Pump Up the Volume!

Choice. Time. Freedom. These three words were not uttered by any teacher I had in high school. I could go into great detail about what NOT to do based on my own high school experiences, but instead I used them to make myself a better teacher. I am by no means perfect, but I pride myself on being a strong advocate for my students. I plow through countless articles, books, trusted blogs, and other forms of research to look for new strategies I can utilize. I go to conference after conference, hoping to find ways to continue to improve.

Today, I found some amazing new strategies to incorporate while at a Genesee Valley BOCES workshop. Our speaker was none other than the brilliant Kelly Gallagher! Gallagher is a high school English teacher in Anaheim, California who has been teaching for over 30 years. He has published numerous books about the art of teaching reading and writing, including his most recent one, In the Best Interest of Students. If you haven’t read any of his books yet, now is the time to start! I have read almost all of them, and have successfully incorporated a lot of his ideas into my  9th grade curriculum. I did, however, find that there is a lot more I can still change. Below are my four most important “takeaways” from my day with Kelly Gallagher:

1. Volume matters! Today’s students are simply not writing enough. Period. Gallagher stated multiple times that students should be writing way more than we could ever grade. He shared that in his classroom, he gives students ten minutes of writing time every day, with two of those ten minutes being revision time. My students write a lot, but not that much. Now that I think about it, I have always incorporated independent reading time, for I know  that the more consistently students read, the more they will show improvement. I’ve seen it happen! I also know that reading and writing are intimately connected. I wish that it dawned on me to do the same thing with writing. Next year, my goal is to do just as Gallagher stated: write for 8-10 minutes every day.

2. Motivate with freedom, choice, and TONS of models! We all know how students feel about writing. They dread it and avoid it whenever possible. Gallagher argues that there are countless ways to motivate our students, with the most important strategy being to write with them. Gallagher writes along with his students, and then shares his own work, thinking aloud as he goes. I share my own work as well, but I don’t always create it right in front of my students. Students need to see their English teachers struggle too! They honestly think we write one perfect paper and are done. Not true! They need to see us in action, and this can ease their worries. Grading also plays a role too. Most of those quick writes will never be read by a teacher, and that’s okay. We want students to have time to experiment and play around with language and writing techniques. Since we cannot possibly grade all that, we can allow students to choose, say, which one of the seven quick writes they want us to read and grade. Students will appreciate that.

3. Use book clubs in literature units. Whether teaching a whole-class novel or allowing students to choose one of four, book clubs can be utilized with great success! Book clubs allow students to create and share their own thinking, instead of simply answering a bunch of teacher-generated questions. Students will meet once each week in their small groups to discuss their books using the the reading schedule they created (based on the amount of time I gave them). They will come prepared with their “thought logs,” which could include drawings, summaries, questions, and anything else they may be thinking about. I just want proof that they were thinking while they were reading. The goal is to then share and discuss their thoughts about the book, and then come back together as a class to share again. One student will be randomly picked to share what his/her group discussed with the entire class. What a wonderful way to see what students are noticing!

4. Conferences must be done during independent reading time. I plan to continue giving students 15 minutes of reading time at the beginning of each class. During this time, I write down their page numbers, which shouldn’t take more than five minutes. That leaves about ten minutes for conferences. I hate to admit this, but in past years I slacked with conferences. I wasn’t consistent, and my students knew it. Plus, I also tried to do too much. I felt I needed to ask a certain amount of my own questions, when really all I needed to ask was, “How’s it going?” With this one question, I can meet with 2-3 students in ten minutes, and I’ll be able to learn if a student is reading, and if they are comprehending that text. This is also vital 1:1 time; it’s my chance to create a strong reading relationship with that student. I might recommend a new title if it appears the student doesn’t like his/her current book, or I might simply learn about my students’ interests. No matter what, that conference time is necessary.

What a rewarding experience! I left feeling quite excited about the coming school year. What have you gotten out of Kelly Gallagher’s books, or one of his workshops? Feel free to share below!

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