goes off, even if you don't finish!
  • Create charts for students to reference. Even if they are not yet reading, just showing this chart day in and day out will help them recognize the rotations. 
  • BUY THIS RESOURCE: Math Workshop Starter Kit by Laura Santos. It is how I got organized. Once you get started with math workshop using her amazing blog posts that go along with this, it will help you sort out word study/phonics rotations as well.
  • Be prepared. Have activities ready that are easy to use each day. Counting collections are always out and ready to use. Phonological awareness small group lessons and materials are ready to go. Phonics games are prepped and ready. Warm ups are also great for independent work time. Once you prep most of these materials, you won't have to think about them again for a long time! Response sheets can be printed and put in page protectors to use over and over again! Click on pictures below to get your activities printed and set up!



I hope that you try mini lessons and a rotation/workshop model. It has truly allowed me to reach more students at their individual ability levels. I'm getting to know my students in much deeper ways and am becoming a more effective teacher as a result. I can't wait to hear how it goes!


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