Book Review: Kelly Gallagher’s In The Best Interest of Students


About eight years ago I had the opportunity to take a one day workshop with educator and author, Kelly Gallagher. It was write after he wrote Deeper Reading and since then, I have devoured every book (Readicide and Write Like Us) he has written. His writing resonates with so many ELA teachers and the classroom practices he offers throughout his texts are trustworthy and build literacy in rich and meaningful ways. Gallagher’s newest book, In the Best Interest of Students: Staying True to What Works in ELA Classrooms (2015, Stenhouse Publishers) is no different. In this book Gallagher takes a closer look at the pros and cons of the Common Core Learning Standards specifically for reading and writing and offers 20-30 literacy building activities to support the readers and writers in our classroom. He reminds teachers, “teaching is not an exercise in checking items off a list of standards . . .good teaching is grounded in practices proven to sharpen our students’ literacy skills.” (Page 7) Here is a list of the good that has come out of the Common Core and where the Common Core learning standards are lacking.

The Good of CCLS:

Students are being asked to “do deeper, closer reading of rigorous, high quality literature and nonfiction.”

Essential reading skills include answering – What does the text say? What does the text do? What does the text mean?

Students must  read like writers – examine techniques used by the writer, the writer’s “moves,” and what makes something an effective piece of writing. Reading and writing is recognized as interconnected.

Recognize audience and purpose to clearly decipher the text’s meaning.

Writing is seen as a process and narrative, informative, and argumentative writing are valued the most. Students need to collect data, research, and see lots of models to write well.

Speaking and Listening are key skills students need to be working on always.

What’s Missing with CCLS:

Connections – Nowhere in the standards does it address making connections – text to self, text to text, or text to world connections. Students need to apply what they are reading to their understanding of the world.

Scaffolding – Students need to wrestle with the text but not at the expense of them losing interest and or getting lost. Students need important background knowledge and essential questions to frame their reading.

Reading for pleasure is nonexistent. There is nothing written about how much a student should read and the breakdown of how much  informational text versus literary text to be read is not equally distributed.

Differentiation is ignored throughout the standards

Argumentative writing is overvalued and narrative writing is undervalued. Students need to be able to write in other formats and go beyond the five paragraph essay.

Gallagher Text

As the state tests loom over so many teacher’s evaluations theses days we need to remember that we are not teaching to a test, but we are teaching young people. Our classroom activities should help students build their reading and writing muscles in order to help them succeed throughout their schooling and life outside of school. Gallagher’s book gives a wealth of ideas to support the good and add the skills needed based on what’s missing within the ELA CCLS. Here are a few of the strategies I will be trying out with my students this month.

17 Word Summaries – Before teachers have students peel back the layers of a text, students must be able to decipher what the text says and clearly articulate their “literal understanding” of the text. Gallagher chooses one student to pick a number between ten and twenty and based on that number, all the students must write a summary using only the number of words the student decides. This requires students to think about writing a lot in a short amount of words for everyone to understand.

Analyzing Photographs to recognize Audience and Purpose. Gallagher asks his students to read photographs. First students share what they see (literal understanding) and then he gives some background about this photographer and what was going on in history the time the photo was taken place to then ask, “What was the purpose for sharing this photo?” Lastly, he asks, who did the photographer hope to see his or her photo? (Page 44) Gallagher talks through this activity using Dorothea Lange’s Migrant Mother.

6 Things You Should Know About . . . & Other Writing Activities to practice more informative writing. Modelled from ESPN Magazine’s “Six Things You Should Know About . . .” students write their own.

Blending Story & Argument Together. A personal experience can strengthen an argument and Gallagher models how to weave a narrative into an argument paper through think alouds, LOTS of modeling, and text exemplars. Students collect data and then write their papers blending narrative into the paper to increase the effectiveness of the argument.

Writing Groups to Develop Young Writers. Gallagher has his students meet in writing groups once a week. The  writing groups includes five students of mixed writing abilities. Each week students bring a piece of writing (new draft or old piece that has been significantly revised) to share with their writing group. Each group member gets a copy of the writing piece to read and respond to. The group members have to “bless,” “address,” or “press” the writing marking up the draft that has been shared and write comments to the writer on note cards based on things marked up on the writing. The group members share their thinking aloud with the group while the writer listens.

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