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With Larry Ferlazzo

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Curriculum Opinion

Author Interview With Kelly Gallagher & Penny Kittle: ‘180 Days’

By Larry Ferlazzo — May 07, 2018 9 min read
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Kelly Gallagher and Penny Kittle agreed to answer a few questions about their new book, 180 Days: Two Teachers and the Quest to Engage and Empower Adolescents.

Kelly Gallagher (@KellyGToGo) teaches at Magnolia High School in Anaheim, California. He is the author of several books on adolescent literacy, most notably Readicide and Write Like This.

Penny Kittle teaches at Kennett High School in North Conway, New Hampshire. She is the author of several books on teaching English, including Book Love and Write Beside Them.

LF: Your book, I believe, provides an extraordinary template for what a year in a secondary English Language Arts class. Even so, it seems like it would also require a fair amount of preparatory work by a teacher who wanted to implement it. And, as you say, “Every year, we believe we must rewrite curriculum so it is responsive to the mosaic of our students and our changing world.”

What do you say to a teacher who is feeling overwhelmed now with several different “preps” during the school day and a family at home? How would you advise him-or-her to find that kind of time? Or, do you think it can be done in a way that is not intimidating - time-wise - to a teacher?

Kelly Gallagher and Penny Kittle:

Effective teachers already spend a lot of time on planning, of course. We think planning is one of the most creative aspects of our work, and we hope this is true for our colleagues. It invigorates us.

And yes, there are ways to make planning less intimidating.

Be a collector of three most important things: poetry for quick writing, mentor texts that expand understanding of a genre, and student texts that demonstrate what you’re teaching. Start a collection of each with a colleague since two people bring different interests and will expand the variety of the texts. Our poetry and infographics for quick writing contain a rich variety because we collaborate. Subscribe to the Writer’s Almanac poem-a-day or poets.org or American Life in Poetry. We love the resources in Nancie Atwell’s Naming the World (2005)and Linda Rief’s The Quickwrite Handbook (2018). Make a folder to hold photographs that ignite thinking and provoke responses.

Gather a stack of texts in each genre you focus on, paying attention to the diversity of experiences and authors of those texts. Read like a writer at all times. Mark passages in books you’re reading that show a skill you know is essential, like how an author slows down time in narrative or how to merge several sources in an informative piece. The more we pay attention to writing that moves us, the more resources we have for teaching.

Pay attention to the student writing in your classroom that demonstrates excellence. Students are often most engaged when studying writing from their peers. Across all writing types, we always find a place in our units to highlight students’ work (with permission, of course.)

Last, a responsive classroom is built by more than the teacher. Invite students to collect poems and other short pieces they love and ideas they want to share and respond to. Many of our favorite quick writes have come from our students.

LF: Can you elaborate your thinking about the purpose and role of individual conferences? As you describe it in the book, it seems to be what “personalized learning” is really all about. And, again, I have a question about time - how often do you have them with students and how do you handle them logistically in a class of 35 students?

Kelly Gallagher and Penny Kittle:

Every teacher wants time and space to confer, of course. We know its power to nudge writers towards confidence and independence. It is the heart of formative assessment and in-time feedback that helps students develop their ability to solve problems as they work on writing. It is the most important work in moving readers towards understanding texts of greater complexity and owning their lives as readers.

No one would argue that 1:1 coaching from someone who knows more than you do is wasted time. For the teacher, conferring is leaning in to listen. We sit closely and study our students. They teach us more about learning than any curriculum map or professional development book. The idea of kid-watching goes back decades, and it is good for the classroom environment to lean in and take each student’s ideas seriously. We think about what words or approaches will most likely encourage each one of our students to keep going--to learn to trust their own thinking--to realize their own creative potential. The teacher lets go of the façade of know-it-all and helps students understand how complex it is to read and write well across genres.

There are three things that help with management:

  1. Conferring is possible when students are engaged with meaningful work. We sit beside students for a few minutes at a time, day after day, because our students are engaged in reading and writing they see as relevant.

  2. Our students sit in small groups which makes it easy for us to scan 9-10 tables of students instead of rows of individual desks. We nurture a connection of mutual support through turning and talking during text study time. Students regularly share thinking and writing and grow comfortable asking each other questions, becoming supportive of each other. We also put our students in writing groups regularly to expand the web of support.

