Quick Tip Tuesday: A lesson they won’t forget

March 22nd, 2011

In this week’s Quick Tip Ruth Ayres and Stacey Shubitz show you how to shake things up in your writing workshop to make a lesson memorable. This and other great tips can be found in their recent book Day by Day: Refining Writing Workshop Through 180 Days of Reflective Practice.

Tell me and I’ll forget. Show me, and I may not remember. Involve me, and I’ll understand.

—Native American Saying

It was a dreary Friday afternoon in early February 2009. Because of a scheduling change, writing workshop was moved between lunchtime and our weekly craft project. A student was having an issue with her peers, which created a disruption. She was dismissed from the classroom until she could regain her composure. Because of the disruption, I was feeling frazzled as my students arrived at the rug for the mini-lesson, notebooks in-hand, waiting to hear what I had to say.

I looked at my lesson, which was printed out and placed inside sheet protectors beside my classroom’s document camera. I looked at the teaching point that said, “Writers often search their writing for lines such as these looking for ways to highlight them, because highlighting a particularly strong line can also highlight a particularly strong idea. One way to make a powerful line stand out is by repeating it here and there across a piece of writing” (Calkins and Chiarella 2006, 181). My mini-lesson was supposed to be an outgrowth of a mid-workshop teaching point on refrains contained in Calkins and Chiarella’s Memoir: The Art of Writing Well. I was set to use an example of the refrain Sandra Cisneros repeats in her story “Eleven,” as well as refrains several of my former students wove into their published memoirs. However, as I glanced over my prepared lesson, I wasn’t feeling it. I looked outside at the gray, rainy sky and still wasn’t inspired. I looked at my students, whose eyes were fixed on me, waiting for me to begin teaching, and I couldn’t go on with the lesson I had planned.

I excused myself from the meeting area for a moment and walked to the other side of the classroom trying to psych myself up to teach this important lesson. I took a few deep breaths, reassured myself that I could to it, turned, and walked back to my class, who were chatting quietly with one another. Once I arrived back at the meeting area it occurred to me that I could deviate from my plan and teach the mini-lesson in a different way. I turned off the document camera and faced my students. My lesson began something like this:

“Writers, many of you listen to music on the radio and hear songs by famous singers. In fact, we listen to a lot of songs when we do our activities at morning meeting. There’s something that most songs have in common with one another, regardless of the singer. Nearly every song contains a chorus or a refrain, which is a part of the song that repeats over and over. Let’s take Beyoncé’s song “Single Ladies,” which most of you have heard. Now, I don’t know if Beyoncé wrote her song or had a songwriter do it, but either way, she wanted to get her point across in the song and repeated the big idea of the song over and over. “If you like it, then you should’ve put a ring on it. If you like it, then you should’ve put a ring on it.” (Some students started to sing along with me until I made a conductor’s “cut” sign.) This phrase is repeated many times in “Single Ladies.” I think she did this because it’s like the woman telling the man who she used to date that if he loved her so much, then he should’ve given her an engagement ring and asked her to marry him. But he didn’t. And now, there’s a song about her new life. See, Beyoncé is smart. She repeated the most important line multiple times. This was done to emphasize her point. Writers do this too.”

And then, I went into my literary examples.

At the end of the mini-lesson, it was evident from their plan boxes that three-fourths of my students were going to try weaving an important line of their writing throughout their memoir. In fact, to keep the inspiration for refrains going, I played popular music softly during independent writing time that day. By share time, I discovered many of my students had a better understanding of refrains, because their drafts now contained beautiful refrains, which reflected the main idea of their piece, repeated artfully throughout their writing.

The following Monday I overheard a group of my students talking in the hallway before school started. They were wondering whether I’d sing Beyoncé for them again during writing workshop. Rather than poking my head out into the hallway and saying, “That was a one-time only performance,” I said nothing. Instead, I relished that they’d probably never forget the day when their fourth-grade teacher taught them how to weave a powerful line throughout their writing by using “Single Ladies” as a mentor text. The refrain lesson was dynamic and engaging. Therefore, the teaching stuck. The objective was met. They will always remember.

Challenge: Shake things up in an effort to get your students more engaged in your mini-lesson. While you’re still going to be the one speaking through the connecting and teaching parts of your lesson, think about ways you can creatively involve your students while you teach so that the lesson sticks.

Reflective Practice:

  • What did you do out of the ordinary today?
  • What was your students’ response when they had a greater involvement or sense of engagement in today’s mini-lesson?
  • What makes you think your students will remember today’s lesson more than others you’ve taught in the past?

Entry Filed under: Quick Tip Tuesday

2 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Halli Moskowitz  |  March 22nd, 2011 at 7:58 pm

    There are so many ways to making a teaching moment stick and that’s one of the best ones yet!

  • 2. Nancy Barlow  |  March 23rd, 2011 at 6:59 pm

    Wonderful lesson! You made it stick by connecting it to something relevant in their lives. (Now I have that song in my head.)

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