There and Back Again: My Journey with Gallagher’s Article of the Week Assignment

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My first exposure to the article of the week assignment

I first learned of Gallagher’s AoW assignment in Readicide, where he argued that we need to “augment the curriculum with as much real-world text as possible” so that kids don’t come across words like “al-Qaeda” in life and ask “Who’s the Al guy?” (46). Gallagher continues on page 47 of Readicide:

“One way I addressed this problem [of students not having the background knowledge required for being multi-textual readers] in my classroom was by adding a weekly reading task I call ‘The Article-of-the-Week.’ These are real-world writings taken from straight news stories, essays, editorials, blogs, and speeches. I cull them from newspapers, magazines, and websites. Sometimes the articles are related to the unit we are currently studying and sometimes they are completely unrelated, but all the articles have one purpose–to broaden my students’ knowledge of the world. This past school year, for example, my students read and studied more than thirty different articles.”

When I first read this, I was intrigued, but not enough to make the jump. This had nothing to do with Gallagher’s point and everything to do with me being an overwhelmed, “I’m long-term subbing in a new school in a new town with a new kid” dude.

But I couldn’t escape Gallagher’s wisdom; a year or so later, I was reading Mike Schmoker’s Focus for the first time when Gallagher’s article of the week came up again. From Focus:

For years, I have recommended that teachers set aside about one day a week to read current articles and opinion pieces, especially in English, social studies, and science… Author and high school teacher Kelly Gallagher actually does this. He calls it ‘Article of the Week.’… We should redouble our efforts to integrate current readings into the curriculum. If we can get students interested in the issues of their own time (and we can), they will be far more interested in issues, people, and literature of the past.

And so it was that, several years ago, I found myself sold on the idea and diving into the task.

(Since 2012-2013, I’ve kept a list of articles of the week on Teaching the Core — you can you can check them out here. To go straight to the Fount, see Kelly’s list here.)

My article of the week journey

I began teaching and assigning the article of the week assignment in my world history classes, and it’s still in these classes (rather than my English ones) that I give the assignment. This isn’t because I think AoW is an illegitimate use of English time — it absolutely is.

The simple reason for using AoW in my world history classes is because, basically, I can. Every single one of my ELA students is also in my social studies classes, and I like the “fit” of AoW better in the world history hour than the ELA one.

With that being said, if I taught only ELA, I’d still do the article of the week assignment. It’s worth it.

Step 1: Using Gallagher’s articles of the week

I began by simply heading over to Kelly’s list of AoWs and using those with my kids.

Tons of benefit here: he and his colleagues are masters at picking articles from a variety of publications, on a variety of topics, and with a nice balance of explanatory and argumentative pieces.

Also, Kelly’s articles of the week are blissfully simple in format and consistent in expectations (see below) — something that, as you’ll see, I’ve strayed from over the years.

Here’s an example of Gallagher’s AoW format — beautifully simple.

For more on the “flow” of article of the week, check out the video below:

Step 2: Creating my own articles using Gallagher’s format

When I started finding articles of the week of my own, I initially used Kelly’s format (pictured above). He has kids do three things (and you can bet he teaches and models how to do each of these):

  1. Mark your confusion. In other words, mark spots in the text where you get confused. “Embrace confusion” is a Gallagher-ism that made me a better teacher. The idea is that mature readers are not those who can read every text perfectly, but instead they are those who know where, exactly, a text is throwing them. Mature readers don’t say, “I didn’t get it. Like, any of it.” They say, “I started getting lost in the middle of the article,” or “I got thrown when the author mentioned Boko Haram in Nigera.”

  2. Show evidence of a close reading. As I’ll argue below, this basically means annotate. I tell my students I’m looking for 1-2 thoughtful examples of mature thinking (more on that below). I show them student examples that do exemplify this and those that don’t.

  3. Write a 1+ page reflection. The goal here is for kids to respond thoughtfully to the article. Gallagher consistently provides 1-3 possible response questions that help kids who are stuck.

Step 3: Getting better at that hustle

Finding or creating articles was only the first step in my article of the week journey — it was then that the fun happened. I learned a lot of things the hard way as I grappled with how to really make the Gallagher-esque article of the week something that promoted the long-term flourishing of my students.

Here are some Article of the Week Domination Tips, to put a technical label on them, that I picked up in those initial years. It’s worth noting that so much of what I learned I did in the community of life-dominating teachers I get to do the Teaching Dance with every day — one of them even has a blog herself, and you ought to check it out!

Hook it real good.

When motivation to read a text increases, the complexity of the text decreases. Tattoo this on your arm if you have to because it’s one of the key truths we must cling to if we’re to help our students read things they might not choose to read on their own. In the video below, I walk through a couple hooking strategies (that sounds wrong); I also write about one here.

Don’t simply assign the article of the week; teach it.

This is simple but pretty important. As an educator who posts articles of the week on his website, I worry that some well-meaning teachers will simply print it, copy it, and assign it to kids, saying, “It’s due Friday.”

