Has this ever happened to you when reading one of Kelly Gallagher’s books (or a book by another inspiring teacher-writer)? You read about a practice in his classroom, stare off into the distance, the look of epiphany on your face, and with a raised pointer finger you declare “I must start doing this today,” slam the book shut, and start typing up lesson plans. Now, let’s say you finish those lesson plans, does everything go smoothly in the classroom?
For me, it’s hit and miss. Sometimes the lessons are clear, and I can start using them right away. But some, for me, are complete bombs. The failures usually go like this: I hit an obstacle I did not anticipate, I furiously flip the book to the spot where I had the epiphany in a desperate search for answers that aren’t there. Next, I panic, admit defeat, let the lesson die a quiet death, sulk, and then move on.
The Dunning-Kruger Effect
How did it go so horribly wrong? He painted a clear picture of what it would look like in his classroom, didn’t he? Yes, he did. Is it me? Did I screw it up?
Truthfully, yeah it was me . . . to an extent. It was also him, again, to an extent. But I have done the same thing with my students in the classroom time and time again. I nailed the lesson, and still they didn’t get it? But it’s so clear to me, how did they not get it? A few years ago, I discovered this phenomenon has a name: The Dunning-Kruger Effect.
Here’s the break down, which I admit that I grabbed right from Wikipedia (you do it too!):
- People of low ability have illusory superiority and mistakenly assess their cognitive ability as greater than it is.
- People of high ability incorrectly assume tasks that are easy for them are also easy for other people.
In the scenario described at the top of the post, I am the first example of the Dunning-Kruger Effect, although I don’t like to think of myself as having low ability mixed with illusory superiority. I overestimate my aptitude to carryout the lessons and strategies in his books. Where I have failed, I wasn’t thinking the process the whole way through and how a particular strategy fit into how I structured my day, week, unit, or year. Context mattered, and I missed it.
On the other hand, I speculate that Gallagher thinks he’s clearer than he really is. Now, before anyone gets defensive, hear me out. First, he’s great! But he strikes me as the type of guy who’s unaware, or unwilling to admit, that he’s great. He seems fairly humble.
Another consideration here is that he has all that experience of teaching the Gallagher way. He’s seen his way through all the rough patches, the mistakes, and the missteps; he’s earned the victories he’s won. And when he writes it down for us, he can picture every bit of it. All of those twists and turns have been whittled down to a two to three page blurb in his book (and maybe we could blame the publisher for some of the whittling, I don’t know). In some cases, he writes just enough to get readers like me excited, painting just enough of a picture of happy and smiling students excited about reading and writing. And so I go for it.
My overestimation in my ability that’s couple with the incorrect belief in my superiority meets Gallagher’s overestimation that I will “get it” and BOOM! Dunning-Kruger strikes in full force!
Here are a few examples. Several years back, I tried to deploy the Sentence of the Week from Write Like This, and I went strong for about four weeks, then ran out of steam generating lessons every week. I also tried The Writer’s Notebook with my students, but that petered out too . . . multiple times. I got really excited about the classroom book club found in the pages of In the Best Interest of Students, but before I got moving on that, I thought, “he says nothing about how his students get access to all those books” and quit before I even started.
Then I found myself saying, “I would pay someone to show me how to do this,” with several of his lessons and strategies. But does anyone out there have a how-to guide like that?
Closing The HOW Gap
I’m starting to feel guilty for being so critical, so I need to pause and acknowledge that no other teacher, whom I have never met, has done more to impact my teaching. Kelly Gallagher’s heart for his students, for his craft, and for English teachers everywhere is clearly displayed on every page of his books. I don’t know where I would be without them.
There. The guilt has lifted (sort of), and I can get back to the answer to the question. Yes! There are people out there who are closing that how gap. Teacher-authors like Gallagher show us why a particular method works so well and why we should adapt our practice to include it. They even show us a little bit of what the methods and strategies look like with student samples. But the missing piece at times is the how. Teachers like me need to see how one goes from zero to amazing, showcase-worthy student samples.
