How do you fit it all in? The short answer is, you don’t. Kelly Gallagher and Penny Kittle take their readers through 180 days of teaching high school English and share the tough decisions they make about curriculum and lesson plan design. Here are 9 things you need to know about 180 Days:
It is a call to arms. Gallagher and Kittle argue that many standard (and standardizing) teaching practices are ineffective and even harmful to students. Most language arts classrooms are not places of engagement for students–but they should be. When we teach to our values and beliefs, we do the right things for our students and we create those engaging spaces where students become readers and writers and think deeply about literacy.
There are deep dives into individual units, but it’s really about big-picture thinking and planning. Chapter One, “Start with Beliefs,” was probably my favorite chapter because it encapsulates my own thinking and teaching about teaching: we start with our values and beliefs and build our vision from there. “What” and “How” never come before “why.” Our daily practices and our curriculum map should align with our values, should emerge from our values. In most classrooms that I visit, there is a disconnect between what the teacher says she values and what the students are actually spending their time doing. Gallagher and Kittle encourage teachers to focus on practices that support their values and eliminate the ones that don’t.
It’s a window into how two teachers, each with over thirty years’ experience, do this complex work of teaching. I thought of Nancie Atwell’s “taking the top off my head” frequently, because that’s what Gallagher and Kittle are doing here. Just as we workshop teachers “take off the tops of our heads” to show our students how we make decisions about writing and how we comprehend reading, Gallagher and Kittle take us through the decision-making process as they plan and teach a year. The book, more than any other I can think of, captures the thinking work that effective teaching requires before, during, and after the lesson.
They include the failures. Not everything works, and Gallagher and Kittle are very honest about their failures. Some failed lessons will get thrown out for next year; others will be revised and improved. Even the lessons that go well inspire thinking about how they can be even more effective next time.
They have to compromise. Both Gallagher and Kittle work in public schools that have lengthy curriculum requirements. Their curriculum is a “compromise” between their ideals and their realities, which include not just those lengthy district requirements but also large classes (Gallagher has 38 students in a class) and underprepared students. Most workshop teachers will also have to compromise, and this book provides some guidance on how to do that without losing what’s essential for students.
There is extensive video support. Readers can see these two in action in over 40 videos! While I was not compelled to put down the book at any point to jump over to video content, I know I will use these video to model techniques for my pre-service teachers and to give them an opportunity to see master teachers in action. Teaching demonstration videos tend to be prohibitive expensive (Nancie Atwell’s Writing in the Middle DVD, for instance, provides under two hours of content but costs $250!!). I really appreciate that Heinemann has made so many high-quality teaching demonstrations available for the cost of this book.
There are plenty of terrific teaching ideas to use tomorrow. I love the balance of values and vision to detailed classroom nitty-gritty. There are lengthy lists of recommended mentor texts for each unit. There are engaging prompts for quick writing. There are samples of student work to learn from and share. There are assessments for large projects. I tend to prefer PD books that focus on the big picture, but my pre-service teachers feel much more comforted by books that focus on the daily specifics. 180 Days provides both.
There is sometimes a mismatch between the amount of time they spend writing about something and how much they say they value it. For example, they say that in their classrooms, they spend 50% of their time on independent reading; 25% on book clubs; and 25% on core texts (i.e., whole-class novels or plays). But in 180 Days, they devote just 4 pages to independent reading, 9 pages to book clubs, and 16 pages to core texts. Those page counts give a very strong unspoken message as you’re reading about what’s truly important to spend the most energy thinking about and working on. Many teachers who are newer to workshop (and that will be one of the main audiences for this book) know how to design “core text” units: it’s all they’ve done throughout their teacher prep programs and as classroom teachers. They know far less about how to implement an effective independent reading program. That aspect deserves far more than 4 pages. Other chapters also struggle with going deeply enough into the most essential part of the practice. They devote 11 pages to the 1-2 weeks they spend on immersing students in short memoirs in their Narrative unit, for instance, but just 2 pages to the 4 weeks they spend “extending thinking” with a multiple narrator project.
The core text sections may be confusing to experienced workshop teachers. I believe there is a place for the study of core texts in every classroom, but I do not believe that teaching them should take a full third of our semester. They tried to make a case for it, but I found myself very unpersuaded that devoting four weeks to Romeo & Juliet or Animal Farm was a valuable use of precious classroom time. These are books that can be read in a couple of hours! Why would I want to spend 20 days of class time teaching them? I also found myself very unpersuaded by their assessments for these units. Why should we have students write a scene that isn’t in a book? Why should we have them record a dramatic reading? Why, for that matter, should they write a literary analysis essay, a type of writing that does not exist outside of the English classroom? The other chapters provide such strong rationales, but the deep thinking about “why” was largely dropped in the core texts section.
Overall, it was a pleasure to read such deep, reflective thinking about teaching and to experience the decision-making process of two teachers I admire so much. I will probably have to buy more copies of 180 Days, because my pre-service teachers are going to clamor for this book. It answers so many of their questions about teaching and gives them a path to follow as they begin to plan and design for their own classrooms.
Has anyone else read it yet? What did you think?