Thursday, March 28, 2013

IRC Conference, March 14-16, 2013, Kelly Gallagher

Write Like This: Teaching Real-World Writing through Modeling and Mentor Texts
Kelly Gallagher

I feel a little naïve in the area of reading/writing instruction sometimes.  I say this because I started my career out with full intention of acquiring a position as a US History teacher and staying there until I retired.  This didn't really work out the way I had planned.  In fact, it wasn't until I was 13 years into my teaching career that I was even offered my first job as a US History, and by this point I had given up and moved into reading.  Now don't get me wrong, by this point I had a deep understanding of how important reading was and I was excited with what I was doing.  It wasn't that reading was a second choice; its more like reading was the place I was meant to be, but I was distracted early in my career by the glory of social studies.  I truly believe that I am where I need to be right now.  It just took me over ten years to get there. 

I bring this up because I've never seen Kelly Gallagher speak until a few weeks ago at the IRC Convention.  It was embarrassing to admit this, as the girls with whom I was traveling had all seen him at least once.  My co-department chair actually paid to go see him next month because she wanted to hear him speak.  Gallagher is a contributing author to our newly purchased literature series.  So, after a crazy morning (I overslept by an hour and a half and still had to pack!), we managed to make it to breakfast without missing anything.  I have NO idea how this happened, but after hearing Gallagher speak, I'm glad that I didn't miss him.

The idea of mentor texts was also one that was new to me - again, I am admitting to this, knowing that I probably should have known this term.  After hearing Gallagher speak, I think I have used this strategy in one form or another, but I have never called it mentor texts.  The name makes sense to me, and the way that the idea is used is really brilliant. 

Gallagher began his session with a quick discussion about what today's students are facing in the next ten years.  Because he currently lives in California, he spoke of the California Highway Patrol assessment.  The examples that he showed his audience were clearly vocabulary-based.  Gallagher reports that the majority of this assessment is vocabulary and writing.  Prospective police officers are even required to write an essay!

One point Gallagher made in his presentation is the idea that our expectations for our students are getting lower and lower.  Gallagher stated that he felt like the expectations for our juniors and seniors are decreasing and yet the college expectations are not changing.  I hear this statement over and over again - the academic comparison of today's kids to kids of the past.  I was a kid a little over twenty years ago, and there is no comparison, in my opinion.  It's like the comparisons that are made country to country, state to state, or even district to district!  The number of variables that would have to be factored into the equations are so vast, it is impossible to make such a generalized statement, and yet educators of all walks do it. 

Sixteen years ago I saw my students' ability to absorb classroom content to be more than today's students.  But sixteen years ago I also communicated with their parents through phone calls and face-to-face discussion.  Today, I text or email parents.  I tweet, post and blog.  Input and output come in different formats for our students and for their parents, and this stimulates different parts of these kiddos' brains.  Sixteen years ago (my first year of teaching), my students were not inundated with digital media at every turn.  They were still reading paper books and researching using books and encyclopedias.  The internet was such a new tool back then, and youtube was nonexistent.  The term "just google it" had no premise, and AltaVista was my go-to search engine if I couldn't find the answer in the library.  These kids' brains were still tapped into things that could be touched.  Today's kids are not like this.  To me, this changes things.  We have added an entirely new type of literacy into the lives of our students - digital literacy, and yet we are expecting them to perform at the same capacity or higher, with all of our new research in higher order thinking, than we have in the past.  And we say our kids are not performing?  Of course they are not performing!  They're not meeting these expectations because we are moving at the speed of light and trying to keep up with the increasingly-complex technologies of tomorrow.  We are piling so much on our kids and then shaking our heads in puzzlement when they do not respond!  The bigger problem is that there are students who can achieve at such high rates, and this causes the chasm to spread between those whose brains have been able to adapt and those whose haven't.  Those whose parents read to them every night since before they were born and keep books in every room of their house.  They are the same who buy the latest technology at home who have a bigger advantage and will perform higher on every assessment than those who don't. 

