When I began teaching in the mid 1990’s, I remember trying to survive, one period at a time, one day at a time, one week at a time. During my first full year of teaching, the arrival of Halloween coincided with two non-contract days leading into a weekend; I was relieved I had made it 10 weeks into the school year and felt as though I had zero energy left to survive any longer. If I was fortunate enough to make it to Thanksgiving that first year, certainly, I knew I was going to be dead by Christmas.
I have been teaching English-Language Arts at the high school level for 16 years. I am still alive! I no longer look at it as ‘survival’, rather I have chosen to embrace the opportunities I have interacting with high school students on a daily basis learning with them as we all grow, academically and emotionally. I am no longer desperately trying to tread water in heavy currents, I am swimming, fully immersed, with the water’s current and, at times, against the current, alongside my students. While my teaching strategies have changed over the years as I reflected on how effective my lessons and strategies helped students improve academically, I have long attempted to solve the mystery as to why students don’t enjoy reading and detest writing, at least in school. One of my dreams is to have students recognize and acknowledge the benefits of being able to read confidently and write effectively.
The literacy rate in the United States is alarming. An article published in the Washington Post in December 2005 by Lois Romano (Literacy of College Graduates is on Decline) explains that students, at the time, entering college lacked the basic understanding how to use a library system. Some of my students today, in 2012, do not know how to locate a book that strikes their interest in our school’s library. I remember the days, as a child, going to the public library and pulling out the long drawers full of cards with book titles and authors on them. The article further suggests that a cause in the decline may be due to a whole generation of students who learned how to read on computers and communicate via instant-messaging, email, and, now, texting.
Ironically, and somewhat sadly, a similar article was published five years later in October of 2009 by William O’Neill (The Appalling Decline of Literacy Among College Students) found on George Mason University’s History News Network. O’Neill makes a decent cause-and-effect case stating the decline of literacy is a result of a.) the drop in state financial support for public universities, causing the universities to increase tuition fees and hire part-time, or adjunct, teachers who have no incentive or job security, and b.) the part-time instructors who are judged and potentially promoted by administrators based on student evaluations decreases the level of demanding classroom expectations; the evaluations have a tendency to ‘penalize the demanding teachers and reward the easy graders.’ This cause-and-effect relationship ignores the growing need for literacy to prepare our students for life after formal education, it shows how mediocrity might be encouraged and tolerated, and it is hitting the radar and sounding alarms of potential employers who are requiring college graduates applying for jobs to take writing tests.
In a more recent article written by Corey Fitzgerald for Scientific Learning, Adult and Family Literacy in the U.S.; Limitations to Our Nation’s Success published February 2011, an optimistic presentation is made emphasizing the need to increase our literacy to recapture our nation’s global leadership presence. To this end, Fitzgerald clearly states that education is our best investment resulting in better jobs, better health, and, among other things, an increase in personal income.
As an educator, I believe it is imperative of me to do all I can to emphasize and re-emphasize reading, writing, and evaluating literature. Causes of the literacy decline in the United States are ambiguous and arguable, as much as the solutions are of top priority for all involved in education. Consequently, as a parent of four, two in elementary school, the significance of being literate has never been more in my face than it is now.
The Curriculum Coordinator in our district is a deep well of resources regarding literacy strategies. She spent her classroom years teaching literacy to reluctant readers and writers. I am thankful she pointed me to, what has turned out to be, an extremely valuable resource for me, Kelly Gallagher.
Since late December 2011, I have read Deeper Reading, Write Like This, and Reading Reasons, all books written by Gallagher. I have had the opportunity to hear him speak, one session as the keynote speaker and once as a break-out session, at the Wisconsin State Reading Association’s Convention in Milwaukee in February. While there are holes and questions remaining about some of the strategies Gallagher offers, the majority of them, when applied correctly, have been effective for struggling high school readers and writers as well as the advanced high school readers and writers.
In my search for answers to help students develop a love, a joy, for reading and writing, Gallagher has provided sound, real-world, applicable strategies that provide students with the tools to become more literate. Beginning with Reading Reasons, he presents his top ten reasons why students MUST read. He shares this list with his students. I have since done the same and many of my students can quickly provide several reasons why we should read from memory:
Reading is rewarding, reading builds a mature vocabulary, reading makes you a better writer, reading is hard, and ‘hard’ is necessary, reading prepares you for the world of work, reading well is financially rewarding, reading opens the door to college and beyond, reading arms you against oppression, reading makes you smarter, reading develops a moral compass.
Deeper Reading has provided me the most applicable strategies of the three books I have read. The most significant ideas presented in this book include effective first-draft readings and effective second-draft readings. Gallagher provides numerous strategies, both in idea and in the form of graphic organizers, to front load reading of complex text, enhancing comprehension through second-draft reading, and the power of collaboration.
Using models to generate writing using six different purposes guides Gallagher’s book Write Like This. The six different purposes Gallagher focuses on are:
Express and Reflect, Inform and Explain, Evaluate and Judge, Inquire and Explore, Analyze and Interpret, and Take a Stand/Propose a Solution.
The practice of using mentor texts, that is writing already published by polished authors, as a model for writing is the starting point in getting our students to be active, real-world writers. After the ‘mentor text’ is presented to students, Gallagher then uses the I Go, You Go strategy of writing. Gallagher urges we must model our own writing process in front of our students, showing them our struggle and how we think and write aloud and how we edit as we write. Finally, after reading the mentor text, watching the teacher create a similar text, the students are then asked to follow the same pattern of writing, even so much as using a few identical words and/or phrases…Gallagher calls it approved plagiarism.
To emphasize his point of ‘approved plagiarism’, Gallagher uses the analogy of watching a great move used by an NBA player and trying, the next day, to imitate that move in the drive way. We don’t call Kobe Bryant or Lebron James and ask permission to try ‘their move’. I have found this is an effective way of getting students to write and feel confident about their writing. Furthermore, Gallagher claims we need to have students write four times more than we can grade. His solution, one I believe to be effective for me and my students, is to have them write four times, then ask them to choose their best writing of the four, place that one on top to be graded while they will get credit for completing the rest of the writing. This takes the writing and thinking about the writing to a whole other level.
After 16 years of teaching I am still trying to sharpen my skills, still trying to find the best ways to invite my students to become life-long readers and writers. With the literacy epidemic in the United States, I find it refreshing that someone like Kelly Gallagher has decided to share his gifts and talents with the rest of this world’s educators to give our students a fighting chance in a shrinking world. I strongly encourage you to keep learning, keep fighting for your students, and keep finding strategies, like the ones Gallagher presents, to slow down and, with all optimism, reverse the war on literacy.