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