  3. There is a thread that holds our classroom in productive struggle: our engagement with the room and our high expectations for all students. We show students how serious this work time is with our full attention to them, by opening our notebooks to show them our own struggle as writers. We are never checking email or on our phones. We never sit at our desks. We are beside students. Writers need the space, time, and tools to listen to their voices emerge in writing as they reread what they’ve written to listen to its clarity and power. Readers benefit greatly from 1:1 conversations with the teacher. When students learn the habit of showing up to do this important work as readers and writers, they remain engaged as we confer with others.

Figure reprinted from 180 Days: Two Teachers and the Quest to Engage and Empower Adolescents. Used with permission.

LF: I loved what you had to say about grading versus assessing! I am continually amazed at primacy that so many teachers assign the grading process and the angst that often accompanies it. Can you share some of your thoughts about it here?

Kelly Gallagher and Penny Kittle:

We believe there are four things that help students to become better readers and writers: volume, choice, modeling, and conferring. Grading is not one of these four things. In fact, we believe that grading often harms the development of young readers and writers.

We have all seen kids who shut down after receiving a low essay score or chapter quiz grade. Sorting students via grades is a very different thing than providing feedback that inspires them to improve. Grading often stunts motivation. Writing “frag” in the margins of their papers or assigning them “D’s” does not motivate them. Our goal is to nudge readers and writers forward, to help them to get better. As Donald Graves said, our first job is to receive our students’ work, to find something to love. Assessing and grading are not the same thing, and more grading does not mean better teaching is happening or that learning is occurring. In fact, more grading may be a sign that poor teaching is occurring.

That said, teachers are in a tight spot. We recognize that young writers need a heavy volume of ungraded practice, but we teach in an environment where students, parents, and administrators demand grades. Lots of them. We resist these demands as much as possible in our classrooms. We encourage lots of ungraded reading and writing practice. When we do grade student writing, we start small and gradually increase point totals as the year progresses. Our end-of-the-year portfolios are by far the heaviest-weighted assignment. We spend far less time grading the journey, and we place much more value on grading the finish line.

LF: You talk about the importance of moving students “victimhood to agency” in the context of writing. Can you share your thoughts on that, along with advice to teachers who want to create the conditions for student agency to flourish in other aspects of class life, too?

Kelly Gallagher and Penny Kittle:

We see both kinds of students in our classrooms: those who recognize and work to overcome the inherent struggle to write well--drafting and revising to improve; and students who believe that they can’t get better and thus refuse to try or resort to asking us to show them exactly what to do, again and again. How will we move students who refuse to show up for writing because they have told themselves they can’t get better at it? We make our language explicit, both in what we hear them saying about themselves as writers, and how we hope they will learn to acknowledge their own power to improve.

As you mentioned, this lack of power can play out across many aspects of a student’s academic life. We are the stories we tell ourselves, and some of our students tell stories that lead to continual frustration and despair. A teacher can help students revise these soundtracks.

We believe there are two conditions in our classrooms that help shift this thinking:

  1. The power of making choices. They make choices about where they work (who they sit with) and how they work (headphones in or out, on laptop or in notebook), who is in their book club and how they will respond to their reading, and they make choices about what they’re reading 75% of the time. Our students practice agency in our classrooms, and they learn its power.

  2. We seek diversity, divergent thinking, creativity, the unexpected--and we celebrate that regularly. Our share time at the end of class is a ritual. What teachers pay attention to tells students what is important. We pay attention to the insights, the craft, and the individual brilliance in each class. We seek that in every student we teach. Encouragement engages students in hard work.

Figure reprinted from 180 Days: Two Teachers and the Quest to Engage and Empower Adolescents. Used with permission.

LF: Is there anything I haven’t asked that you’d like to share?

Kelly Gallagher and Penny Kittle:

Some teachers have asked how they can fit their favorite units into our reading and writing maps of the school year. We think we have to be wary of prescribing what students are writing too much of the time, (just as we are about prescribing what they read too much of the time.) We should leave room for our students’ good ideas to remind them that they don’t need an assignment in order to find meaningful writing. However, we don’t object if the teacher narrows the focus for one lap in several attempts in a genre, just as we did when our students wrote letters to lawmakers during our argument unit. Our students are more engaged with meaningful revision when they select

LF: Thanks, Kelly and Penny!

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The opinions expressed in Classroom Q&A With Larry Ferlazzo are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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