Note to Self: You Won’t Be There…

There’s a John Lennon song that addresses an issue that teachers know all too well: “Life is what happens to you when you’re busy making [lesson] plans.”

Even the most responsive and differentiated approaches can fall victim to the different kinds of chaos that life throws our way (Technology, I’m talking to you). On top of that, for a host of reasons, even our most school-loving students have off days. I have my fair share of off days, as well.

To be honest though, sometimes, something else is afoot. Once in awhile, my lesson, or unit, plans assume that students bring certain skills and abilities that have not yet been unlocked. Maybe I didn’t pre-assess well enough, maybe I misidentified students’ needs, maybe I made the wrong adjustments.

My first and second semester beat is all about exploring the moves a teacher can make when life happens to our well-made plans. Here, I’ll be detailing successful adjustments, as well, as moves that didn’t work out so well. Most importantly, I’ll be describing some of the key lessons I learn about as common (and not-so-common) issues pop in the Reading and Writing Workshop.

Life Happens Logo

I’d looked over my field notes. I’d researched student work during the previous days’ conferences. I’d even made the perfect adjustment, you know, the adjustment that would solve all the class’s problems.

I would use the next day’s mini-lesson to reteach the thing that most of the students were missing, and, just like that, light bulbs would go off for every student in the room! Those brilliant young readers and writers would leave our meeting circle to work like they’d never worked before, grateful to have such a responsive teacher who teaches them exactly what they need at exactly the right time!

And then I actually started teaching this perfect mini-lesson…

Eyes glazed over. A few students whispered something funny, and one of them giggled–as if I wasn’t even in the room! The giggle set off an all-too-familiar chain reaction of conversation, and just like that, my perfect mini-lesson fell apart in front of me.

Where had I gone wrong? Well, where should I even begin?

Looking back, I would do about 10-15 things differently, and I would start with never having taught that mini-lesson to begin with. What I had thought to be a “perfect adjustment” was really me just reteaching something we’d gone over a couple days earlier.

Now, don’t get me wrong, re-teaching isn’t a bad thing in and of itself, but the whole class mini-lesson may not always be the best place for this kind of work.

At the 2019 #TCRWP Coaching Institute, staff developer Meghan Hargraves said, “Remember, the mini-lesson is not about mastery–its purpose is to introduce a new skill that students will begin to practice during the workshop. 9 times out of 10, you won’t be there by the time they’ve mastered it.”

My mind went straight back to that recent mini-lesson flop. I’d been shooting for mini-lesson mastery instead of introducing a new skill to begin practicing.

This is how units drag out longer than they need to be. Instead of keeping the momentum going, we often stop at the first sign of struggle and we reteach or look at the concept at a different angle–which can be a very good thing, but this way of re-teaching may work best when working with students in small groups, or better yet, in one-on-one conferences.

So, I got back to work. The next week, I raised the level of thinking with each mini-lesson, and I kept the class moving at a fast pace. Students who struggled received help in small groups and in one-on-one conferences (and students who struggled with paying attention during the mini-lesson received one-on-one instruction on how to get the more out of the mini-lessons).

Interestingly, by the end of the week, there were no glazed eyes, and there were no whispers between students, except when I’d have them turn and talk to try out the moves I was teaching. The work in front of students may have been challenging–for some, too challenging–but it was new, which in and of itself can raise the level of engagement.

Reading and writing workshop practitioners know that the heart of the teaching happens during conferences, but we can’t forget that for thousands of years, the main mode of teaching was for one person to talk to a group of listeners. This means, we have thousands of years of conditioning to overcome if we are going to be effective workshop teachers.

So, if workshop seems to be falling flat, the part where you talk in the front of the room to a group of listeners might be a good first place to examine. In the past, I’d always ask myself, “Am I talking too much? Is the mini-lesson going too long? Is my teaching point clear?”

Nowadays, I also ask, “Is my mini-lesson trying to do the heavy lifting of yesterday’s work, or is it introducing a skill for students to start practicing today?”

How do you keep your mini-lessons engaging and relevant? What do you do to keep your units of study from stagnating? Connect with me on Twitter @MrWteach or at

Leave a Reply