Kelly Gallagher is well-known for a lot of reasons in our English teacher world.
Killer writing activities.
Clark Kent vibe.
(Allison and I once stalked him around a breakfast at NCTE. Remind me to tell you that story sometime.)
But I would argue that the thing most frequently associated with Kelly Gallagher is the Article of the Week. So much so that it has become a beloved institution. Google it and see how many versions of it live in classrooms and schools and whole districts all over the world. It’s stunning.
And yet, until six weeks ago, I had never tried it with my own students.
I’m still figuring out this middle school thing (truth: I’ll be figuring it out for awhile to come), and with the sudden realization that my students needed more nonfiction reading experiences before high school, I added the Article of the Week when we returned from winter break.
Article of the Week is a part of reading instruction, right? Students are reading an article, turning it over in their head, annotating it, and then crafting their own response. But I am a sucker for an instructional practice that does double-duty. So while my students are working on comprehension, Notice & Note signposts, and interacting with a text as a reader, I am also using Article of the Week to boost writing instruction in four ways:
Getting Cozy with Genres
It’s important to me that my students do a lot of independent writing — pieces fully developed out of their interests, creativity, and needs without even the restriction of We-Are-All-Writing-In-This-Genre units of study. (See here and here and here for more on this.)
To successfully do this, though, they need to know about the kinds of writing that live in the real world — what do professional writers create? What does it look like? Where does it live? Without this perspective, they will all compose a “My First Rollercoaster” story. And I will cry.
So, Article of the Week gives me an opportunity to expose kids to genres they haven’t read before or seen in school. My 8th graders began the year writing opinion pieces in the style of The New York Times‘ Room for Debate series. To build on this existing knowledge (and to show how writers take a claim and extend it across a longer piece of writing with a heightened level of craft) , I chose four essays-with-an-argument for our first four Articles of the Week.
Guess what students are suddenly crafting in their independent writing?
Next, we’ll do a few weeks of pop culture analysis. After that, open letters. Then perhaps we’ll do real-world information writing. By the end of the year, students will have had exposure to many different kinds of writing than just the ones we will study as a whole class, thus expanding the options for their own personal writing!
Developing Our Use of Words
Word acquisition is typically thought of as part of our reading instruction (and it is!) but the deft use of specific words is also a necessary part of strong writing. The Article of the Week is another place where reading is helping my students’ writing.
Each week, I pick a few words for which I think students won’t know an exact, dictionary definition. We discuss them together (thinking about how we pull together multiple definitions from a dictionary to form a complete understanding of a word, connotations, etc.), and students complete a “field guide” for words they want to explore more deeply. (More on this in the future — this is highly experimental right now.)
The hope and goal is that students will not simply understand this word when they encounter it in their reading, but that they will also be able to access and use this word to increase the specificity and sophistication of their writing.
Practicing Reading Like a Writer
While students are annotating their questions and connections to the text, underlining things they don’t understand and highlighting ideas they agree with, they can also be doing the hard work of “reading like a writer” — that is, looking for writer’s craft in the piece.
My students work systematically on their Article of the Week during class. On one of our five days (usually day four — on day five they write their own response to the text), I ask them to re-read the article specifically for craft. They make noticings about the kinds of ideas covered in the piece, the type of evidence the writer uses to support his ideas, how the piece is organized and presented, and how the writer uses language and punctuation to add layers of meaning.
This is a skill we’ve been honing since the first day of school, but no amount of practice is too much. My 8th graders could benefit from years of more practice looking at the way a writer puts a piece together, determining the effect, and then trying it in their own writing.
After my students make noticings about the Article and we chat, I ask them to select 2-3 craft moves that they would like to try themselves at some point. We add these to a list in the back of our notebooks: Craft from Articles of the Week. Sometimes we are working on a piece of writing and they can immediately apply it. Sometimes the idea sits there for a little while. That’s okay: sometimes the thinking can be an end in itself. Either way, students are thinking about writing at the same time that they are thinking about reading, and that benefits both their comprehension of the text and their own composition down the road.
Mentors for Responding to the World
Whether it’s the debate over guns in schools or Black Panther, Articles of the Week show students how thinkers and writers respond to what is happening in the world around them. And sometimes we can take these whole responses as a mentor to model our own thinking on.
My middle schoolers respond in their notebooks to each article, but every four weeks, they develop one of those responses into a polished, formally-assessed piece of writing. For our fourth Article of the Week, we studied Kate DiCamillo’s response to Matt de la Pena’s Time essay about why it’s okay for children’s literature to be a little sad sometimes. A writer responding to another writer in writing! We did all of the comprehension work we would normally do with this article, considered the issues at hand and where our opinions fall, and then we looked at it purely as a mentor text: what moves do writers make when they respond to another writer? Then, students used this to craft their first response.
We can build on this. Imagine intentionally coordinating your Articles of the Week with your writing workshops. My students will do roundtable analysis writing in a few weeks. What if I pulled four pieces of roundtable analysis as Articles of the Week for the month preceding our roundtable writing? And then those four pieces appeared again as mentor texts in our writing unit? Yes, there would be the nerdy beauty of curricular symmetry, but also consider how well the students would know and understand those mentor texts — how much more deeply they could access them as writers.
The Article of the Week concept is so brilliant because its an instructional workhorse. If Kelly Gallagher is Clark Kent, the Article of the Week is our own classroom Superman.
Using Gallagher’s model, it can help us layer nonfiction into our curriculum, can give us another platform from which to teach comprehension strategies, can build close reading and annotation skills, can blend reader response and analysis. It can also help us do more with writing instruction and more tightly knit together the reading thread and writing threads of our curriculum.
Are there other ways that you use the Article of the Week to inspire your writing instruction? What do you want to try first? Please join the conversation by leaving a comment below, talking back to us on Facebook, or chatting with me on Twitter @RebekahOdell1.