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Dedicated to Teachers


On the Podcast: The Dispatch with Penny Kittle and Kelly Gallagher

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Welcome to The Dispatch, a Heinemann podcast series. Over the next several weeks, we'll hear from Heinemann thought leaders as they reflect on the work they do in schools across the country and discuss, from their perspective, the most pressing issues in education today. Today we'll hear from longtime collaborators, Penny Kittle and Kelly Gallagher. 

Penny and Kelly are co-authors of 180 Days: Two Teachers and the Quest to Engage and Empower Adolescents and 4 Essential Studies: Beliefs and Practices to Reclaim Student Agency.

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Before we start, I invite you to sign up for the Heinemann Newsletter. We send biweekly updates with articles from our blog and podcasts, featuring the latest thought leadership from our authors, and even samples from our latest titles. 


Below is a full transcript of the episode:

Penny Kittle:

It's in that moment that I get the energy. Right. It's in the moment that a child says, a young man, sorry, says "This was it. And I've never been much of a reader and this book," like and he's just glowing. And I think that we need more moments with kids that make us light up inside.

Edie:

Hi, this is Edie. Welcome to The Dispatch, a Heinemann podcast series. Over the next several weeks, we'll hear from Heinemann thought leaders as they reflect on the work they do in schools across the country, and discuss from their perspective the most pressing issues in education today. Today we'll hear from longtime collaborators, Penny and Kelly. Hi.

Penny:

Hi.

Edie:

Hi.

Kelly Gallagher:

Hello.

Edie:

Thanks for being here today.

Kelly:

It's good to see you again.

Penny:

Good to see you.

Edie:

Yeah, you too. So nice to see you in person. So I'd like to start here. The two of you have been long time thought partners, collaborators. What are the pressing issues you're thinking about in education right now, individually, together? And Penny, if you could start us off.

Penny:

So many things. So many things. Probably one thing that's pressing for me is how tired teachers are. And in spaces that I get to be with people, I hear more than anything that it not only didn't get better when Covid ended, but it got harder. So these constant conversations about needing energy drive me to think about what gives me energy. And I just finished a round of book clubs in my classroom and a student who gave me that shy grin says, "Ms. Kittle, I really liked this book." And it was Dear Martin by Nic Stone.

And it's in that moment that I get the energy. Right. It's in the moment that a child says, a young man, sorry, says, "This was it, and I've never been much of a reader and this book," like and he's just glowing. And I think that we need more moments with kids that make us light up inside. If you stand back from the work you see there's strategies and there's these big things. But when you're sitting side by side with a kid, it's really about that kid and their energy to do the hard work of reading, writing, thinking in this complex world that just makes me excited to go back and try again.

Edie:

Yeah. And so with some of that fatigue and burnout, do you think teachers aren't getting enough of this time with students in a day or what do you, make the connection for me a little bit?

Penny:

Yeah. The pressure is cranked up in schools everywhere to make gains faster, which means teachers are pressured to do more with less time. And the sitting side by side with a kid is a thing that people will cut. I don't have time for reading conferences or writing conferences because I've got to keep moving towards. And that pressure means that you then miss those. The moment when a kid told me that his dream is to be a police officer, and I see him differently every time I sit beside him now because I understand what he's really, really wants. And I think that it's not just greeting kids as they come in the door. It's really knowing them as readers, writers and thinkers, as we always say.

Kelly:

Hearing you talk about the pressures and all the things that teachers have to teach reminds me of that old Marzano study in which he studied the standards. And I think this was when Common Core came out and he said, "To adequately teach the K12 standards at a level in which kids will get them, you'd have to change K12 to K22." And so I think teachers feel that pressure daily. And listening to you talk about your book club experience reminds me also of the book club experience that I've been working with in Anaheim. And you and I are going to talk about at NCTE tomorrow.

And entering that classroom, I see one group of kids who are really, really engaged with a book. And then I see another group of kids who are very, very disengaged with the book. And digging into that disengagement a little bit, one of the things that I found very disheartening was, because Penny and I have talked for years about how the magic of book clubs, like the choice, giving kids good books to read, how just vital that is. Well, and I've been instrumental in Anaheim and getting book clubs up and going in numerous schools. Well, it turns out these 12th grade students walk in the door with a negative attitude about book clubs because teachers have taken those book clubs and drowned them in worksheets and essays and have done the exact same kind of practices that have made kids initially dislike Core works as well.

