Teachers have more instructional choices than ever before. Online lessons, classroom simulations, centers, discussion groups, videos to name a few. How do educators strike a balance meeting curriculum goals, state standards and keeping busy middle school students engaged? Mini lessons are key components to this goal. Every week they are built into science lessons and they help students connect topics and understand larger goals.
What is a mini lesson
A small 15-minute direct instruction lesson where the teacher introduces, reinforces or challenges students to learn a topic. For example, when my student engages in the Bouncing ball lab, a classic science lab where students graph the relationship between drop height and rebound height. Prior to the start of this activity, we do a brief discussion on data types and analysis of data. This sets them up perfectly understand why they are studying data in science lab. Mini lessons depart from a traditional classroom lecture in the length of time, rather than a 40 minute teacher led session, these are broken down into smaller segments more suited for middle level students.
What is a mini lesson made of?
Bell Ringer (3 to 5 minutes)
Students need to be engaged quickly at the start of class, bell ringers can be anything you can bend, twist or connect to the lesson. The other day I posted stats from students favorite NFL team and asked them if the stats indicated a win or a loss (drawing conclusions!). Or when doing a genetics problem to open class themed after sponge bob, while playing a Sponge Bob music track, kids loved it. On a side note, it was fun to watch 8th graders (who are too cool for about everything) sing Sponge Bob. Aside from getting kids on track at the start of class, these also serve as great classroom management tools (Busy hands are happy hands!)
Core Lesson Next 10 Minutes
This is the section where you get to talk, ask questions, probe and activate your learners on a subject. I specifically target these to our “objectives” which are classic learning goals. Speak with enthusiasm, teach like your hair is one fire. This is the most fun part of teaching. This is where kids connect to the person that is their teacher. Don’t be afraid to add kids to your discussion, I frequently throw kids into black holes (talking about scientific theories), push kids off the roofs (scientific laws) in these sessions. Kids laugh. The minute you speak a student’s name in this type of session you will be sure to get smiles. In addition, high quality visuals help connect students to the concepts being taught especially your visual learners.
During this session notetaking skills are taught. Students need to be able record thoughts, ideas and concepts to review and reflect upon later. I like the Cornell note method because of the Summary section you find at the bottom of the page. The summary is perfect for a next day bell ringer or end of class closure session. It is essential to have kids reflect on what they learned in a few sentences within 24 hours, this goes a long way developing long term learning. I generally provide some sort of incomplete notes for kids. This ensures I am meeting my students IEP requirements. I would rather err on giving everyone help, then ignore kids who need it.
Length of Mini Lessons
Mini lessons need to be adjusted based on grade levels. Sixth grade would be closer to 10 minutes while Eighth graders could be stretched to 20 minutes. Each grade level in unique and you will find that pacing and on task behavior linked. Eight graders preparing for high school can handle longer sustained sessions, with deeper questions and a faster pace than sixth graders.
What do I do afterwards?
This is where classic middle school activities come into play. Lab activities, cooperative learning groups, individual practice follow the mini lesson. This allows kids to get up and move, apply what they learned and explore different concepts. Mini lessons connect the dots between lesson activities and major course concepts. Middle school kids move from one place to the next, its important to give them opportunity to reflect and grow. Additionally face to face group teaching provides that personal connection that students crave.
After our first full year of Chromebook implementation in our classrooms, we have had sometime to reflect on its impact on our students and how we respond as educators to ensure they get a quality education. Additionally, our school is fed by an elementary school that is 1 to 1, so our incoming 6th graders provide some insights into the impact of this technology on our students. We have identified some winners and losers in this process and some suggestions to improve learning outcomes.
Ability to navigate multiple learning tools. Using Google Classroom, Canvas, Get More Math, Google Slides, Sheets, you name it, we use a wide variety of learning applications across our schools. Kids have a better understanding that computer apps are tools. Each tool has an optimal application and kids are starting to learn how to apply this. No different than physical tools, iPad, Chromebook and smart phones all have their niche.
Digital communication: Its easier than ever to contact a student, teacher or parent. Kids will ask me for missing work via digital communication. I can quickly get back to them, so in a sense, there are no excuses. Students are more than willing to check grades and, in many cases, will message me as soon as they see something they need to improve.
This is my biggest concern: The ability to write by hand. I still do it as an adult, but most of my writing is digital. I believe there is value in being able to write by hand. Brainstorming, drawing and creating sketch ups require fine motor skills. There is a debate going on whether this is a problem. This is a topic I would like to study in more detail as the research comes out. Some of the initial thoughts indicate that learning the fine motor skills of handwriting activate different area of the brain than typing does. The ultimate question, how important is this skill? Here’s an article to look at, I am sure there will be more research in the future to examine this issue http://www.bbc.com/future/story/20171108-the-uncertain-future-of-handwriting
Classroom management. On one hand, kids on computers get engrossed in their work. Classrooms are quieter than ever. On the other hand, there is a whole new world of pop up games, sites and workaround kids can use to avoid work. Our hardware deployment to our students moves much faster than our ability to manage their online behaviors. This requires the teacher to be vigilant and observe more closely during class. In tradition non one to one classrooms, it was obvious who was avoiding work, being off task or distracting others. In the digital era, these same behaviors are much more subdued. In most cases all students look like they are working, but the reality is that not all students are focused on the tasks at hand.
An interesting observation
In all my years teaching, kids always want to show me their test scores when they finish an online test. I never ask them too and this is never been part of the classroom expectation. I believe this is part of student’s basic human desire to connect with the adult in the room (good or bad). They want to show me how they did, even though the computer instantly tells them their score. This make me wonder what the limits to the one to one classroom will be. Is there a point that too much online interaction takes away from physical face to face connections we all seek out?
I am looking for balance. That means using a variety of teaching strategies, both high tech and low tech. Students will hear me lecture and discuss. Students will create unique products in our maker space and interact in social media spaces. They will write, they will read a book. I hope to challenge them in a changing classroom that helps them all learn in their own unique way. I believe this is the new challenge to teachers, we have every tool in the world, we just need to use them in the right way.
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