In this podcast from 2021 Penny Kittle and Kelly Gallagher discuss their deep dive into the four essential studies of essay, poetry, book clubs and digital composition. Their aim is to move beyond compliance and formula, and to develop students’ agency, independence, and decision-making skills. Penny and Kelly write that these four practices, have the power to transform students’ relationship with literacy—and truly prepare them for the more demanding work of college.
Hosting today’s conversation with Penny and Kelly is their editor and colleague, Tom Newkirk.
Below is a transcript of this episode.
Tom: So I'd like to start maybe Kelly, if you could start out with this book is a sequel to 180 Days, which was a complex, important credibly valuable book, but why a sequel? What do you need a sequel for? What does a sequel do?
Kelly: A sequel might be a little bit of a stretch, but it really kind of came out of the idea that when we finished 180 Days, Penny and I sat down and we asked ourselves, okay, looking back at this book, this year that we spent together with our classes, sort of, what did we get right and what did we get wrong? And one of the things that we felt we sort of missed the mark a little bit on 180 Days, is this idea of a poetry unit. In that book, we use poetry quite a bit, and our kids write alongside poems quite a bit. But when we finished the book and look back, we thought, you know what? Poetry deserves its own standalone unit. And so this was sort of a follow-up and that's kind of how the conversation began. And then I would say Penny and seeing some of the students that she's seeing in her first year writing courses at Plymouth State University, started to kind of come in with some other ideas that she was noticing kids missing.
Penny: Yeah. In fact, I can remember calling Kelly because we finished 180 Days in 2018 and I moved to Plymouth State that same year. And I remember calling him and saying, they're essential things these kids don't know that have to be taught before they come to college. And that's where the other three units came from, essay, digital composition, which is something they're asked to do so much of. And then the ability to talk to each other about what they're reading.
Tom: Well, that leads to the question about college preparation, because you start out the book with the sense of some kids who think they're prepared for college, but they're not really prepared. And what does it mean to be prepared for college? And it's often thought that like a highly structured formal approach to writing that focuses on literature is the Primo preparation for college. And it seems to me that you're challenging that notion. A lot kids have been sold a bill of goods, that this isn't what really prepares you for college. I was wondering if you could talk about that.
Penny: Well, I think, one of the things we don't realize is out of the two sections of students I have right now, the 40 students, there's not a single one who's an English major. And so none of my students will be writing anything about books, analysis, like we teach in literature classes. And what they are asked to do are wide open questions where they have to do all of the thinking, all of the planning and then all of the work to make that piece of writing come to be. And what I noticed right away is that students had no confidence in figuring out the many things they're asked to figure out. And that I think we can build that confidence earlier by giving them more decision-making power in all of the writing that we do.
Tom: What do they have to figure out that they don't know how to figure out?
Penny: For example, the students that we start the book with is in a class that's a seminar course for freshmen at my university across the disciplines that's called tackling a wicked problem. And she had chosen the section on climate change and she was asked to review the research on what is going to help us with climate change, choose what she thought was the most important solution for us to get started on, research that solution. Come up with a comprehensive piece of writing between three and 4,000 words on the solution. She's got to make all the decisions, what to research, what to prioritize, how to structure it and organize it. And there are no five paragraph essays that solve that problem.
Kelly: Yeah. I mean, I think a lot of this also Penny, and I've been thinking about this for a number of years now. I mean, we wrote a piece for Educational Leadership called the curse of helicopter teaching. We know, the research is very clear that helicopter parenting is not really good for kids. And that made us kind of wonder, have we been guilty of helicopter teaching? I work in a school district that's grade seven and 12. And so my concern there is before the kids get to Penny's college class, have they been given the opportunity to do the necessary wrestling with reading and writing? Have they built those muscles? And I think sometimes teachers in an attempt to be helpful to young writers do too much of the thinking for them. And then when they get to tackle a wicked problem or as Penny and I were talking about earlier today, many, many universities have very wide open prompts. When they get there these kids who got A's and B's in high school almost feel like they're ambushed when they get to the university because they can't do it.