Penny:

And that is directly connected to the pressure on teachers, right? They're doing that because everyone's saying you've got to check their comprehension. You can't just let kids read. There has to be a measure. We have to have a worksheet. We have to have. And so that is this continually defeatist place.

Kelly:

And it's interesting because I was with a group of teachers last week and I was telling them about this book club and the teacher, Robin Turner, friend and colleague of ours has decided, because he was asked, what is the end product? Okay. When the book club is over? What is the thing the kids are going to produce? And he said, "Nothing." And this group of teachers, he said, "I just want them to enjoy the reading experience," and these teachers couldn't fathom. It doesn't have to have this massive project attached to it? And no it doesn't. And Penny and I talked about this a little bit earlier this week. When does that identity happen when a kid says, I am not a reader? When does that solidify? Right. Because the 12th graders I was working with, it was a long time ago that that had kicked in. And I think when we wrote 180 Days together, we were seeing 9th graders who hadn't read in years.

And so the book clubs was our most effective tool in getting kids up and reading again. I mean, there were other tools, offering time to read, offering choice, independent reading. But the book club was very, very powerful back then. So I was a little disheartened to see this one group. The other reason I think they were disconnected is they lacked the prior knowledge and background to read it. The group that was super engaged were reading a book called We Are Not from Here, which is an immigration story. And many of the students reading the book have their own family immigration stories in Southern California and they connected with it. The other book was too far away, I think from their prior knowledge and background for them to really make that connection. And there were other reasons why. It was a difficult text for them to read.

Edie:

So as you've been talking about those identities of students, you're both thinking that solidifies really early for a student.

Penny:

I would say it is continually built.

Edie:

Yeah.

Penny:

The identity when they're very small is different than the identity as a teenager, as a reader.

Edie:

Yeah.

Penny:

And so if we assume that once they know how to read, they're going to read without continually working on what do you love to read now? I read The Lord of the Rings in middle school. That was not what I wanted to read in high school or in college.

Edie:

Right.

Penny:

And we have to continually build it. And the things that Kelly mentioned, time to read in class and does everything have to have a product are pretty essential. It's different.

Edie:

Yeah.

Penny:

Right.

Kelly:

Teachers we've been working with have said that in this digital age, a lot of kids have really gotten off the reading train. Reading books, which of course has a very deeper and rich reward and benefits than click and go reading. Right. And I think it's the phones. I think it's a lot of the digital distractions the kids are having. Most of the kids get to high school do not like to read. And I think some of that, I think every one of those kids had a tipping point. I agree with Penny. It's a cumulative, and for some kids it starts when they're drilled and killed with phonics, when that particular child doesn't need phonics. And when you have a one size fits all program for beginning readers, like Penny's granddaughter was already reading before she got to kindergarten. Does she need a phonics program? And so I think it starts very early, but I think the tipping points at different ages for different kids.

Edie:

So I'd like to pivot to your own reading identities. What are you reading right now? And you can think about that broadly, who you might be following, who you're reading, what's on your bookshelf?

Kelly:

It's interesting. I've kind of taken of late a nonfiction turn. The last few books I've read are nonfiction. One, which I found really fascinating was called The Age-Proof Brain. I have a history of dementia in my family, and so I took particular interest in that, but it's really about how to maintain a healthy brain and sharp brain. And I wrote his name down because I knew I would forget it.

Edie:

Yeah.

Kelly:

His name is Marc Milstein. He's a doctor. It was really, really good. Professionally, the last book I read that really interested me was a book called Shortchanged: How Advanced Placement Cheats Students.

Edie:

Oh, interesting.

Kelly:

It's a criticism of AP and particularly it's a criticism of sort of the mechanical reading and writing, the very narrow kind of reading and writing and why that's not good for kids. And as Penny has often mentioned in workshops, that a lot of colleges are giving students AP credit, but they're not giving them freshman comp credit because they don't value the kind of writing that AP values.