That’s not doing it right.

If doing the Gallagher approach to article of the week, we need to teach our students the three basic parts (see Step Two). To pose them as questions:

  1. How do I monitor my own comprehension of a text? Where do I tend to get confused real-world texts? What do mature readers do when confusion happens?

  2. How do I stay focused while reading a text? How do I engage in a conversation with the author of an article while I’m reading? How do I work smarter not harder, so that I can both read the article and prepare for the one-page response at the same time?

  3. How do I respond to texts in a professional, thoughtful manner? How do I express my opinions on current issues while remaining grounded in a text? How do I organize my thinking in response to a reading?

At the start of the year, we’re modeling the most elementary answers to these questions. As the year progresses, we want to keep pushing our students into greater degrees of sophistication in answering these questions.

For example, several weeks ago with my first AoW, I simply wanted students to get to the one page mark with their written responses. Based on what I saw in those responses, I wanted them to keep producing that quantity of writing, but then I also wanted them to use paragraphs (more than a few didn’t) and to go beyond solely summarizing (some wrote responses that were 100% summary).

Teach it by modeling.

Going back to the three things Gallagher’s AoW format asks students to do, it’s important that kids frequently get to see us doing those things through brief, think-aloud modeling.

So if I’m modeling “marking confusion,” I’ll choose a paragraph in the text where I legitimately stumbled as a first-time reader of the article. I try putting myself in my students’ shoes, showing them how things like lengthy, complex sentences can be broken down into chunks.

Modeling is quick, on-the-fly work. While modeling a “move,” I explain the rationale behind it (this shouldn’t be done just once at the start of the year! Our students deserve frequent and creative approaches to the “Why do I have to do this?” questions) and then do the move in front of them using a document camera. (By the way, if you don’t have a document camera, make a Donorschoose request and get one — it’s the most useful piece of teaching technology in my classroom.)

Teach it with exemplars.

I also love typing up 1-2 exemplary student written responses each week. (Here are a couple examples of article of the week exemplar student responses from this school year.)

When using an exemplar, focus on 1-2 elements of the text that you want students to focus on with their current article of the week assignment. In the example linked to above, I wanted my students to notice 1) the use of paragraphs, and, more importantly, 2) the reflective, “this is more than a summary” elements of each piece.

Instead of “close reading,” teach kids to annotate purposefully (read: DON’T have them fill the margins with busywork).

As I’ve written elsewhere, close reading has pretty much ceased being a useful edu-term. (I even wrote its obituary.)

With articles of the week, I want my secondary students to annotate strategically. The question they need to ask themselves any time they read is, “What is the purpose of my reading this text? What am I going to do with it?”

For AoWs, they know they need to write a 1+ page response to the article. So, in the spirit of working smarter not harder, I teach them to respond to the article as they’re reading it with margin notes (i.e., annotations) that respond to what their reading. I explicitly state that 1-2 thoughtful, mature annotations per page is acceptable because quality annotations will make lend themselves to writing the 1+ page response much more than mere quantity will.

Example of an annotation that shows little evidence of thought. I don’t mark kids down for this, but I also don’t give them credit for it. Responding with OMG, smiley faces, etc is a strategy for staying engaged with a text and responding to it emotionally, but it doesn’t create much for the kid to build upon in the one-page reflection.

The student has written a question: “If there are more US soldiers than ISIS, then why doesn’t the US do something?” This is thoughtful; this is something the student can expand upon in his/her one-page reflection.

I can still remember a student named Caleb who struggled getting the written part of articles of the week done until he discovered that annotations could serve as a starting point for his written response. As is so often the case, Caleb’s epiphany became my epiphany, and the seeds for this idea of teaching kids purposeful annotation were planted in my skull.

Regularly do it yourself.

When I actually try marking my confusion and strategically annotating toward the written response and then writing a 1+ page written response, I get all kinds of insights into the article of the week assignment. I can feel the parts that are clunky, the parts that make me pause, and the parts that I’ve probably not taught well enough.

It also doesn’t hurt my street cred with students when they hear that I, too, do the assignments I give them. We’re a family and a team, baby.

Don’t underestimate the power of the Friday discussion / debate.

At the end of each Gallagher article, there are possible response questions. In most cases, at least one of these can only be answered argumentatively.

An example of the “Possible Response Questions” section of Gallagher’s article of the week model.

Just as I try to schedule 15 minutes each Monday for teaching / modeling / getting students started with the article of the week, I also try to schedule 15 minutes each Friday for a quick, graded discussion and/or debate. Even with large classes, it’s possible to get every kid talking and getting some public speaking practice around the text in 15 minutes — the pop-up debate strategy is a key routine for making this happen.

This is powerful not just because speaking and listening are way undervalued in most classrooms and not just because argumentative discussions can draw even the most disengaged students in and not just because having these kinds of Friday rituals motivates more students to read the article of the week.

It’s powerful for all those reasons and probably more. Don’t under-estimate the power of this end-of-the-week fifteen minutes!

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