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Deepening my bag of tricks with Kelly Gallagher

5 Aug

Is Kelly Gallagher a celebrity? Judging by my colleague chasing him around to take his picture, yes.

Is Kelly Gallagher a world-class English teacher? No doubt about it.

Is Kelly Gallagher a magician? Although his powers seem to be nearing supernatural, he is, in fact, human.

And the best part about him being human is that his strategies, ideas, and philosophies can be adapted and integrated into my own classroom very easily. His book Readicide: How Schools Are Killing Reading and What You Can Do About It has been a great resource to me, especially in terms of reinforcing my belief in the importance of fostering a love of reading. And Teaching Adolescent Writers has helped me with the feedback and instruction that is necessary in a writing classroom.

But hearing him speak in person helped me to make even more connections between what I do, what I want to do, and what I can do. He made the North Dakota Council of Teachers of English Conference completely worth it on his own. I’ll share some of the concepts and strategies that I plan to implement with you today.

Assigning writing is easy. Teaching writing is hard.

The study of models in writing is one strategy that made so much sense to me, but not just to read a model or two then go write. The study of models, including students copying the format and inserting their own words. When students read, analyze, and emulate model pieces of writing, they become better writers.

There should be a heavy dose of approved plagiarism in our classrooms. 

By closely analyzing what the author is doing here, here, and here, students are able to understand how they can do the same things in their writing. Gallagher suggests using a mentor text that students read and analyze on their own, noting what the author is doing. The class discussion that follows creates notes that help all students to see the same things. By the end of the class discussion, everyone’s notes are the same. This gives the students a map of how to create a piece. And if a student asks how long the assignment is supposed to be, it is a clear indication that they have not seen enough mentor texts.

I felt supported in the idea that narrative writing is a medium that deserves to be valued. It helps students to learn to write, and it is also a tool that can be used for persuasive and informative writing.

To create seeds for future writings as well as to make it easy for students to begin, Gallagher suggested starting with six-word memoirs. Here are a few examples, but check out the link for more.

  • Adulthood. I miss myself so much.
  • Collect your thoughts then edit them.

Go from there to creating a tweet of 14o characters or less.

Encyclopedia of an Ordinary Life could serve as another mentor text. The author uses each letter to tell a small part of her story, usually with humor included.


The same two words, albeit in reverse order, sum it all up:

Home nursing
Nursing home

Essays from This I Believe are also a great way for students to follow the pattern of a mentor text and create something that has meaning for them and to their classmates. Discussions on whether to start with the claim or finish with it, how to illustrate the point the best, and things like that are important classroom discussions after analyzing the piece.

And the last small writing piece that I’ll share is to explain a photograph. What is happening in these people’s lives? Do a short minilesson on first vs. third person, then students write for four minutes. Pass the paper to the next person at the table, and write for four more minutes. When you’re done, the group chooses the piece with the most potential and revises it as a group. This gives students a chance to collaborate and make decisions as a group. Lots of learning potential here!

Here are a few more things that I just have to share that stood out to me.

Gallagher’s comment to teachers who think teaching students to write the five-paragraph essay in order to learn to write:

Teach kids to write authentically, then if it is required by the school, teach to write inauthentically just before it is needed.

Kids understand that the five-paragraph essay written for a teacher’s eyes only is not important! Show students a meaningful mentor text and it allows students to help find their places in the world.

You can break the rules if you understand the rules.

Go ahead and use fragments to illustrate your point better! Good writers do things like this all the time. It. Is. Effective.

Here is another piece to analyze by Leonard Pitts Jr. entitled “Sometimes, the earth is cruel.” I’ll be taking the sentence stem “Sometimes, _________ is cruel” and using it as a writing prompt for my students this year.

Or how about this mentor text that can be emulated for analyzing a mistake? It’s called “A mistake that should last a lifetime.” Students see how the author introduces the mistake, tells the story of the mistake, then reflects on the mistake.

