In the Best Interests of Students: Staying True to What Works in the ELA Classroom

By Ekholm, Eric; Tensen, Tracy | English Journal, September 2016 | Go to article overview

In the Best Interests of Students: Staying True to What Works in the ELA Classroom


Ekholm, Eric, Tensen, Tracy, English Journal


In the Best Interests of Students: Staying True to What Works in the ELA Classroom Kelly Gallagher. Portland: Stenhouse, 2015. Print.

Ever since reading Teaching Adolescent Writers a few summers ago, I've been a huge Kelly Gallagher fan. And so when I saw In the Best Interest of Students: Staying True to What Works on the ELA Classroom (IBIS) pop up while I was shopping on Amazon, it felt a bit like Christmas came early. And a few days later, when the box arrived, I tore it open in much the same way a child attacks a present from Santa.

Anyone who has read Gallagher's previous books will find this book familiar-it is wellresearched, practical, sober, logical, and, if not riveting, then thoroughly engaging. Gallagher's book synthesizes best practices in the English classroom with the instruction called for by the Common Core State Standards. The book's eight chapters describe the landscape of literacy instruction today, including the good, the bad, and everything in between. Ultimately, Gallagher concludes that, despite the fierce attention the Common Core State Standards receive, they are largely irrelevant in creating high-quality literacy instruction. In the unsexy, nonpolitical, straightforward style that characterizes much of his writing, Gallagher exhorts us simply to "step [back] . . . [and] direct our focus on what we know works" (13).

In IBIS, readers will enjoy some of the same well-worn, comfortable Kelly Gallagher truisms of past books: give students more time for recreational reading; don't worry about grading everything; make time for narrative writing (a personal favorite of mine); allow students more choice in what they write about; emphasize that writing is a process; and more. Some of these Gallagherapproved literacy practices come fully endorsed by the Common Core (e.g., the importance of process writing), whereas others do not (e.g., making more time for narrative writing for older students). These disconnects between IBIS and the Common Core show that contemporary curricular debates aren't simply two-camp, for-or-against arguments. Gallagher doesn't praise the Common Core, but neither does he scrap the whole enterprise.

One of the greatest strengths of IBIS is its argumentative style and how it invokes authority. Rarely does Gallagher assume that the reasons for his beliefs are self-evident. Rather, he clearly supports these teaching beliefs, often in multiple ways. For instance, in support of his claim that narrative writing deserves more emphasis in the classroom, Gallagher cites numerous studies describing how narrative writing builds empathy, enhances "literary thinking," and improves students' social skills (102-04). He also makes his own commonsense argument that many careers require people to connect with others via storytelling, therefore "being able to tell a good story is not a school skill, it is a life skill" (102). The lessons that Gallagher shares from his classroom-and there are a lot of them-feel more grounded after reading the evidence he brings to bear.

Stylistically, IBIS is a compelling read. Gallagher manages to blur the lines among research, practice, substance, and entertainment. IBIS is, somehow, a close reading of the Common Core, a review of literacy research, the musings of a 30-year veteran teacher, and a trove of lesson ideas all seamlessly woven into one book. And it's fun to read! The wry one-liners peppered throughout, the humorous anecdotes (e.g., one about sitting at the worst table at a wedding, "between a third cousin of the groom on one side and the bride-doesn't-r eallylike-him-but-she-must-invitehim-because-she-works-with-him colleague" [54]), and the compelling real-world examples make this piece of professional reading feel like pleasure reading.

Well-structured, well-researched, well-reasoned, and well-written, IBIS solidifies Kelly Gallagher's place as one of the preeminent figures in the world of literacy instruction. I humbly submit that it is in the best interest of educators to get a copy for themselves. …

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