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180 Days Book Review

by: Bruning, Cardillo, Clarke, Coladonato, Patton, & Peltier

180 days

Kelly Gallagher and Penny Kittle’s new book, 180 Days: Two Teachers and the Quest to Engage and Empower Adolescents, published by Heinemann, is a stimulating read during a time of educational dismay. Gallagher and Kittle disrupt the mold of state-mandated testing as well as tightly bound curriculums and bring educators back to their original teaching philosophies. While many education texts provide quick-fix teaching strategies for a specific skill set, this book, as the title suggests, opens up a discussion on what 180 days in the classroom looks like with engaged and motivated students. Gallagher and Kittle work together on lesson plans and teaching approaches in two very different environments—Gallagher in an urban, California school with a diverse student population and Kittle in a rural, New Hampshire school with a homogenous student population. They base their year of collaboration on research and core beliefs, all in hopes of sharing what they believe is most important: creating student readers and writers that are engaged, inspired, and curious about the world around them.

180 Days is broken up into two sections—Section 1: “Planning Decisions” and Section 2: “Teaching Essential Discourses.” “Planning Decisions” takes educators through various processes to plan a year, while “Teaching Essential Discourses” offers specific strategies in teaching various writing genres. Each section is then broken up into various chapters ranging from beliefs to mapping a year of writing to feedback and evaluation. Subheadings within each chapter make the reading experience easier to follow from a practical point, but break the narrative flow of the text. Each chapter mimics a textbook format; they include some figures, multiple headings, and subheadings to divide the content, and QR codes with links to supplemental audio and video materials.

In what Thomas Newkirk calls,  “a brilliant work of architecture—the making of an English course,” Kelly Gallagher and Penny Kittle manage a bi-coastal collaboration which explores their teaching, reflecting, and subsequent revising while outlining their best literacy practices.  The authors write their book from a mix of the third and first person perspective. In the first person, they offer advice and reflect on their practice and philosophies. They utilize third person to make clear when they are referencing one or the other author and to differentiate their practices when needed. The voice created is conversational, informal, and, at times, comedic. The authors develop their ethos by acknowledging their past failures failings and willingness to grow their practices throughout their careers. They acknowledge their extended experience in the classroom by opening the text with a clear outline of their well-considered beliefs about their profession.

The essence of the book is the collaboration between Gallagher and Kittle. Although they live on different coasts, they explain their two-year collaboration as one year of co-planning and co-teaching and one year of writing the book. However, during an interview posted on Heinemann Blog, Gallagher and Kittle provide more details about the one year of co-planning and co-teaching. During that year, they visited each other’s schools at least twice and used email and online resources to team teach. Both groups of students listened and responded to each other and read Romeo and Juliet together which motivated them to improve their work since it was being shared. Gallagher and Kittle conferred with each other’s students allowing the teachers to become very familiar with all of the students. Sadly, aside from the brief description of their collaboration, none of the logistics of their co-teaching are presented in the book. Since teachers face obstacles in collaborating with colleagues across the hall, much less across the country, it would have been valuable if they elaborated on the specifics of their methods of co-teaching.

Also lacking from 180 Days is a recognition of the professional status which Gallagher and Kittle bring to their teaching practice and the influence of this status on what the two are able to accomplish within their classrooms. Not only are Gallagher and Kittle veteran teachers; they are widely published and highly esteemed practitioners within the field. This high status carries certain permissions that many teachers do not share. At several moments within 180 Days, Gallagher and Kittle urge teachers to make decisions that are often not within their control and are, in many schools and districts, determined by school administrators. For example, the authors encourage classroom teachers to make decisions about what texts to teach, how many texts to teach in a school year, which aspects of the curriculum maps to focus on, and how to grade assignments. For many public educators these decisions are completely out of their hands and to challenge such processes could lead to disciplinary repercussions. Given the high rates of teacher attrition and job dissatisfaction, these statements can feel overly reductionary or patronizing. 180 Days does not claim to be a guide for all teachers everywhere to implement verbatim into their own classrooms; however, the message and resources of the text might be better received if coupled with a heightened sensitivity to and transparent awareness of the lack of agency faced by many public educators.  

Despite the idealism of the authors, Kittle and Gallagher’s 180 Days is, in essence, a “best practices” book and many of the teaching practices they suggest are sure to spark inspiration in their readers to implement in their own classrooms. This is particularly true of the chapters where they “Map a Year of Reading” and “Map a Year of Writing.” In these chapters, Gallagher and Kittle outline how they worked to empower students to become lifelong readers and writers. As mentioned previously, they decided to give their students three reading experiences to foster engagement with reading. They had several “management structures” to encourage students to track their own reading and offer several strategies they used to teach students how to read independently.

In the chapter on writing, they encourage the reader to find a balance between tasks, assignments, and freewriting; in other words, teachers should provide students with plenty of choices. Additionally, they also challenge teachers to practice what they preach. Gallagher and Kittle remind the reader that teaching students to write formulaically does not help them learn to develop their ideas. Instead, they note that students should model their writing after real things that they read, not a prescribed formula. Ultimately, Gallagher and Kittle stress that teachers should “plan to change plans” and must be willing to adapt. They say reteaching is to be expected, and the most important thing a teacher can do is confer with their students since that meets the students where they are. While these suggestions are well-intentioned, many of them feel like common sense practices that any good teacher would implement.

While Kittle and Gallagher’s situation is ideal for their curriculums, situations, and classrooms, there is much that teachers in more restricted environments can gain from reading 180 Days. Most important, and likely the goal of the authors, is to remind teachers of their reason for teaching in the first place. Much of Gallagher and Kittle’s descriptions of student growth and the types of writing and discussion that they produce throughout the year can act as a reminder that failure on the part of both student and teacher is part of the learning experience. Learning from each other, replanning, and rethinking our practices are often the path to our own growth as educators and how our students grow as learners. Gallagher’s blunt honesty about some of his student’s products is humorous, but also a reminder that no teacher is perfect, nor is any lesson, or even curriculum.

And, in the end, this might be the greatest lesson that a teacher can gain from this book: we are always growing along with our students. In a profession that is beset on all sides by administrators, politicians, parents and other stakeholders, we have to remind ourselves that, sometimes, we know what is best for our kids because we are the ones with them for 180 days.

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