Tom: It sometimes seems like part of what you're teaching them is how to do moves as opposed to structures. Rather than having like here's a formula, here's a form. Here's some moves you make as a thinker and as a writer and these moves can go on forever and they can repeat themselves. Does that make any sense?
Penny: I agree completely. One of the words that you used with us, Tom, as our editor was options, and I think that's such an important word. Does a student have an array of options to choose from? Do they understand that there are lots of ways to begin a piece of writing no matter what genre it is. And then do they know ways that authors have written those kinds of things? So they can look at a text and say, oh, I see what this author is doing. They're introducing evidence here. They're adding an aside here. They're bringing us back to where they started at their closing. If they can name those things, they can use them across all different text.
Kelly: There's a lot of mentor tech study in the book. Look at SAA, look at SAB and what's this writer doing? What's that writer doing? And as Penny has done in her classroom, given stacks of essays for kids to look at, you have to be able to recognize the moves before you can implement the moves yourself. And any essay that we bring out from the real world that we think is really a dynamic piece of writing does not look like what has become the high school essay or the junior high school essay in a lot of places that we have visited, right? There's this chasm, there's this gap between what a school essay looks like and the kind of writing that we really treasure in the real world.
Tom: It reminds me of a quote that one of my students, the person I interviewed a couple of years ago, this eighth grader said it's like an essay strips imagination from kids. That we're not really getting the essay right in schools, that we're teaching a form that's really not the essay.
Penny: I couldn't agree more. I read books of essays. I told Kelly I'm reading Leslie Jamison right now who wrote The Empathy Exams years ago and is now written, Make It Scream, Make It Burn. It's just a series of essays. I listened to them on audible. I read them in the New York Times every day. And they're such a variety.
Kelly: I think you've said it before, Tom, right, that standardization creates standardized thinkers. We want kids to look at the possibilities that are out there, but if I'm a teacher and I have determined what the exact structure of this essay is, I've already stripped you of a lot of the decision-making that writers must make when they approach a piece of writing.
Penny: And your creativity. And then add to that, Tom, I'm really struggling with this idea. Don't you think that if every kid in the class writes the same essay to the same prompt that creates an inherent competition between kids? Like I know already Newkirk's going to write it better than I do, which is going to de-motivate me.
Kelly: I think anytime a teacher's got a stack of papers and the essays all feel the same that, that is a major red flag. That means to me that there's too much helicopter teaching going on and we have to explore ways to give kids recognition of other options. We have to give them the space and time to wrestle with different approaches to writing.
Tom: I think too, when we avoid, and avoid, and avoid reading what our students write because we know it's going to be tedious, that should be some kind of some sign that we should change our game a little bit.
Penny: And I think too, that my students are in all different places. There's no room of writers that can all create a similar essay because they don't have the same skills. So when you are opening up your room to letting students make decisions, it really does reveal to you how much teaching they need. And it allows you to teach right at the point where they need your help. When you sit down next to a kid, how can I help you? And they say, I have no idea how to put this together. You can personalize that instruction in a way that if they're all doing it the same then, like Kelly said, they don't have any decisions to make.
Kelly: And it's not just the same structure. It's the same pacing as well, right? One of the things we talk about in the book is that it's sort of old thinking like Monday, everybody's pre-writing, Tuesday, everybody's beginning an initial draft, Wednesday... You can't contain every writer in the same pace because the creative process is very different for different kids.
Tom: Now one of the things I think sometimes when you use the word choice and choice, I think is a key term in this book. Some people, when they hear choice, they think of like a little bit laissez Faire, everything's open. I'm not going to structure anything for you. And so it's kind of like a divided line. It's either that, or it's like highly structured. Now you're on neither one of those poles, I think. So what does choice mean for you?
