An interview on Readicide with Kelly Gallagher

By now, you’re probably aware of the incredible opportunitythat the Radical Nation has starting on January 14th:  Noted reading expert—–and full time classroom teacher—–Kelly Gallagher will be joining us for a focused four-day conversation on his new book Readicide:  How schools are killing reading and what you can do to stop it.

A link to the complete text of Readicidewill be made available on the Radical on January 14th and our asynchronous conversation with Kelly will take place from January 18th to January 22nd.  That means you can join in a collective dialogue about teaching and learning at times that are convenient to you—and that everyone from Manitoba to Malaysia is invited.

Geography just doesn’t matter in a digital conversation, does it?  All that you have to do is curl up on the couch and jump into the conversation! 

Knowing how powerful the conversation will be—and knowing how impatient I am as a person!—I took a few minutes to interview Kelly.  Figured I’d share his answers here as a bit of a teaser for his book and our conversation.  They might just convince you that stopping by next week is an opportunity that you just can’t miss: 

Ferriter:  Throughout Readicide, you talk about how reading instruction in American classrooms has changed, responding to today’s demands for accountability and testing. How has instruction in your own classroom changed during the past two decades? Have you ever buckled under the pressure of preparing kids for the test?

Gallagher:In the middle of my career I was heavily influenced by Jim Cox, who is a guru in assessment. Jim reminds teachers to never forget WYTIWYG (pronounced “witty-wig”), which stands for What You Test Is What You Get. If your assessment is shallow, it will drive shallow thinking. If your assessment is rich, it will drive richer thinking.

The key, then, is teaching to a test that will drive deeper thinking. When teachers spend hour upon hour preparing students for shallow tests, the effects are devastating. Test scores may rise, but in the process we are denying students the opportunity to develop the regions of their brains that are crucial to them becoming deeper thinkers. Worse, we are teaching students that reading is an activity we do primarily to prepare for exams. Recreational reading—the kind of reading we want students to do long after they graduate—is killed.

That said, I do believe there is a value in learning how to take multiple-choice exams. I think all students should be taught test-taking strategies. To completely ignore them would place our students at a disadvantage.

However, this type of preparation should not take the place of deeper, more authentic instruction. Augmenting the curriculum is a very different notion than becoming the curriculum. If you teach students to read and write well, they will do fine on the state tests. However, if you only teach students to take the state tests, they will never learn to read and write well. Knowing this reduces the pressure we feel to prepare students for the tests.

Ferriter:  One of the themes that runs through Readicide is the need for teachers to take a stand against irresponsible instruction. You even go as far as to argue that failing to take a stand against Readicide is downright unconscionable. How are teachers responding to that message? Do you think it is easier for you to take a stand because you’re a respected author?

Gallagher:  When teachers see what recent brain research says about the testing movement, when they see that test scores on NAEP and other assessments have remained stagnant, when they see that the $1 billion spent on Reading First did not produce test scores that were any higher than students who did not participate in the program, when they see the dwindling number of students who still read for enjoyment, then they are open to hearing what I have to say about Readicide.

I teach high school students, and it has become obvious as the years pass that my students are becoming less adept at what I call deeper reading. They can read, they can search and find information, they can cut and paste, but if you ask them to evaluate, analyze, or synthesize, they really struggle.

These are students who have been under NCLB for six years and it shows.

Teachers want to do what¹s best for their students. If we don¹t stand up for our students, who will? I would be taking the same stand even if I had never written a book.

Ferriter:  What advice would you give to us “regular folk” who know that something is wrong but who aren’t sure what levers to use to drive change? How can we become the kinds of powerful advocates for responsible reading practices that you argue for in Readicide?

Gallagher: Change begins in your own classroom. Keep WYTIWYG in the forefront of your mind. Start a “school-within-a-school” with like-minded teachers. Meet regularly to discuss your classroom practices. Don¹t forget what I refer to in Readicide as the “50-50 approach.”

What I mean by this is that half the reading our students should be doing is recreational in nature. Don¹t let reading for fun get crowded out. Fight against novels being replaced by test prep materials. Explore what you can do to build book floods in your classrooms (more on this in my first book, Reading Reasons).

Outside your classroom, share the research found in Readicide and on my website (kellygallagher.org) with administrators, curriculum directors, board members, and other decision makers. Write to newspapers. Take the lead in raising the consciousness of the key players in your system.

Ferriter:  Any last thoughts? If you could say one thing to the readers of my blog—who are primarily highly motivated teacher leaders and influential members of their school communities, what would it be?

Gallagher:  It was interesting that in the previous question you recognize that teachers know something is wrong. Exactly. Something is wrong. But “wrong” in this arena can have devastating consequences for our students and for our culture.

It is my hope that Readicide provides an opening for some hard talk—talk that will lead to better reading and writing instruction for our students. What good does it do to raise reading scores if in the process we kill any prospects our students have of becoming lifelong readers? We need to move away from political purposes and keep our focus on authentic purposes.

Remember—you can join Kelly and a growing handful of other Radical readers for an in-depth conversation on reading instruction starting on January 14th.  Sure hope to hear your voice