Kelly Gallagher on Engaging Adolescent Readers

Vincent Fino, December 2022
Kelly Gallagher

Kelly Gallagher, acclaimed teacher and writer, opened his keynote address with the “why,” the why he is here, in Albany, New York, talking to a three-hundred plus crowd of eager educators: I want to help move writers from compliance to engagement. This statement reverberated across the entire address, as Gallagher delved into a range of writing topics, from helping students identify audience and purpose, to the range of generative essays educators can have students explore, well beyond the formulaic, four-paragraph essay.

Student autonomy and engagement emerged throughout the ninety-minute address. In Gallagher’s conversations with Penny Kittle, educator, writer, and professor at Plymouth State University, he came to an unsettling conclusion: at both the secondary and collegiate level, teachers are doing “too much of the work” when it came to writing. Gallagher shared a number of open-ended writing prompts and the student samples that followed, from the New York Times essay topic, “36 Hours,” to the Jason Reynolds’ inspired, “Ten Things I’ve Been Meaning to Say to You.” Throughout the writing process, as students develop their own writing styles and voice, Gallagher has them, “read, analyze, emulate.” Gallagher jokingly assured the audience that, while some educators might hesitate at model-inspired essays, approved plagiarism has its place in the classroom, stating, “that’s how we learn… we stand next to someone who is doing it. We watch them. And we imitate them.”

All writers – from emerging to professional – need opportunities for low-stakes, volume writing. Gallagher noted that, “the best teacher of writing is the writing…is not the graphic organizer, it’s not the modeling…the best teacher of writing is the writing.”

Toward the end of the address, after about ten cups of delicious, Marriott coffee, I furiously scribbled in my notebook, “formulaic, hamburger writing will not get our writers where they need to go.” There were so many golden takeaways from Kelly Gallagher’s talk, but this idea stuck with me the most. As we head back to our districts, let’s remember to have students, “embrace the blank page.” How might we do that? Gallagher provided a bounty of generative writing ideas, from Tik-Tok videos to startling data charts. For some like me, this may mean getting outside of our comfort zones (I guess it’s time to make a Tik-Tok?!) – but, if our models help an emerging writer reach the bottom of a page, it is worth all the discomfort. Gallagher said it best, “our job is to promote writers.” I am excited to attend future NYSEC workshops to see how Kelly Gallagher’s address sparked the writing in your classroom!

Vincent Fino is the Assistant Principal at Carmel High School in Carmel, NY and serves as a NYSEC Executive Board Member.

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