Kelly: Well, I think that answer differs. If you're talking about reading, if you're talking about writing. I would say on the reading side, one of the reasons we devoted a chapter to book clubs is we found in our own practices in high school that a book club experience where kids have at least partial choice of what they're going to read was the primary motivator for some of our most reluctant readers, those kids who are serial abandoners. And even those kids who like to read, but have kind of fallen into that groove of fake reading, we have found that giving them choice and bringing in books that are more relevant to them was really, really a motivator to get kids back into a reading lane.
Penny: Yeah. And right now my students are in lap two of narrative and lap one of research. And what that means is that they wrote a non-fiction personal essay, and now they're writing a researched fiction piece. And what they're doing is practicing those same skills they learned in narrative to develop scenes, to develop pivot points or transitions between them, to think about the momentum of your piece. And they're using that to tell a ghost story that lives somewhere in the world. And most of them are choosing New England and they're retelling the ghost story, but weaving in research. So it's the first time I'm really having them take research and have it supplement some of their own thinking, but they're doing it in this realm of fiction. So if you think about that structure means that the kids are all researching ghost stories, so there are similarities.
It's not like you remove all of the guard rails. I want them to learn how to weave in quotes. So I'm teaching that in my pieces of my mini lessons, but I also want to ignite their imaginations. One student's writing about a cathedral that's filled with 1,000 skulls and it's in Portugal. And it invites all of these voices of ghosts while another kid's writing about the ghost at the corner house in just down from the university. I mean, I put limits around what they're creating in many cases, but a non-fiction personal essay could be about anything, but a non-fiction personal essay has a form that we teach.
Kelly: And I would say a lot of kids come to me or came to me with this idea that writing in an English class is really about answering questions. It's really about extracting information to please the teacher. When you give choice, I love what Penny just said about igniting their imagination, but you're also honoring their voices and their experiences. For me, the most reluctant writers I have are writers who feel like their voices were not listened to for many, many years. When you open up choice and student A is writing about her mother being deported, and you sit next to that kid and you're conferring with that kid. There is something that happens between that teacher and that student that's not going to happen with anybody else in the room, right? Because it's that kid's unique point of view. And I think when kids are given the space to bring in that choice of what's meaningful to them, that that really is a motivator for them to write.
Tom: And it seems that you also surround the students with options of how they might write on those topics. So there's a richness of the community and richness sense of options, and choices, and models. And so it's not in this void.
Kelly: Right. And so in one section of the book, we show 10 different essays or nine different essays. This one's a circular essay. It begins with an antidote. It does its thing. It comes back to an anecdote. That's very different than a list essay, right? We look at different writers, even one writer who writes in different directions, depending on audience and purpose. And so showing students what these essays look like and having them sort of examine them and crowd around them and make anchor charts of what they're noticing in the different structures. I mean, Penny, why don't you say a little bit about sort of that micro study versus big study.
Penny: Right. So we talked about one of the first practices that's important is the drone view of an essay. How is it all put together? What are the parts? And having kids really just tease those out of a whole collection of essays, a stack of three to five essays, and then look very closely at one paragraph and look at the moves that are made here. Look at this use of verbs, look at the sentence structure variety, look at the pivot point for the next paragraph. Those kinds of studies from whole text to small parts of a text, help students rely on each other. Because they're doing these in small groups and we're wandering around listening to them, is transferred to their writing groups where they're sharing their work with a handful of kids that they stay with the whole semester or the whole year. And they learn from these other students different ways to think about writing something.
Kelly: I would say in my own practice that I was pretty good at like mentor texts, like small passage study. But the drone view I think, in my own classroom came in very late and was extraordinarily helpful for my students to see the building blocks of how different essays are put together. And I think that has relevance when our kids are trying to decide how to put their essays together. Right? So you might have this story written in storyboard form, but should this part be first, or maybe you should rearrange it and this part be second. I think kids start to think in that direction when they take what Penny has referred to as the drone view.
Tom: And it seems to be another resource that they have is you modeling or trying out some of these things yourself. And I think for me, one of the most interesting features of the book was when each of you are trying something new. And I think in particularly Kelly, when you tried on the multimodal composing, which is not something, and Penny's done a lot more of it than you have. And you said on the developmental scale, she's here and you're here. What was it like to try that out?
