From Demonstration to Orchestration: Some Thoughts on Mini-Lessons


Last week I read a piece in The New Yorker titled “Slow Ideas” by the surgeon and writer Atul Gawande, whose articles about medicine seem full of implications about teaching and learning to me. In this piece, for instance, Gawande looks at how to speed the spread of important innovations, such as institutionalizing hygienic hospital practices in order to avoid infections, and along the way he discovers something that I think has implications for mini-lessons: that people are most prone to lastingly learn things not if they’ve seen it demonstrated by an expert but if they’ve had the chance to try to do it themselves.

Rockin' Reading WorkshopThe by-now standard structure of a mini-lesson has the teacher explicitly naming a teaching point that’s connected to the unit of study, then modeling it as students watch. This is followed by a few minutes of active engagement, where students are invited to participate, sometimes by trying out the teaching point themselves or sharing what they saw the teacher doing. Then there’s a link that acts as a segue to independent reading, where students are explicitly or implicitly expected to apply what’s been taught in their independent reading book.

I can’t say enough about how important it was to me, in my own practice, to become adept at articulating a clear, concise teaching point, which this mini-lesson structure forced me to do. I learned an incredible amount doing that—sometimes, I believe, more than the students watching those lessons did. For while there are certainly stellar exceptions, I often see students zoning out as teachers—including me—demonstrate, and too often I don’t really see students transferring what’s been taught into independent reading.

As I explored in an earlier post on the pros and cons of modeling, this may be because of the passive nature of watching someone else do something—especially if it’s not something you’re burning to know. It might also be that the time allotted to active engagement simply isn’t enough for many students to get the teaching point—let alone to see what it can do for them as readers, which might motivate more students to transfer the thinking. Furthermore I think that all of this is compounded by the practice of teaching a new mini-lesson every day, regardless of whether students got what was previously taught or not, which may unintentionally send out the message that we don’t really expect you to understand.

Confucius Quote 2The ideas I explored last week from Matt Glover and Mary Alice Berry’s “Planning for What You Can’t Know,” specifically address this last issue by encouraging teachers to be flexible and responsive to student needs. But what about the mini-lesson itself? For a while now I’ve done my most critical teaching not during independent reading but during read aloud (or a hybrid of read aloud and shared reading, where I project or provide students with a copy of the text). And while I often begin that with a teaching point, I’m more likely to set students up to practice it, rather than demonstrate it myself—knowing that, as Gawande (and Confucius) said, the learning will be more meaningful and lasting that way.

IThe Name Jarn the example I shared in that post about modeling, I set the students up to read The Name Jar by Yangsook Choi by asking them to try to do what readers usually do in their heads whenever they begin a book: They try to keep track of what they’re learning and what they’re wondering about both because beginnings can be confusing and because they know that some of what they’re curious about will be answered as the story unfolds. And to help them make that work visible, I used a text-based Know/Wonder chart to keep track of their thinking.

Unlike the teaching points found in many mini-lessons, this wasn’t exactly a strategy or skill, though it positioned the students to employ many strategies and skills we might otherwise teach separately as they automatically—and authentically—started questioning, monitoring their own comprehension, and connecting details within the text to infer everything from the character’s nationality to the problems she faced. And moving the main teaching point from independent reading to the read aloud gives students more time and space to wrestle with meaning by engaging in what Gawande calls in another great article “‘deliberate practice’—sustained, mindful efforts to develop the full range of abilities that success requires.” It also gives us a window into different students’ minds, which can help us and students in several ways.

By studying The Name Jar, for instance, I was aware that there were several problems readers had to tackle in the first few pages, including navigating a flashback, which, as you can see below, is signaled only by small textual clues that include a subtle shift in verb tense.

TheNameJar 1

TheNameJar 2

TheNameJar 3

I anticipated that that might be tricky for some students, which it proved to be, as students had different views on where and when things were happening. But rather than solving the problem for them by either confirming the ‘right’ answer or explaining the time shift myself, I asked a student to explain her thinking, which accomplished several things. The student who walked the class through her thinking benefited in ways that are described in a recent Education Week article called “Students Can Learn By Explaining,” which cites new research that shows that “students who can verbally explain why they arrived at a particular answer [are] more able to catch their own incorrect assumptions and generalize what they learn to other subjects”—or, in this case, other texts. The number of ‘ah’s’ heard in the room also meant that other students were listening and now saw what she had seen (though anticipating that here might be problems here, I already had a small group lesson up my sleeve that would give the students I could now identify more time to practice this kind of thinking).

Additionally as I noticed and named what that student had done in more general terms, we’d arrived, as a class, at another teaching point: that writers sometimes signal a shift from the present to the past through small words and clues like “had said” and “remembered,” and so readers try to attend to those clues in order to not get lost. This teaching point and the other about keeping track of what we’re learning and wondering about could now be imported to independent reading where, instead of modeling, we could remind students of what they’d already done, how they’d done it, and how it had helped them as readers. Building the mini-lesson around student thinking this way not only builds on strengths instead of deficits, it also ensures that time-wise the lesson stays mini so that students have more time to read, without being shortchanged on the time really needed to experience the thinking work first hand.