Whew! I have a lot of great things to do this year in helping my students become better writers!

So Is Kelly Gallagher a magician? Well if he is, I think I may have stolen his tricks.

Is he famous? Absolutely, and I even got a picture with him!



21 Jul

As an English teacher, basketball coach, and golf coach, I spend a good deal of time thinking and learning about motivation. What will get my kids to try their best, work hard, and care about individual growth as well as the improvement of the group. Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us by Daniel Pink offers a great look into how motivation has changed from a rewards-based system to a need for intrinsic motivation.

I like to take notes of page numbers and quotes that stand out to me, and I found more than usual to take note of while reading this one. Here’s a little glimpse into my summer front-porch reading.

IMG_1303 IMG_1304

The basic idea is that rewarding someone for doing an activity, that activity becomes work. We “lose intrinsic interest for the activity” (8). In order to motivate people in creative and intellectual tasks, they need to be engaged and motivated from within. The rewards/punishment system of motivation “rests on the belief that work is not inherently enjoyable – which is precisely why we must coax people with external rewards and threaten them with outside punishment” (30). I picture the lack of joy and engagement on some students’ faces, and this is exactly why.

So what do we need to do instead?

“Humans have an innate inner drive to be autonomous, self-determined, and connected to one another. And when this drive is liberated, people achieve more and live richer lives” (73). Think about how so many classrooms and schools are run with a philosophy exactly opposite of this. We limit autonomy, we reward students with grades and more, and we often fear connectivity. It is no wonder we see students bored in class and just doing enough to get by. That is what our system of rewards teaches them to do! We have narrowed down our standards to encourage mastery, but “only engagement can produce mastery” (111). It is time to reengage our students in meaningful work that helps them connect to the world in their own way.

“First, consider nontangible rewards. Praise and positive feedback are much less corrosive than cash and trophies.” This will help to increase intrinsic motivation. “Second, provide useful information” (67). Give positive comments and provide specific feedback to our students.

And now for the hardest hitter of all. “We’re bribing students into compliance instead of challenging them into engagement” (174). Let that sink in a second. Instead of offering students appropriate challenges that stretch an individual’s thinking, we are rewarding students for doing just enough.

We need to help our students to answer the questions that they all want to know: “Why am I learning this? How is it relevant to the world I live in now?” (179).

Helping my students reach an authentic audience with their writing is one way that I am making a change. Writing pieces are not just for me, but for the world. Videos are to be published after a script is crafted. Presentations are to be presented to an audience, and recorded to be shared to the world. That is where we see kids make connections and find passions. Where kids see a need in the world and do something to fill that void.

That is motivation.

What Creating Innovators means for me

21 Apr

After finishing Creating Innovators by Tony Wagner for a book study, I was asked to write a reflection on ways I would apply the idea of teaching students to be innovative to my teaching practices. I also just read an interesting piece of advice about saving your keystrokes and posting to your blog instead of sending an email for things like this. So hcreating-innovatorsere is what stood out to me as I thought about teaching innovators in my English class:

First and foremost, I want to create even more authentic opportunities for my students. I currently blog with my students, but even that lacks authenticity because I am asking them to do it. They don’t feel like they have to have it in order to succeed or to accomplish something. There needs to be a problem or a question that they are trying to solve. “How can I make money with this blog?” or something like that. This is something that I’m going to keep working on to design a way for my students to possibly collaborate and create a blog with a purpose.

One thing that I already do in class is to create feature articles. These are research articles that follow models from magazines. For next year’s assignment I would like to create a class newsroom with students collaborating to create some type of magazine, either electronic or paper. The students would work as a team to create the content (stories, photographs, etc.), edit, assemble, and publish their work. If I want to add some friendly competition, there could be an ad to a link where students could vote for that group’s publication. This would give the students a chance to see what was most effective in communicating with their peers.