Last summer, as I was gearing up for school in the fall, and that grammar instruction feeling hit me again: I really want to do Sentence of the Week! And I wanted to include more Jeff Anderson-style grammar instruction in my class (Jeff Anderson is another great teacher-writer, and he and Kelly Gallagher have worked on some really cool stuff together, like RADaR). Instead of firing up PowerPoint and pep-talking myself for the long-jump into the process of building weekly grammar lessons, I put the thought out there, “I wish someone would just do the work for me, and I can pay them for it.” I started asking around on social media, I googled it, but I couldn’t find an answer right away.
Serendipitously, I opened an email from a blog I follow: davestuartjr.com. Dave Stuart Jr. is a teacher who took Kelly Gallagher’s Article of the Week and made it even easier to deploy (see Dave’s version here) though he does much, much more than that. In that email from Dave, he talked about his friend Doug Stark and the lessons that Doug developed for teaching grammar in the style of Jeff Anderson! He called it Mechanics Instruction that Sticks (MITS). As I read about it, I got really excited. It was everything I wanted to do to teach grammar, and I didn’t have to build any of it!
I bought MITS without much thought, and downloaded the files (MS word and PDF). Included with the purchase was a five-day email course, demonstrating how to use MITS in class. I didn’t deploy MITS in quite the same way Doug Stark taught, and I didn’t use all the material, but this year I am going to teach all the units and deploy most of the material (I needed a year to wrap my head around it, wading slowly into its depths).
The Writer’s Notebook
I too have done my part in closing the how gap with the Writer’s Notebook. Before working on closing the how gap, I made many attempts at incorporating the Writer’s Notebook into my classroom. Kelly Gallagher made it look so easy and sound so doable, but I really struggled. In recent years, while at one of his talks, Gallagher was holding up a brilliant student sample from a composition book yet again, and I thought, “I have to give this one more try. But not a half-hearted try. I have to go all in. I have to plan it out, make room for it. I need to pause and reflect often. I need to make it work!”
It was a challenging year to include The Writer’s Notebook, and I lost sight of how it fit into my lessons at one point. But I came roaring back and finished out the year learning so much about the necessity of using The Writer’s Notebook in my classroom. I was excited about all the new territory I was covering in my classroom. I was pumped up by all the great writing come from my students. I would tell a colleague about a new insight I was gaining nearly everyday, and at the time he kept asking, “Sounds really good, but are you writing any of this down?”
He needed to process it all in his own unhurried time. He said this enough that I thought, “You know, maybe I should write it down . . . in a book.” And I did! First, I needed to organize my own thoughts for me, but then I wanted to provide instructions for “teachers who get excited about the methods and ideas in Kelly Gallagher’s books” with a how-to guide for doing the most difficult practice I have ever brought to bear in my classroom over my 13-year career.
Together, Let’s Process It
Last summer, as soon as school let out, I would start each weekday at Panera Bread as soon as the doors opened, typing out the pages of Make Them Process It: Uncovering New Value in the Writer’s Notebook. Click on the link to read a little more about the book and its contents: MAKE THEM PROCESS IT.
If you have tried to include The Writer’s Notebook in your classroom, and haven’t managed to make it work in the seemingly effortless manner of Kelly Gallagher, this is the book for you. Not only does teaching with The Writer’s Notebook work, you can make it work too! Make Them Process It can be your guide-on-the-side to teaching with a Writer’s Notebook. And, I would be more than happy to correspond with you as questions and challenges come up. Find me on any of these platforms:
- Twitter (I respond Direct Messages)
- Facebook (find me on Messenger there)
- Instagram (I plan to use this a lot more in the coming year)
- Right here at makethemmasterit.com! Comment anytime!
The book comes with plenty of bonus material to help you as you get started. And, if you contact me as you apply the methods and ideas, I would be happy to send you any additional materials I have developed since the book was originally published. But the best feature of the book, I think, is that it is short! It won’t take long to get through it, which gives you more time to apply the content.
How about you? Do you struggle to apply the ideas and practices of inspiring teachers like Kelly Gallagher and Jeff Anderson? What is something you have always wanted to do in the classroom, but you just could not figure out how to make it work?
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