Writing Mini-Lessons

“If people cannot write well,
they cannot think well,
and if they cannot think well,
others will do their thinking for them.”
~ George Orwell
“The qualities of good writing are complex and nuanced. But they can be named, and I’m
convinced they can be taught. Of all the arts, writing should be among the most democratic:
all one needs is paper and a pen – and I would suggest, a teacher or two along the way who
work to make the intangible tangible, so every student might know the joy of writing well.”

~ Nancie Atwell in Lessons That Change Writers, 2002

This year’s writing instruction will focus on the pursuit of good writing, with explicit instruction to help students begin to master some of the complex and nuanced qualities of exceptional writing. The goal is for students to improve their writing and simultaneously develop myriad approaches to writing that empower students to effectively evaluate and improve their own writing and thinking. To this end, students will participate in writing workshops of at least forty-five minutes three to five times a week.

The writing workshop begins with a mini-lesson of five to thirty minutes and continues with independent writing, during which time I circulate among writers and meet with individuals or small groups. At any point during the writing workshop, students may share their written work in progress and receive constructive feedback from their peers and me. The writing workshop may conclude with this oral student sharing of written work, with a group discussion of what writers accomplished or what problems emerged, with my observations, or with a follow-up to the mini-lesson. The writing workshop is a quiet and productive period. Writing is thinking so silence is needed to help all writers think and write well. The only noise besides pencils moving across paper is the quiet talking that occurs during writing conferences. During the writing workshop, students develop most of their own writing projects, even during genre studies, writing passionately about what matters most to them.

The writing workshop mini-lessons provide a writing course of study. They draw on a combination of impromptu lessons based on student need and lessons that incorporate key writing instruction critical for every sixth grade student. This year’s mini-lessons have been amassed from a wide variety of sources over the past two decades, but the core of most of the lessons has been informed by Nancie Atwell’s work with junior high school writers and generously shared in her books, In the Middle: New Understandings about Writing, Reading, and Learning and Lessons that Change Writers. Other key resources have been the Resources for Teaching Writing developed by Lucy Calkins with her colleagues from the Reading and Writing Project, as well as the work of Old Adobe Union School District’s writing liaison group, with whom I worked to help enhance our Wonders of Writing program.

The mini-lessons fall into four distinct categories: lessons about topics, lessons about principles of writing, lessons about genres, and lessons about conventions (please note that sometimes conventions will be taught out of the context of writing mini-lessons as separate grammar lessons). Each day’s mini-lesson is akin to a group writing conference, where students share problems they are having as writers, determine solutions to writing problems, evaluate examples of outstanding writing, learn strategies for developing topics, learn and try different genres of writing, develop and experiment with literary techniques, and gain a better mastery and understanding of conventions.

During the daily mini-lesson, students will take notes in their writing binders so that throughout the course of the year, they may refer back to what they’ve learned to inform their writing in an ongoing manner. Students will also create a mini-lessons table of contents for ease of later reference. Some, but by no means all, of the writing mini-lessons are posted here.

The Writing Workshop Setting Exploration: Stepping into the Picture
What Is Writing? Plotting with Tools, Part 1
Heart Mapping Plotting with Tools, Part 2
Writing Territories How to Write Compelling Fiction: A Second Look
Advice to Poets Review: Short Fiction Resources and Techniques
Where Poetry Hides Student Fictional Narrative Samples
Good Titles Traveling Back: Historical Fiction
Proofreading for Spelling Student Historical Fiction Samples
The Rule of Write about a Pebble Essay Genre
The Power of I Essays: How Do I Scratch the Itch?
Beware the Participle Thesis Statements
Engaging Beginnings/Leads: Begin Inside Essay Organization and Planning
The Rule of So What? Some Transition Words and Phrases
Conclusions: End Strongly Conclusions: Experiment with Essay Conclusions
Breaking Lines and Stanzas and Punctuating Response to Literature Genre
Cut to the Bone Response to Literature Components and Organization
Use Repetition Critical Review Genre
Figurative Language: Two Things at Once Effective Critical Book Reviews
Some Additional Literary Devices Critical Review: A Beginner’s Guide
Polishing Poems and Prose Critical Review Components and Organization
Personal Narrative Genre The Vocabulary of Critical Review
Questions for Personal Narrative Writers Critical Review—Beyond Book Reviews
Effective and Ineffective Personal Narratives Troubleshooting: Surefire Ways to Weaken Your Writing
Drawing and Talking to Find Topics How a Thesaurus Can Help
Narrowing the Topic Some Poetic Forms
Narrative Engaging Beginnings/Leads The Truth about I before E
Manipulate Pacing Some Foreign Words Used in English Texts
The Rule of Thoughts and Feelings Root Words and Prefixes
Conclusions: Reflective Close Suffixes: To Double or Not
Student Personal Narrative Samples Other Suffix Rules That Mostly Work
Fictional Narrative Genre A Brief History of Some Common Punctuation Marks
What’s Easy about Writing Bad Fiction? Essential Punctuation Information
What’s Hard about Writing Good Fiction? How to Correct Comma Splices
Problems to Explore in Fiction How to Punctuate Dialogue
The Main Character Questionnaire Homonyms
Character Exploration: Stepping into the Picture Four Capitalization Confusions
Considerations in Creating a Character Writing Numbers
How to Write Compelling Fiction: Short Story Structure Indicating Titles
Ways to Develop a Character Me or I?
Grounding Dialogue in Scenes Daily Editing and Vocabulary Exercises
Setting: More than Just a Backdrop