So it's very, very interesting read. Her name is Annie Abrams. And then of course, I can't leave without talking about the latest baseball book, which is called Backup Catcher. And it is one of the richest, deepest books about baseball. It's easy to find a good book about baseball. It's hard to find a good book that's really amazingly written about baseball. So I want to get Jonathan Aggs, excuse me, I had the wrong name there, Tim Brown's book. So Backup Catcher. On a major league roster, the backup catcher is like the last roster spot. So there's this subset of baseball players who kind of drift between the majors and minors their entire career and the dedication behind it. If you love baseball, I know it sounds kind of like a niche book, but it's really, really good. What about you, my friend?

Penny:

Wow. So a few things to add to my reading list as usual. Whenever I sit beside Kelly, he's got some interesting takes. So I always have a book of poetry going because I read poetry almost every morning. And Padraig O Tuama, whose part of the on being podcast series, he does this incredible series of podcasts. It has 50 poems that change your world that I bought probably two years ago and have made my way so slowly through it. An absolute rock your world kind of thing, because there'll be a poem and then about a three-page essay from him who was a poet about what's happening in that poem. I've never learned so much about poetry, let alone how many pages I've turned over that I've brought into my room and said, let's look at this poem. So beautiful book.

The professional side, I have to say Tom Newkirk's newest book on the roots of democracy that are in literacy practices that have always been important. And he makes such an important case, which Tom always does for if you have to look at, as you mentioned, these voluminous standards and say what's really important, he names eight things. Right. And that's to me so valuable. So I've been turning to that a lot, returning to that. And then I read so much fiction and thanks to Kelly, I got onto this detective series, The Lincoln lawyer, Michael Connelly. Resurrection Walk just came out and it will be finished in the next half hour because I am almost done.

Kelly:

Yes.

Penny:

And I never thought,-

Edie:

You read most of it on the plane, right?

Penny:

Oh, no. I read it at night.

Edie:

Oh, okay.

Penny:

When I can't sleep in the middle of the night I read. And when Kelly, he promoted it for quite a while before I ever went. I was like, "I don't like detective stories." And then I read Small Mercies, Dennis Lehane. I mean, we are in a book club together. And I think that it's interesting the way Tom Lake, which is our book choice, this Ann Patchett's, Tom Lake, is our choice,-

Edie:

Yeah.

Penny:

How I had read it, so I reread it for the book club and how much richer that rereading experience is and how often I went back to, oh, I remember why I love this book so much, and now I see so much more. And two of my Book Love Foundation board members are Asian. We have an Asian literature club with another woman and we only read Asian American literature and read this incredible book by Jane Wong, Meet Me in Atlantic City. And the writing craft in that book,

Edie:

Yeah.

Penny:

You absolutely cannot not highlight things or stop and say, how did she just do that? And so I think there's just such a range of things that make me interested in reading.

Kelly:

Your first answer. Have you seen the book 100 Poems That Make Grown Men Cry?

Penny:

I've heard that title. Did you read it?

Kelly:

I think the first one,-

Penny:

Wait, wait, wait. Did you read it?

Kelly:

I did.

Penny:

Did you cry?

Kelly:

I was a little disappointed because I only cried like twice.

Edie:

You wanted to cry more.

Kelly:

I only cried like, and I don't know if that's a reflection on me or whether I'm just,-

Penny:

No, it's a reflection on, no.

Kelly:

Seriously. I think it spun off of a book called 100 Poems That Make Grown Women Cry.

Penny:

Oh.

Kelly:

And then that was the follow-up. But there were some really cool poems in there, but I was a little disappointed because they were all kind of like old poems.

Penny:

Did you read Why Fathers Cry at Night, Kwame's memoir that's based on that poem?

Kelly:

No.

Penny:

You got to read that because I know you teared up when he read that out loud at an NCT,-

Kelly:

I remember that. I remember that.

Penny:

We were sitting side by side when he read the poem and now it's a whole memoir and it's brilliant.

Kelly:

Okay. Enough about me tearing up. What's the next question?

Edie:

Yes, thank you. I've written down a gazillion book recommendations here, so thank you. But yes, we can. So yeah, my last question for the two of you, when you look across the spectrum of education, you think about your experiences right now, what gives you hope? And Penny, you could lead us off on that one.

