Tag Archives: Kelly Gallagher

David Bowie’s Top Songs? According to…?

With the surprising passing of David Bowie just a few days ago, I have come across a number of tweets from websites and publications proclaiming “The 24 Best David Bowie Songs” or something similar.

While I understand that these lists are the opinion of the publication or of a David Bowie fan, I find that this ‘these are his best songs’ reaction resonates for me as a high school English teacher because of the nature of ‘English class’ in high school.

Allow me to back track a little: how could there ever be a list of ‘David Bowie’s best songs’ — or any other artist, for that matter — when music is so very personal? For me, as a teen in the 1980’s, I was surrounded by David Bowie’s music, and while I liked some of his songs to a certain degree, it never really spoke to me in my gut (or soul or heart or whatever that place is when a song explodes inside you.) At that time, the music that made my cells thrum was Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin, Jimi Hendrix, The Who, James Taylor, Cat Stevens, The Grateful Dead, and Santana to name a few.

The amazing group of friends I had in high school were a group for reasons other than our music tastes, which included my 60’s / Deadhead list, while others listened to death metal, ska, punk, new wave and indie rock. I can remember wishing that David Bowie spoke to me in my gut / soul because I sensed that he was an ‘important musician’, but for whatever reason, whatever my mixture of genes, background knowledge, upbringing, emotional sensibility, teen headspace, etc., David just never found a place in my heart. And that is okay.

And so, when I read about ‘David Bowie’s 24 Best Songs’ today, I remember that wishing his music spoke to me and then remember that it’s okay for not everyone to love his music.

How does this connect to high school English? I wonder what effect limiting students to reading only what have been deemed ‘the best or important novels’ will have on them? Kelly Gallagher, in his book Readicide, explores the idea that we, as teachers, should remember that while these core texts in English may be important, creating lifelong readers is more important.  Neither Gallagher, Penny Kittle, Nancie Atwell nor other promoters of reading would suggest that we ignore these important texts, but Gallagher fears that force-feeding ‘classic’ texts that only speak to some (if not only a few) students will undermine or even kill a students’ desire to read for the rest of their lives. Woah.

If I, as an English teacher, am worried about students being exposed to proper syntax and grammar, as well as building their vocabulary, Stephen Krashen’s seminal meta-study, The Power of Reading, submits that free-voluntary reading is the most efficient and powerful way to build those elements of language arts. After having read these amazing works by respected authors and thinkers, I confess it has given me much to think about.

(To go one step further, Jim Trelease and Dr. Stephen Layne also write about how reading aloud to students at all levels (including PhD students) is also a very powerful tool for exposing students to the beautiful intricacies of the English language. But that is perhaps for another post…)

Penny Kittle  echoes Gallagher’s idea and worries that if students are only exposed to academic reading in a boot-camp setting, they will turn off reading, and that is a much
greater problem than whether or not they were exposed to the ‘right’ or classic texts.

David Bowie’s music never took up a place inside my soul. That is okay — even though he is ‘one of the most important musicians of all time’. How would I feel, I wonder, if I had been forced to listen to his music, to dissect it, to analyze it, to discuss it, for weeks at a time, over multiple years?

Is it more important that I be able to critically analyze any piece of music or just David Bowie’s?

Kittle goes on to wonder whether we can balance students’ interests and needs with our responsibilities and goals.



Child of Dandelions: Embracing then Fixing Confusion

Child of Dandelions continued:

As I continue with this novel, I continue to hit ‘speed bumps’ where I find myself confused by what I am reading.

So, what would literacy ‘gurus’ suggest a student do when confusion arises while reading?


Kelly Gallagher from Deeper Reading:

Deeper Reading

From Stenhouse Publishers

Are students willing and able to embrace confusion? Do they understand that confusion is natural, even with proficient readers, and, Gallagher would suggest, is even necessary when reading something challenging.  He quotes Sheridan Blau:

“…recognizing when we are confused is actually a sign of increased comprehension and that as readers we should welcome and embrace confusion.  Learning begins when we encounter confusion.” (p.63)

He continues:

“Students do not understand this concept.  They think they are supposed to sit down and read Great Expectations once and understand it.  They are dismayed when they become confused, and they often see their inability to immediately work through the hard parts as a reason to give up.” (63)

I can relate.  As I struggle with the place names and plot points of Child of Dandelions, I am definitely also struggling with thoughts such as ‘I should be getting this’ or ‘a better reader would be getting this, so why aren’t I?‘ or ‘I am not getting this so forget it, I’ll just choose another book.

But Gallagher writes about coaching students to persevere in the face of confusion:

“I am not concerned that they will encounter confusion, however, about what they will do when they encounter the confusion.” (63)

The next question, then, is how do I fix my confusion?


