I’m in the middle of (the awesome) Kelly Gallagher’s new book, In the Best Interest of Students. In it, Gallagher takes on the Common Core anchor standards and looks carefully at what works and what doesn’t work. I just finished the section on best practices in reading, and as I expected, every page has given me something to think about, whether it’s a specific instructional strategy or general question about pedagogy. It’s overwhelming in all the best ways. 🙂
A few takeaways so far from Chapter 2, in which Gallagher points out where the CC anchor standards are particularly strong:
- To get kids thinking about key details and ideas… Ask students to summarize their understanding in 17-Word Summaries. As Gallagher points out, asking students to summarize in exactly 17 words—though that number could have easily been 16 or 18, or 140 characters, for that matter—forces students to not only think about content, but to also “pay very close attention to sentence structure and word choice.” Other summary strategies Gallagher shares include writing headlines, window quotes, Cornell notes, what it says/what it leaves out, group summaries, and digital text summaries.
- To get kids thinking about craft and structure… Gallagher reminds us of the philosophy emphasized at many National Writing Project sites across the country: “Students need to read like writers and they need to write like readers.” Using an example from a lesson King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” Gallagher points out that we need to ask students to see the “moves” that the writer makes and why.
- To get kids thinking about what the text means, its significance…. Here, Gallagher points out that we need to get students “to start to think beyond the literal interpretation and to start to think inferentially.” In addition to looking at the Harper Index, Gallagher also suggests using visual texts such as images, graphs, infographics, etc. to get students to consider what messages the texts reveal. We can also ask students to take notes on a text by listing “what they’ve learned” and “claims” made by the text. Other considerations students need to think about are audience and purpose. This is the bread and butter of the AP Lang course, but it wasn’t until recently that I began to realize how important the study and application of rhetoric in literature courses (because really, that’s what this is, no?).
In Chapter 3, Gallagher then moves to where the Common Core standards fall short. My notes:
- While CC emphasizes text dependent questions, as teachers, we can’t teach students to be solely dependent on the text. Background information, front-loading, and connecting prior knowledge to new texts is critical for a full appreciation of any text. I’m reminded of what Deborah Appleman and Jeff Wilhelm argued in a session at NCTE last fall: that the problem with text-dependent questions is that they are just that: text dependent. We need to teach students how to ask and answer questions beyond any single text.
- Speaking of text dependency, the CC fails to recognize the importance of recreational reading. I feel fortunate to teach in a district that hasn’t sacrificed the quality of its curriculum for test prep, especially since it’s only been in recent years that I’ve truly begun to appreciate the value of independent reading and integrated it more purposefully into my classroom teaching.
- Gallagher points out that there is a general misinterpretation about the amount of non-fiction that students should be reading. The CC suggests a 30/70 split of non-fiction/fiction, but this 30% isn’t just what’s covered in ELA classrooms, but “an entire school day.”
- The CC standards seem to be driving a teaching of excerpts, but we have to remember that reading a full-length text, from start to finish, is a critically skill and important experience for students. Literature, it seems to me, would be particularly relevant here, as narrative text is unique in that it requires students to follow a single thread, a plot, a series of events, from start to finish. The type of associative, skimming and scanning type of reading so prevalent in digital reading of websites and such just isn’t possible to do well with narrative texts. Patience, attention, and focus are just some of the benefits of reading longer, complete works.
In the next few days, I’ll tackle chapters 4 and 5 to see what Gallagher has to say about “staying true to what works in the teaching of writing.”
This post is part of the “Slice of Life” series, organized by the teachers at Two Writing Teachers, whose goal is to give teachers a place to write and reflect. This March, more than 250 teachers have committed to daily writing. If you’d like to read more “slices” (from other teachers and even some students), visit twowritingteachers.wordpress.com/challenges.