Kelly: Scary. And some of that digital composition work that I did initially with my ninth graders and 12th graders, I had to cede my power in the room. I had to say, you know what, there are kids in this room who know how to do things better than me. So if you want to learn how to do X, you're over here in this group, and if you want to learn how to do Y, you're over there in that group. And then I would sit in, in the groups and I would try to learn another move that I could make an iMovie or something like that. One place where it was really evident, that I had to go outside of my comfort zone was when Penny said to me that if you teach poetry, it's like teaching an essay.
If kids are going to write, you have to write. And so if we're going to teach poetry, we should look at the newly revised Bloom's taxonomy, which has put creation now at the top of the pyramid, right? And so much like you wouldn't ask a kid to do writing without doing that writing yourself as a teacher, this applies to poetry as well. And so I think that's one of my favorite sections of the poetry study in the book is that I did a poem, but it's not just, Hey, look at Kelly. He wrote a poem. It's as a teacher, what did that process teach me about going into my own classroom and teaching kids inside of a poetry unit. And I wouldn't have done that, had my coauthor not pushed me.
Tom: What did you learn by going through that process of writing the poem, which is not something you do on a regular basis?
Kelly: Well, I think in the book we list a number of things, but I would just say off the top of my head, like the first thing I learned was not to panic when something doesn't come to mind. We take the reader through, I don't know, Penny, it was like four or five false starts before I actually landed on a topic that I felt like, okay. And it's the journey to that, right? Penny often talks about writing, and writing, and writing to towards a surprise. And so it took me three days of kind of wrestling with it before I even got to a topic that I felt comfortable. Oh, this is where I want to go. The other thing I would suggest is as it's very common when we have kids in writing groups is when I had a draft and Penny gave me mid-process feedback or coaching suggestions on that poem that immediately, that poem moved to a much nicer, better place. And so that mid-process, not end process, but that mid-process peer response, not peer editing, but peer response was super valuable.
Tom: I want to ask you a question about book clubs. One are the things that you did with your book clubs is to have students exchange perceptions across the country, if I have that right. You had kids in, was it Plymouth or Conway? Talking to kids in New Hampshire, talking to kids in California. What was that like? I thought that was really powerful when I saw the video of these exchanges. Could you talk about that?
Penny: I think that the first thing we noticed is that our students were really interested in what kids somewhere else thought. And they knew they'd never meet as much as we would love to have a little field trip. They were never going to meet these kids. My mind kept saying, I'll never go to California, but I'm really, really curious, like about where they live, the posters on their walls because we did it on Flipgrid.
But as the book club progressed, their questions were deeper. Their responses became just increasingly serious. What was that one kids, this book was a godsend to me when of Kelly's said, because I'm half Mexican, half white and Mexican Whiteboy by Matt de la Pena really said something to him. It was such a vulnerable moment and he posted it and then other kids could respond to that with their own understandings of the book. It was this wonderful way to bridge two cultures as well. I have this rural New Hampshire setting, Kelly's is a much more urban setting with a lot more diversity in his classes. And so my students were learning from kids their age in response to similar thinking about books.
Kelly: I think we learned this immediately when we started to work together for 180 Days when my kids and Penny's ninth graders read Romeo and Juliet at the same time that we just noticed the engagement level of our readers and writers was elevated by knowing somebody outside the room was going to hear what they had to say and respond to what they had to say. And so that idea that in a digital age, there's an opportunity to connect classroom A and classroom B was really rich. And I think we wrote that into other book club experiences with 12th graders and other writing assignments later in the year.
Tom: It was very powerful, very powerful. My final question, maybe start with you Penny, on this one. What did each of you learn from the other, either in terms of writing or in terms of teaching?