And if and when I do see the need to model, the students are more apt to see the need for it, too, because they’ve developed a different sense of themselves as thinkers and readers—having played the notes of the symphony themselves.

Student Orchestra

9 thoughts on “From Demonstration to Orchestration: Some Thoughts on Mini-Lessons

  1. This post speaks to the value of learning by doing. Teachers need to be deliberate facilitators of learning rather than the source of information. In addition to students learning through explaining their thinking, I also value students analyzing/interpreting the work of others and sharing understanding of how someone else solved a problem or situation. Thanks for more great insight and opportunity for reflection.

    • Hello Joe from San Diego where I had the privilege to work with some incredible teachers many years ago! I agree completely in the power of students considering the ideas & thinking process of their peers as, in the end, I believe that students actually learn more from each other than they learn from us. It’s another reason to ask students to explain their thinking; the students who are listening also get a window onto how another mind thinks, which can expand their own thinking. And especially in reading, our understanding of a text can be so enriched by hearing other people’s ideas. We all get to see more that way.

  2. Vicki,
    I’m finding that I’m doing my most critical teaching during read-aloud, too. Then I watch and listen to see who is talking and how the talk goes. These observations (along with individual reading conferences) have quite often resulted an impromptu small group or individual conferences. This format seems to offer me multiple chances to figure out how a child is making meaning and some chance to inquire about next steps. Strange that this process isn’t seen as containing a high degree of assessment since I feel like I’m constantly assessing, probing, questioning, hypothesizing, and testing those hypotheses. Hmm…

    Also, your point seems spot-on about how following the script of a mini-lesson a day (or more!) might actually suggest to children that we are more serious about teaching the standards than the child.

    Finally, your (and Gawande’s) idea of “learning by doing” fits really well with what I’ve been reading about how people learn. Turns out that thinking is difficult and (literally) exhausting, yet so necessary for that process to occur. And if I’m watching someone else do that thinking and don’t get the pleasure of wrestling for myself, of satisfying my own curiosity, which provides the fun that compensates for all the energy that thinking requires…? Hey, that passivity (and enervation) kind of reminds me of traditional PD, too — lots of watching and responding, not much thinking and doing.

    As always, many thanks.

    • I used to work through a group called A.U.S.S.I.E. (which stands for Australian-United States Services in Education), and my Australian colleagues used to say that PD comes in two forms–take & make or sit & get, which with an Australian accent rhymes. These days it seems like more & more we’re asked to sit & get when what we really need to do is take & make. And I fear that’s true for students, too. Of course, the take & make is harder because it requires thinking. And while thinking can, indeed, be exhausting, I also believe–and imagine you do, too–that it’s exhilarating and actually pleasurable. I want kids to feel the thrill of thinking–or as one high school student told her teacher after participating in a demo I did with the poem Food.Music.Memory, which Dorothy & I shared in What Readers Really Do, “That was hard but fun.”

      I have all sorts of thoughts about why the crucial listening and observing that we do in a read aloud doesn’t seem to be valued as much as other kinds of assessments, but I may need to save that for another post. In the meantime, though, you should know that while I was in San Antonio with Mary Lee, Jan & Kim, you were there with us in spirit, as in a conversation about the satisfaction of connecting with teachers & colleagues through blogs, we realized that you, as valued reader, were another way in which we were all connected. So here’s to figuring out a way to do it in real, not just virtual time!

  3. I agree with Steve! Thinking is exhausting and when we step in to aid a student, they gladly accept.

    I find that explaining your thinking is a very powerful strategy for deepening understanding. I experience it every time I respond to a blog, blog or present my ideas to others. I really have to think about my thinking in order to explain it, and as a consequence my understanding is stronger. So it goes for our students. By explaining their thinking they not only are demonstrating to us their understanding, but also working out exactly why they think what they think.

    Spot-on as always. I love the way you make theory practical.

    Thank you!

    • “By explaining their thinking they not only are demonstrating to us their understanding, but also working out exactly why they think what they think.” Julieanne, what a wonderful description of the power of conversation (and writing!) to call forth, organize, and refine thoughts.

    • Hello Julieanne! I’d actually tried to find a way to link this post with yours on Making Room for Thinking (, which I thought was great–as was The Power of Yet. Your comment also reminded me of the ever important nature of the ‘why’ and the ‘how.’ Explaining helps us not just articulate what we think, but why and how we do it, which is so important to our own understanding of ourselves as thinkers–or in Peter Johnston’s terms, it builds identity and agency. And perhaps if students felt the power of their own agency more, they wouldn’t be so eager for us to step in. They’d feel the pay-off of deepening understanding that you describe so well here.

      • I’m honored that you connected the two blogs! I continue to be stunned by the power of blogging. I “knew” value of publishing to an “authentic” audience. Been told it, read about it, and believed it. But, I had no clue of what it meant until I tried. Now to bring it to students — can not wait! The goal this year: to get students to think for themselves and find their power through talk and writing.

  4. Pingback: Before Revision, Vision & Other Words of Wisdom from Katie Wood Ray | To Make a Prairie

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