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From the Classroom: Student Leadership Opportunities During Mini-lessons, Book Talks, and Quick Writes

by Lauren Heimlich Foley

8th Grade English

Over the last few years, my students and I have experimented with using independent reading books as individualized mentor texts. While students studied their books individually or in small groups, I wanted the entire class to benefit from the rich examples of word choice, conventions, style, and craft. I also wanted to highlight exemplar student writing.


What I Did

From October 2019 to December 2019, I invited students to help teach mini-lessons based on their individualized mentor texts and writing pieces. When deciding what skill to teach when, I considered several factors: students’ writing needs and strengths, their Self-Selected Writing Pieces, upcoming whole-class genre and novel studies, and curriculum requirements. As I read student drafts and conducted one-on-one conferences, I noticed techniques that would benefit the entire class. Occasionally, students volunteered a specific skill that they wanted to share.

After asking students to present, I met with them as a small group to practice what we would say and decide who would read the mentor texts. These pre-meetings took place during independent reading or writing time.

During the co-led lessons, each student shared an excerpt from their book and talked through their observations. If a student used the technique, then they discussed their example and writing process. Usually, two or more students taught the mini-lesson with me. As students presented, I helped explain the technique and provided the examples for the class on our Learning Management System (LMS).

Below are two examples of co-led, student-teacher mini-lessons from last year. All names are pseudonyms.

In early October, repetition emerged in my students’ writing pieces, so I asked them to co-teach a mini-lesson with me. During our sixth period class, Emily shared how she repeated “I’ll come back for you” three times with the font getting smaller to mimic the father leaving his daughter. She wrote, “My mind flashed back to Papa’s words, ‘I’ll come back for you . . . I’ll come back for you . . . I’ll come back for you.’ I remember him fading farther and farther away from me, until his voice disappeared into the darkness.” She wanted the visual to help her reader hear a fainter and fainter voice. Next, Elsa included repetition to emphasize a scary scene in her story: the moment a Nazi soldier captures the main character’s sister. She hoped the reader would feel the intensity as the crunching leaves got “louder. Louder. LOUDER.”

In seventh period, Jack employed repetition to emphasize the impact of his character losing an important object: “Oh no. No No No NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO! Where is it? I swear I put it right here! Where is it?!” For Pat, he repeated “No mercy” to reveal the struggle his soldiers experienced during the battle in his sci-fi story: “‘Get to the guns. No mercy,’ he says. We run forward, hopping into the seats, powering on the cannons. I hear a loud boom then a scream. . . . The words no mercy ring in my mind. No mercy, no mercy, no mercy.” For these students, repetition established voice and emphasized specific moments. By sharing their craft moves with the class, they took on leadership roles, increased their confidence, and served as writing role models for their classmates.

Then, at the beginning of November, I asked students to observe the em dash in their independent reading books. Three weeks later, I approached a number of students who had experimented with the technique in their writing and located the em dash in their books. Ten students participated in the co-led mini-lesson (four in one class and 6 in another). The students shared their examples and explained whether their em dash cut off dialogue, interrupted an idea, accentuated a point, or replaced a comma. Sam read the following example from This is Where it Ends, “The silence from the auditorium is tense and loaded. Except it’s not silence. All around me there are sobs, prayers, and curses—friends are trying to calm each other” (Nijakamp 62). From Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, Brad added, “‘I heard you speaking Parseltongue,’ said Ron. ‘Snake language. You could have been saying anything—no wonder Justin panicked, you sounded like you were egging the snake on or something—it was creepy—you know’” (Rowling 196). All the examples were available for the class to review on our LMS. After the mini-lesson, the class worked in groups to practice adding em dashes to their own writing. The student presenters acted as leaders within their small groups, guiding their peers’ writing process.  

My Plan

These co-led, student-teacher lessons prompted my students to take a front-row seat in sharing their writerly observations and explaining their writing process. Overall, these lessons and procedures proved successful, but I wanted to increase the number of co-led mini-lessons while streamlining the collection of student writing and mentor texts. I also wanted a way to collect titles for book talks and excerpts for quick writes.

Step 1: For the 2019-2020 school year, I am in the process of creating an assignment that will ask students to submit text excerpts for mini-lessons, book talks, and quick writes.  They will collect and post their observations by the last day of each month in our LMS. Students will submit in one of the following four categories:

  1. Independent reading book mentor text excerpt
  2. Student writing mentor text excerpt
  3. Independent reading book excerpt for quick writing
  4. Independent reading book for a book talk

Step 2: During the month of September, students read like writers, completed quick writes, and listened to book talks. We also reviewed MLA In-Text Citation and Works Cited. The first monthly assignment will launch in October and be due on October 31st. Students will be able to submit their work during class or at home. If they find more than one excerpt, technique, or book that they wish to share, they may do so.

Step 3: Each month students will submit a reflective assignment that includes:

  1. The category they chose
  2. The except from the text or their writing (either typed or a picture)
  3. The reason (specific technique, craft move, idea) why they selected the book and excerpt
  4. Works Cited

Step 4: As students share their work, I will schedule the mini-lessons, book talks, and quick writes as they fit into our Writing-Reading Workshop. I will approach students a few days before their lesson to review their assignment submission and prepare them for their book talk, quick write, or co-led lesson.