What we expect of our students is in no way less than what we expected twenty or thirty years ago.  It is just different.  We have skipped over some key foundational concepts like basic mathematical computation, phonics, historical dates, and science definitions and moved into teaching application of difficult, complex concepts beginning at the age of six.  Gallagher even concedes that the math from yesterday is not the same as the math of today - word problems are more complex and requirements for computation and answering require reading and writing skills!  Although I can see where this allegation of educational negligence stems, I think the accusation should change to figuring out how we can equalize the opportunities for all of our students and meet the new technological needs of this new generation, all while meeting the higher expectations and blended literacies popping up all over in our standardized testing and real-world experiences. 

Gallagher sees writing as a key educational component, but no longer are we talking about the five paragraph essay.  Today's writing expectations are much more complex and include a wider range of English words than students from years past.  Each year, hundreds of new words are introduced to the English language, and one of our jobs, as educators, is to help our students keep up.  Again, we move to the idea of vocabulary

Kelly Gallagher's idea of using mentor texts is a neat concept - it's the idea that we use a piece of uniquely organized current writing, analyze the author's craft to identify what makes it unique, and then have our students use their own ideas to create a new piece based from the craft of the mentor text.  Gallagher went through a series of mentor texts during his talk.  These easily-utilized mentor texts are listed below:
  • 6 word memoirs - See the example lesson plan with videos from on what they are.  My brief description will not do them justice.  They're six words long and can be used to say just about anything.  See?  Definitely not the detailed description that would be considered telling.
  • Twitter posts - If you haven't looked on twitter or used twitter, I'll tell you right now, I opened a twitter account a year ago and the combination of number signs, ampersands, slashes, dashes, and stars freaked me out so much I posted very little.  Just within the last month, I've made more of an effort to "get to know" twitter, and I'm really starting to get the hang of it!  The restriction with Twitter is that tweets can be only 140 characters (including spaces), so the composer has to either condense information into a sort of twitter code or tweet more than one tweet on the same topic.  This supports the idea of summarization, and would also pique the interest of the students composing the tweets on whatever topic they're writing.
  • Encyclopedia of an Ordinary Life - Definitely a book I will own.  This text is organized in alphabetical order and features words that are significant in the life of author Amy Rosenthal.   Andrea Reichenberger posted a flickr slideshow giving some examples of some great projects created by her students.  Gallagher suggested using this project to start the year.  I LOVE this idea and can't wait to share it with some of our ELA teachers. 
  • The "Unofficial and Unwritten Spokane Rules of Fisticuffs" from The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie.  Lisa Larsen,a teacher from Nevada, writes about this list of unofficial rules and how they can be used in the classroom in her book review.  Gallagher suggests using them in this way and then having students use Alexie's craft to craft their own unofficial rules.  A great way to cross writing with character education or PBIS!
  • This I believe . . . It's really unfortunate that I can't recall if this is the mentor text or not, but what a cool book!  I would use it.  There seems to be a lot out there on the web about writing "I believe" essays, but This I Believe: the Personal Philosophies of Remarkable Men and Women (Allison & Gediman, editors) seems to support Gallagher's objective.  Again, he suggests this could be a good first week (or first day) activity. So many of our kiddos are resistant to writing, but asking them to talk about themselves or what they believe usually sparks some motivation.  It also sets a premise for a writing class that we start the year writing - we will be writing all year.
  • "If you're looking for a way to  . . . " modeled from the ESPN article "If you're looking for a way to kill little league".  Read the article.  It's pretty awesome, and what a wonderful discussion on author's craft you and your students can have!
In each of the above examples, I am brought back to Jeff Anderson and Anna Deese where both presenters talked about the idea of observing or noticing.  Studying the craft of a writer or author requires this skill, and to use mentor texts like the ones above is a great way to practice this skill. The act of applying this craft then allows students to process what they've observed or noticed and morph it into their own writing.

I was thrilled to have taken so much from Kelly Gallagher's morning session at the IRC Convention, and I know that the ELA teachers with whom I work will embrace much of what I have brought back to share with them.  The fact that he contributed to our newly-adopted literature series gives this information even more meaning.  And . . . I also have a list of more books to go out and buy. 

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