The idea that we have a certain amount of “whimsy” and fun in what we do is important. We are providing a place for students to play with a lot of different parts of their learning. I want to get students to collaborate more often in order to accomplish a goal. And that goal should be one that is created by students. “People who innovate care about what they do, care enough to take a chance, spend extra time, care about people they are working with. I also want them to feel that what they’re doing makes a difference” (p. 215). It is necessary to expose students to the various important things happening in the world if they are going to develop the empathy to want to change them.

Each year we do a Hero Project in my 7th grade classes. This is a fairly structured project where we choose five traits of their hero (someone in the student’s life) and write a paragraph on each of those in addition to the introduction and the conclusion. The project is then turned into a movie and is always successful and enjoyable for students as well as meaningful for parents, the most common recipients of the project as a gift. This year I am going to open it up a little more to my students. I am going to create an example using my grandmother where I interview her and use her voice and film of her to add to my project. It is usually the student reading over the picture of the hero, but the video would make the project go even more in depth.

Meaningful feedback for students is another part of the book that is important. I have played with some different forms of grading thanks to discussions with an English colleague, and using the standards as individual grades on a rubric has helped me to give better feedback to students. Instead of just receiving a letter grade or a percentage, students can see more of what actually made up the grade because I respond to them and point to evidence. This is in addition to the constant feedback during the writing and creating process.

And meaningful feedback should not just be for our students. I have done some videotaping of my teaching, but I want to continue and grow that habit. We do not always find time to reflect as teachers, and when we do it can be inaccurate. Using video is a way that I can analyze myself. It is also a way for teachers to share their successes and strategies. Instead of living in the bubble of our own classroom, let’s get out through the use of technology and see all of the wonderful things happening in our own districts.

Lastly, I truly want to be the educator that students see as passionate and worth being around. I want to push for continued improvement in all areas of teaching and learning. And I want students to feel that I truly cared about them as a person and gave them the tools to be successful in the world.

Plagiarism lessons with Vanilla Ice

15 Apr

Plagiarism is one of the toughest things to teach to a middle school student during a research paper or article. The words are there, right on the internet, and I can’t just copy them? No. You may not.

Here is my attempt to help students understand what they need to do in order to create their own work:

First, I want to blatantly give an example of plagiarism, so I copy and paste from Wikipedia.

High rates of gun mortality and injury are often cited as a primary impetus for gun control policies.[16][page needed] The question of whether gun control policies increase, decrease or have no effect on rates of gun violence turns out to be a difficult question.

Yes, this is plagiarism. You can see the citation still on there. I would never use some of those words!

Ok, good. We’re off to a good start. I then copy the first sentence and Google it to show that the exact website shows up, and that this cheating is easy to find. That, and it isn’t even creative!

So what if I change words?

High rates of gun mortality and injury are often cited as a primary impetus for gun control policies.

We’ll change that to:

High rates of gun deaths and injury are often seen as a main causes for gun control policies.

Is that OK?

Well, this is where things get a little tricky. Some students think that since we changed the words, we have avoided plagiarism. Some say that we didn’t change the format, and we’re basically saying the same thing, so yes, it would be plagiarism.

To help in this decision, it is time to turn to one of the great plagiaristic icons of our time, Vanilla Ice. We listen to the beginning of “Ice Ice Baby” to hear his version of the beloved beat.


And here is Queen’s version of the same beat in “Under Pressure”:


Was Mr. Ice plagiarizing? Another tough question for the students, but this real-world example gets them to really consider the issue. They want to know who was right and who was wrong in this lawsuit.

The best part about Vanilla is that he doesn’t sound too believable. And as it turns out, the courts say he wasn’t either. We discuss the penalties that he faced because of plagiarism as well as the penalties that students face in different situations.

So how do we avoid plagiarism?

I use the same two sentences that I copied and pasted. I read them in the document I found, and I write my version of what was said in front of the students as a model. My goal is to show the students how to take something and make it my own and say it in my own way. As writers, we need to sound consistently like ourselves.

The next step? A bibliography!