Step 5: Before the selected students present their findings to the class, I will upload the necessary materials to our LMS. Depending on the mini-lesson’s content and the class’s ability, the co-led mini-lesson will require varying levels of teacher support. Students will be able to present their book talks and quick writes independently.     

Next Steps

I am excited to see where this new initiative leads. The LMS should streamline my ability to collect student work. The assignment puts more onus on my students because they submit their mini-lesson, book talk, and quick write ideas. As they assume these new leadership roles within our workshop, I hope it builds confidence in their abilities and offers opportunities for peer collaboration. I will continue to model successful book talks and quick writes as well as share texts that foster their abilities to read like writers.

If you have tried something similar or have questions, please share your thoughts below. I would love to hear from you! Take care for now and have a great school year!

September Snapshot: The Importance of Discussion

There’s been a murder!

Students are given groups, clues, scratch paper, and twenty-five minutes. They have everything they need to figure out who murdered Mr. Kelley.

I started doing this activity a few years ago when I found that my students either didn’t like to participate in group discussions or struggled to have conversations with peers that weren’t their friends. I started searching around, and I found a murder-mystery discussion activity.

I adapted it to suit my needs, piloted it, and it is now part of my opening week lessons.

When placing the students in their groups for the period, I try to pair them up with people I haven’t seen them interact with as much. I want to build community within our classroom. Students are dealt clues, and they are the only ones allowed to read their clues out loud. This is an easy way to make sure everyone within the group participates and that no person dominates the conversation.

Students work together, organize information, and collaborate and communicate with one another. Once the murder is solved, we discuss the importance of sharing ideas with one another, working together, and thinking critically. The students really enjoy the activity and it does a great job of highlighting the idea that everyone can make valuable contributions to a discussion.

September Snapshot – Using One-Pagers for Brainstorming Narratives

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I have used one-pagers before in the context of literature courses, asking students to respond to a book or a reading. But, during the first week of classes, when my first year writing students began thinking about their literacy narratives, I decided to try out something new (for me, at least): to use the one-pager as a brainstorming tool.

Why use a one-pager? 

  • Students are creating narratives, so allowing a visual representation in the brainstorming process can help them think about important details.
  • They don’t need to write complete sentences. The prompts I gave them asked more about the general aspects of their stories: Who are the characters? What visuals stand out? What are some of the keywords in your narrative? Are there quotes or ideas that could become dialogue? Etc.
  • Students don’t have to be artists. They just need to convey their ideas in short textual or visual representations.

What did I ask them to do?

  1. I first explained what a one-pager is and why we were using it for further brainstorming. On the previous class meeting, students had produced a list of potential topics for their literacy narrative. On this class meeting, they narrowed it down to the one they would develop.
  2. I used one of the templates from Spark Creativity
  3. Before starting their own, I showed students examples of one-pagers from my previous students. I explained that these were a little different because they were responses to a book rather than ideas about their own writing.
  4. I projected on the screen the following list of elements to include in their one-pager:

■A border with key words about your narrative. It can also be a quote you remember.

■Tone. What tone will you take? How will you achieve it?

■An image or set of images that relate to your narrative. Think about what you are including and why. Write about them.

■Key events in your narrative. You can list them, sketch them, or both.

■Characters in your narrative. Who plays a part? How are they part of your story?

■Lines- think about dialogue (this can be “made up”)

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What happened?

While including the main components, students created a variety of one-pagers. And each one addressed the individual needs of each writer. One student, for instance, brainstormed ideas learning to use a computer when they were little. In their one-pager, they sketched a keyboard that, instead of letters, was covered in what looked like chicken feet. As the student explained, thinking about their first time trying to use a computer, this is what the keyboard looked like– just indiscernible and confusing characters.

The verdict: The one-pagers worked! My students were able to brainstorm in textual and visual ways, with some structure yet also freedom. Next time, I will consider allow more time in class for this so that their one-pagers can be even more detailed.

How have you used one-pagers with students? What are some brainstorming strategies your students have enjoyed?

Opportunities Abound

Consider seven surprises from the start of the year:

  1. A 6th-grade girl dancing and leaping like Isadora Duncan all by herself. Easily 100 yards away from everyone out in the fields by our school–a happy little pink speck twirling and flickering across the grass.
  2. An 8th-grade boy handed me a knitted blue heart on his way out of class and said “there’s a really interesting project going on with these”: The Peyton Heart Project.
  3. I saw $25 dollars in cash outside. I’m “used to” seeing kids’ smartphones left unattended outdoors, but we’re doing cash now?
  4. The student who said: “I. Am. SO. Going. To. Raid. Your. Bookcase.” 
  5. And then there is the email titled “Writing” from a student on Sept. 3rd.
  6. And the boy who wore a full Spiderman costume to Picture Day and the rest of the kids didn’t blink.
  7. And the magic that happens when we provide kids colored chalk, an asphalt surface, and time.