Penny: Well, it'd be impossible to answer with the time we have left, all of the things that I have learned from Kelly, but in particular to writing, Kelly is a really good editor and he's very concise and direct about things that he's trying to accomplish in a passage or a section of the book. And I'm much more of a rambler. I like write all around the question and I also write in my notebook. So Kelly at times had to get these awful screenshots of my notebook and weed through them. So I'm sure it was much more torture for him. But what I found is that the two together is really powerful. I am much more willing to take a subject and expand and go and kind of wildly not connected directions, but Kelly will find a path through that and begin to put it into a cohesive place that then my own thinking makes better sense.
Kelly: For me, I would take the other side of that equation. Because our writing processes are so different, I've learned to appreciate that I know when Penny says no today, I don't want to write about A, I want to write about B that she would not say that unless she's onto something and she's onto something that's brilliant. I would also concur that there's just not enough time to talk about how Penny Kittle has influenced my thinking and my teaching. And so in a way our divergent approaches is hard, but it's also really, really rich.
We're writing a chapter right now for a new book that's coming out and we're just kind of starting to spit out words and trying to mold them together. And I think it's the talk. Do you think this might go here? Do you think that might go there? To have a thinking partner when you're composing something is beyond, it's invaluable. I hope people hear that. Don't just think, well, these are two authors. What I'm suggesting is that wherever you are on your school site, if you have another teacher in which you can sit down or not at your school site, somewhere digitally, but if you have a thought partner, your practice is going to be better just by definition of having somebody else to bounce things off of.
Penny: I can't tell you how many times I say to Kelly, okay, so this happened yesterday in class and this is what I was thinking, but I was just wondering what you think about it. That's just invaluable in your own professional development and growth because Kelly will remind me of stuff that I've forgotten that I know. And sometimes he just echoes what I thought I wanted to do. And it gives me confidence to stay that course.
Kelly: But I love like in the essay chapter, there were times where Penny would show me a draft and she'd say, okay, as a teacher, what would you, this is a mid process draft, as a teacher, what would you do with this kid tomorrow? And she had the idea in her head, but then I would go ahead and share what I think. And then we kind of kick that around. It's just really, really rich.
Tom: Well, it's been such a privilege to talk to you about this book and I just want to convey my great admiration for what you've done and the fact you've managed the time zones and managed to produce these two excellent books. And it was never hard work on my end of the deal. It was just always, I felt very, very honored to be a part of this. So thank you.
Kelly: Yeah. Thank you, Tom, for all your input in the book. And I don't know, I think Penny feels the same way and she can chime in here, but I want to just say, this far down the road, I think every time I write a book and the last two with Penny is they get better, they get richer, they get deeper. I think this is a really good book. And it's because of the rich partnership that I have with my buddy Penny.
Penny: I was going to just honor your work, Tom, because you have this wonderful way of getting to the heart of what we've just created and asking the question that we were either avoiding or skating over and you would direct us back to, but what about, which I just appreciated so much. You were a perfect editor for this book. And as always, I learn so much in conversation with Kelly.
Penny Kittle teaches freshman composition at Plymouth State University in New Hampshire. She was a teacher and literacy coach in public schools for 34 years, 21 of those spent at Kennett High School in North Conway. She is the co-author (with Kelly Gallagher) of Four Essential Studies: Beliefs and Practices to Reclaim Student Agency as well as the bestselling 180 Days.
Kelly Gallagher taught at Magnolia High School in Anaheim, California for 35 years. He is the coauthor, with Penny Kittle, of Four Essential Studies: Beliefs and Practices to Reclaim Student Agency, as well as the bestselling 180 Days. Kelly is also the author of several other books on adolescent literacy, most notably Readicide and Write Like This. He is the former co-director of the South Basin Writing Project at California State University, Long Beach and the former president of the Secondary Reading Group for the International Literacy Association.
Thomas Newkirk is the author of numerous Heinemann titles, including Literacy's Democratic Roots, Embarrassment, Minds Made for Stories, The Art of Slow Reading, and Misreading Masculinity. For almost three decades, Tom taught writing at the University of New Hampshire where he founded the New Hampshire Literacy Institutes, a summer program for teachers. In addition to working as a teacher, writer, and editor, he has served as the chair of his local school board.