Cris Tovani passes out a sheet of fix-up strategies to her students to help them with the question, “What are we supposed to do when we get stuck reading?“:

  1. Make a connection between the text and your life, your knowledge of the world or another text.
  2. Make a prediction.
  3. Stop and think about what you have already read.
  4. Ask yourself a question and try to answer it.
  5. Reflect in writing on what you have read.
  6. Visualize.
  7. Use print conventions (key words, bold print, italicized words, etc.)
  8. Retell what you’ve read.
  9. **Reread: Rereading is the principal strategy good readers use.” — Kelly Gallagher
  10. Notice patterns in text structure.
  11. Adjust your reading rate: slow down or speed up.

For me with Child of Dandelions, I have definitely been asking a lot of questions in my head which then had led to having to reread.  For example, I arrived on a page referencing a character called Munchkin and I had no idea who he or she was:

“Sabine was about to remind the queen that Hindus are cremated, not buried, when Munchkin pulled at Lalita’s gold earring.” (45)

Thus began an almost forensic back starting at the beginning of the book to find where this Munchkin character was introduced:

“Sabine’s little brother, wearing one one of her old dresses, ran to her and she kissed him.  His name was Minaz, but she called him Munchkin. Born with Down syndrome, he hadn’t learned to say many words, but he responded to some.  He would be nine this year.” (31)

The fact that he is not a major character, however, means that, I am guessing, my reading brain didn’t pay too much attention to Minaz / Munchkin when I first read him and / or I wasn’t tuned to my reading channel.

This forensic search also necessitated a slowing down of my reading rate to find the exact reference to Minaz.

So, I wonder if I adjust my thinking to expect confusion, as every proficient reader encounters it at some point and even embrace confusion as a good thing that is forcing me to think, then maybe I enjoy this book for a different reason than it is an easy read about a topic I know well.

Having said that, part of me hopes there is a tipping point soon, when the gears click together — to mix my metaphors — and I can start getting lost in the story instead of wrestling with it to make sense. Onward…

Child of Dandelions: Framing the Text

Child of Dandelions continued:

Following Kelly Gallagher’s ideas, what can I do to frame the text so as to increase the chances of a successful reading of this text?

What questions do I have?

  1. Where is Uganda?
  2. Who was Idi Amin?
  3. Were there actually east Asian people living there? Were they expelled?

Where is Uganda?

From Creative Commons

From Creative Commons

Who is Idi Amin? Did the expulsion of Indian people from Uganda actually occur?

Short-sighted demagogue who played the race card: Idi Amin

Idi Amin – Creative Commons

expelled the Asians






For my students, to activate and provide some background knowledge, I might ask them:

  1. Can you remember a time when you were asked to leave an event or a place because of who you were (teenager, for example)? (I recall students telling me that they have been asked to leave a store in the mall simply because they are teens.  Beyond that, I must admit that I have never experienced expulsion because of who I am.)
  2. Can you think of a story, movie, song, TV show, video game that also shows someone being expelled?( I have read or consumed many stories of the Jews and the Holocaust, and how they were expelled from their homes — such as Schindler’s List. In Please Ignore Vera Dietz, the protagonist is ‘expelled’ from a circle of friends.)
  3. After reading the article, does this story remind of you another historical event? (The Holocaust)

Another way for me to frame the text is to look for a book trailer for Child of Dandelions:

Plus: there was a movie about Idi Amin with Forest Whitaker called The Last King of Scotland:

Child of Dandelions: Am I set to the Reading Channel?

In my last post, I admitted that I am experiencing what Cris Tovani suggests are the indicators for confusion while reading Shenaaz Nanji’s Child of Dandelions.

If I am taking on the role of a learner, then I want to explore what I can do now to improve my engagement with this text.

Deeper Reading

From Stenhouse Publishers

Before I look at fixing my confusion, I recall Kelly Gallagher writing about a reader’s mind being set on the right “reading channel”:

“Coming to text in the right frame of mind is not a reading issue; it’s a concentration issue. Even good readers experience comprehension problems when they are not properly focussed on the reading task at hand.” (52)

Gallagher goes on to say,

“Regardless of reading ability, your understanding of the text is directly affected by your frame of mind when you sit down to read. Even proficient readers will not comprehend their reading if their minds are not tuned to the reading task at hand.” (52)

But, Gallagher continues:

“…being ‘off channel’ is not the problem” — in fact, it would appear to be quite normal — “…the question is what good readers do when their reading minds are ‘off channel’.” (52)

Gallagher presents three questions to help students navigate challenging text (p. 52):

  1. Have I chosen a place to read that will enable me to give my full concentration to the reading task at hand? (Yes: I wait to read at night before bed once my children have gone to bed and all of the house ‘chores’ are finished.
  2. Have I set aside enough time to give this reading the attention it deserves? (For the most part; I need quiet for reading and I typically find the quietest time is at the end of the day when I will have 3o minutes to an hour for reading.)
  3. Have I cleared my mind of other issues and turned to the “reading” channel of my brain? (Not always easy to do. And it probably doesn’t help that I am reading multiple books at the same time.)

For the teacher, Gallagher asks of himself:

“Have I adequately framed the text to help shore up my students lack of prior knowledge and experience?” (p. 53)

So, for myself, have I adequately framed the text for my reading? How might I do that? What are ways to ‘back fill’ my lack of prior knowledge and experience?