Educator’s curate and plan. Administrators curate and plan. The top-down model of “doing business” is real. Yet, so much of our vocation is steeped in holistic responses–the “intimate and inexplicable connections”–generated within our small communities.

The seven surprises shared above may seem unconnected but that isn’t true. They all have something in common.

Me.

I was there.

And each act of creativity, sincerity, or folly can be impacted by my responsiveness…or silence.

I haven’t shared if or how I may have responded, but I know I can be better. I am reminded that, even after twenty-five years in the classroom, we have so much to learn…and give.

Opportunities to give emerge in unexpected ways every day.

September Snapshot: Begin by Respecting Difference

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I collaborate with students at Penn State Brandywine’s Writing Studio amid a culture clash. I tutor first-year writers one-on-one weekly; for many students, this is the first time they’re receiving sustained, individual educational attention. This year, Penn State’s professors, drawing from generations of institutional and social power, will expect students to compose using standardized citation, annotation, Standard American English grammar, and critical literacy skills. Meanwhile, our students speak and write a plurality of grammars. They grew up among multiple family and community literacies. Faculty and staff may expect students to navigate college as their primary, if not singular, responsibility. Our students hold themselves personally responsible for much more. 

Brandywine’s campus is the second most diverse student community in the Penn State system. My intention this year is to hold space for our differences. When we open intercultural dialogue, my students and I can better acclimate and build a shared community. Previously, I began every semester by reviewing the tutorial’s syllabus: I led with my expectations; I created the terms of a contract for students. I’ve defined students’ success, even delineating their acceptable boundaries for resistance (students are allowed two missed tutorials). My power defined our first communication. This year, I will ask, not tell:

  • What are your expectations for yourself and for me?
  • How do you define success as an individual writer and as writing partners, together?
  • What will we do when we encounter misunderstanding or conflict?
  • How can we hold each other responsible and accountable for our goals and intentions?

Importantly, we both share our answers to these questions. Exploring difference early and developing shared agreements will hopefully reduce students’ isolation when they encounter different values later on. Hopefully, we’ll begin a conversation that makes visible our intercultural exchange and we’ll return to that conversation throughout the semester. I have the privilege of cultivating individual relationships at the Writing Studio. I want to advance that by respecting students’ unique experiences, histories, and strengths as the foundation for their progress.

Creating Balance: Nurturing Your Teacher Self

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As a new school year begins, teachers come armed with new or revised lesson plans and renewed excitement ready to give our students the best of ourselves so that they can be their best selves. Sometimes giving the best of ourselves comes with a price. In our quest to be a great teacher as well as parent, partner, caregiver, or one of the many other titles each of us wear, we often put our own needs last, which is the worst thing we could do to ourselves.  In my quest to redefine my work/life balance and reduce school year stress, I read many self-help articles and had several conversations with my daughter and sister, both of whom work in the mental health field, and found many commonalities. Here are a few strategies that stood out to me.  I hope at least one will work for you.

 

  • Prioritize – Be sure that you differentiate between what “must” and what you would “like” to get accomplished.
    • Be realistic; you cannot do everything.
    • Make a schedule to help you use your time more efficiently.
  • Schedule “Me Time” – If you don’t put yourself on your calendar chances are you will not make or take time for yourself.
    • Get a massage.
    • Take in a movie.
    • Meet up with a friend.
    • Read for pleasure
  • Manage Your Mind – The most important voice in your life is your own.  Listen to your body and practice positive self-talk.  Don’t beat yourself up. When feeling stressed take a mini break.
    • Close your eyes and take a few deep breaths.
    • Take a walk.
    • Listen to music.
    • Look at cherished pictures – your kids, grandkids, a favorite vacation spot.
  • Keep a Gratitude Journal – At the end of the school day or before you go to bed, take a few minutes to reflect on your day and write down a few things for which you are thankful. Not only will this help you to focus on the positive parts of your day, but on a difficult day you can revisit your entries and assure yourself that “this too shall pass.”

 

Gratitude journal

A page from my own gratitude journal

  • Establish Boundaries – While you may not have a “job” that allows you to leave work at work, you do not have to be available 24/7.
    • Decide on a reasonable time to “unplug” each evening to stop checking your work email.
    • Establish a time limit for grading or engaging in social media.
    • Stop saying “Yes,” to every request.  Be selective with how you use your precious free time.

 

These are just a few suggestions and strategies.  Obviously, you may not be able to do this right away but choose one and start small.  If you have others to add to the list, please share them in the comment section below. Teachers do important work.  We can’t make a difference in the lives of our students if we don’t treat ourselves with respect and kindness.  We are all in this together!

cropped-rita-2017 Rita DiCarne is a 2000 PAWLP Writing Fellow.  She teaches 7th grade ELA at Our Lady of Mercy Regional Catholic School in Maple Glen, PA.  Rita married her high school sweetheart 39 years ago and with him she shares two wonderful children, their fabulous spouses, and four fantastic grandchildren!