Penny:

Oh, it's those beautiful human beings who walk in my classroom every day. I have to, and my husband says, I say this every year, but I'm like, "Oh, I just love these kids this year. They're incredible." And I'll start telling stories about them individually. And just what young people have overcome, and if you think about it, there's not a kid that hasn't been impacted, deeply impacted by Covid and the shutdown and the disconnection from school. A girl told me in class how she was a really strong student until she was sent home and on Zoom and she started turning her camera off and playing video games and she didn't even understand how easily it had transferred to there's no reason to really care about school.

And this kind of, they've been dropped now into my first year course for freshmen in college. Experience of bringing them back to reading and writing, I just love when I say turn and tell somebody what you were writing about and the room explodes with talk. And I watch kids just reveal a little bit about who they are and where they come from and always have hope in that will to make sense of their own experiences that we get to be a witness to. Teaching is just truly the most joyful and hopeful of professions.

Edie:

Yeah.

Kelly:

I would first say what Penny said.

Edie:

Yeah.

Kelly:

And strangely in a time where this is causing a lot of consternation with a lot of teachers, I think we're on the precipice of a whole new era that's centered around AI.

Edie:

Yep.

Kelly:

And I don't think we even know what an ELA classroom's going to look like five or 10 years from now.

Edie:

Yeah.

Kelly:

But I'm hopeful that that will be harnessed in a way. I think there's so many possibilities. I think the standard cliche answer is, well, it'll do the thinking for my kids. I don't see it that way. I see it as something that's going to open up worlds of possibility that we cannot even imagine sitting here.

Penny:

Can you give one example of what you're thinking about? What do you see that you think is so exciting about AI?

Kelly:

Well, I'll give you one example. I'm writing a book, and I didn't mean this to be a self plug, but I have found AI to be way more helpful to me than Google when I'm asking specific questions in education. And it takes me right to places where I would've never found on my own that I click and now I'm reading something that's really rich that I hadn't thought about five minutes ago. So that would be one example of it. And I don't know how to answer the question because I don't know where it's going, but I think there's going to be some sort of mix of digital and art and I just think the traditional term paper is circling the drain.

Penny:

As it should be.

Edie:

Yeah.

Penny:

I think the reason I asked was I had a friend send me this series of photographs she made with an AI app that you can use. You do selfies and then you can turn yourself into a warrior. They were gorgeous and really interesting and for me, inspiring as a writer. I'd never thought about imagining myself and now all of a sudden I could be a warrior and what would that be like and who would I be? And so I think there are ways that AI is going to transfer into these interesting experiments with kids. But I'm deeply concerned about the stealing of author's work that is all over AI to learn to write like Ann Patchett or Jackie Woodson. And that is, I'm not sure how to deal with all of that as we look at that because my students are very aware of all of it. And yet how do we use it for good? I don't know.

Edie:

Yeah. I think, well, I don't know. I feel like there's a little bit of a synergy between the two answers you just gave, like Penny talking about your students constantly making sense of their world. And I think it's in the hands of those students. And I mean, I think that that's where the hope that it will be this positive thing comes in.

Kelly:

I would end with this compliment. Penny, you have been a warrior for 40 years, and I mean that sincerely between your Book Love Foundation,-

Penny:

That's funny.

Kelly:

Between everything you've done for kids and fighting the status quo, you've been a warrior. You're going to need to find another personality because you've already covered that one.

Penny:

Same could be said of you, Kelly.

Kelly:

Well, thank you. I was fishing for that.

Edie:

Yes.

Penny:

Well, you already plugged your book, so I didn't think I need to do anything else.

Kelly:

I didn't say the title, did I?

Edie:

Oh my gosh. Well, I think that is a beautiful place to end. So thank you both for your time.

Penny:

Thank you.

Kelly:

Thank you for having us.

Edie:

Thanks for tuning in today. For a full transcript and to learn more, please visit blog.heinemann.com.


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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.

Penny is the author of Book Love and Write Beside Them, which won the NCTE James Britton award. She also co-authored two books with her mentor, Don Graves, and co-edited (with Tom Newkirk) a collection of Graves’ work, Children Want to Write.

Throughout the year, she travels across the U.S. and Canada (and once in awhile quite a bit farther) speaking to teachers about empowering students through independence in literacy. She believes in curiosity, engagement, and deep thinking in schools for both students and their teachers. 


Kelly Gallagher (@KellyGToGo) 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.

 

Topics: Penny Kittle, Podcast, Heinemann Podcast, Kelly Gallagher

Date Published: 02/08/24

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