Getting Real About Student Writing
Write Like This: Teaching Real-World Writing Through Modeling & Mentor Texts
By Kelly Gallagher
Stenhouse Publishers, 2011, 256 pp.
Teacher Book Club Dates: Feb. 21-23, 2012
In his acclaimed Readicide (2009), high school English teacher Kelly Gallagher offered a provocative explanation for young people’s lack of interest in reading: A big part of the problem, he argued, could be traced to the "inane, mind-numbing" ways that reading is taught in many schools. Now, in Write Like This, he turns his attention to writing instruction, which he believes is in a similar—if not more dire—state of crisis.
At a time when strong writing skills are a virtual prerequisite for meaningful employment, Gallagher says, writing as a subject of study "seems to have gotten lost in many of our schools.” It has been “buried in a avalanche of standards, curricular pacing guides, huge class sizes, worksheets, over-the-top testing, and, yes, even more testing. …" When writing is taught at all, he continues, it is often subject to "prescribed school discourses" that limit students’ development and fail to capture their imagination. For Gallagher, it’s no wonder that, by one estimate, as many as 70 percent of students graduate from high school with inadequate writing skills.
So how can teachers bring new life to the proverbial second "R"? Gallagher, a 25-year teaching veteran, argues that writing instruction needs to be reoriented around two interlocking premises. First, teachers should emphasize the "real-world" purposes of writing by giving students prompts and assignments that engage their intellects and demonstrate the value and function of thoughtful composition. Second, they need to provide students with authentic modeling of how this kind of writing is done.
Much of Gallagher’s book consists, in turn, of detailed descriptions of how he teaches his students to write in six different real-life discourses, including “Express and Reflect,” “Evaluate and Judge,” and “Take a Stand/Propose a Solution.” By his account, he generally begins by giving his students a graphing or brainstorming activity to get them familiar with the discourse in question. (When teaching “Evaluate and Judge,” for example, he has them create product-comparison charts.) Then he provides a series of ever-deepening writing prompts designed to show the students how writing in these various modalities can help them express themselves and develop their thoughts in ways that are distinctly pertinent to their interests.
As a reader, it’s hard not to be impressed by the cleverness and variety of Gallagher’s short-writing prompts. In the “Express and Reflect” section alone, he has students writing “reverse poems” about their core beliefs, exploring “watermark events” in their lives, and reflecting on their personality types under Jungian psychology. You get the feeling that students could have fun with these assignments—which of course is a big part of Gallagher’s point.
To provide a foundation for the assignments, meanwhile, Gallagher furnishes sample pieces by professional writers—what he calls “mentor texts”—that the students are asked to reflect on, pull apart, and even imitate. And perhaps more unusually, he does the writing assignments himself in class, using an overhead projector or document camera to demonstrate his compositional process. Gallagher believes this modeling is central to improving students' conceptual grasp. “I am the best writer in the room, and as such, I need to show them how I grapple with this mysterious process we call writing,” he explains. “Students must see the process to understand the process.”
If it sounds like Gallagher goes about teaching writing with a certain missionary zeal, that’s because he does believe that, as an English teacher, he plays an essential—and embattled—societal role. At several points in the book, he emphasizes the value of writing development as a counterforce to a rampant consumer culture that devalues reflection and critical thinking. Teachers have an obligation, he suggests, to give young people the time and attention they need to understand and harness the power of individual expression.
That may mean sacrificing some state standards or diverting from prescribed curricula, Gallagher acknowledges. “If my students grow into adults who cannot write,” he asks, “will it really matter that they had good scores on a state test they took when they were thirteen years old?”
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