4 Essential Studies: An Interview with Penny Kittle

Given how overwhelmed and overloaded many educators are right now, my posts since the new year have focused on teaching practices and pedagogical approaches that allow us to maintain or even improve the quality of our teaching while also trimming down the time we are spending on it. 

In that spirit, getting weekly or even bi-weekly posts out has proven difficult for me in the face of everything, especially since either our son’s daycare, our daughter’s school, or both have been shut for Covid-related reasons 16 of the 25 school days in 2022. So, in an effort to keep up continuity for the newsletter while also not overloading myself, I will be weaving in some interviews with authors of wonderful new books between my posts throughout these last weeks of winter and the early days of spring. These interviews will be wide-ranging, but they will share a focus on how we can potentially do more without adding more while also sharing practical tools, approaches, and tricks that you can use in the classroom tomorrow, if you wish.

First up, and I can’t believe I’m saying this, is Penny Kittle. If you don’t know who Penny Kittle is, she is a legendary teacher and author of such books as Write Beside Them, Book Love, and 180 Days. She is also the founder and president of the Book Love Foundation, which has raised over a million dollars for classroom libraries for teachers, and the co-author of the incredible new book 4 Essential Studies–a book that is so captivating and lively that it is one of only four pedagogical books that I have ever read in one sitting. Below is my interview with Penny, which has been shortened and lightly edited for clarity and concision:

Penny and Kelly Gallagher’s wonderful new book. I strongly encourage you to order it right now!

MJ: Thank you so much for talking to me. I have goosebumps sitting here with you, and I can’t wait to talk. To start, I was thinking about the fact that when one decides to write a book, it is a multiple years commitment, and you know so much and have so much to share. This made me curious: Why this book? Why was this the right book for right now? 

PK: Well, the 180 Days publication coincided with my leaving the high school and moving to Plymouth State, where I’m now with college first year students. And I remember calling [my co-author] Kelly [Gallagher] that first September, and I said, “Kelly there are things that college students have to learn in high school because we are losing so many of them who can’t independently do what we thought we had prepared them to do.” 

He said, “Well, like what?” 

And I said, “There are four essential things that kids need to do.” It was just like that. It was born there.

MJ: Your first study is the essay, and you say right away that “Essays should not be standardized; they should offer freedom and possibility.” You then follow that by directly taking on the five paragraph essay and discussing that while it maybe had a place once, it is a problem now that limits students in high school and then again at the college level. Essay writing is one of the big topics I talk about in my newsletter and I’ve found many teachers agree with you and would love to trade the five paragraph essay for something that offers more freedom and possibility, but they struggle with how to do that. What suggestions do you have for a teacher who wants to teach essays that are, as you put them, “vehicles for discovery and understanding,” but aren’t sure where to start?

PK: I think that one of the things that’s critical to remember is that the five paragraph essay is a test taking strategy. It is not good writing in the world. We have allowed, in this country, this move towards writing instruction being about the five paragraph essay and away from the original research Don Murray did in colleges and Don Graves followed up in elementary schools–research that has been backed up by practitioners and researchers ever since: That teaching writing is different than teaching lots of other things. It needs to be individualized, personalized, and conference-based. That is teaching writing. We can’t standardize writing because writing is not a standardized subject. 

If you’re teaching kids how to pass a test, a five paragraph essay can be useful, but what a limited use that is. When they walk into college–at least all of the places I’ve been–no five paragraph essays are allowed. Period. There are no rubrics. It is instead most often about big ideas and interesting questions. You read something and then discuss it by writing a one-pager or writing 1,000 words or doing some sort of wide open assignment–and these are really tough for kids who are looking for a five paragraph answer. 

So the suggestion we give in 4 Essential Studies is to study essays. Kelly and I put together a 111 page handout of different kinds of essays (here is the Padlet of those), and what we tell our students is look at all of these possibilities for how we can say something. Students then choose models to study. If they want to write an informational essay, there are models there, and they can explore the craft moves that happen in those essays. 

My suggestion for teachers who have always taught the five paragraph essay is this: Why don’t you free yourself and your students for one four week unit around more choice and essays? Why don’t you write personal essays? And as you take on one form and you realize all of the complications that arise–that there are no easy answers for the question, “How do I start this personal essay on the death of my mother?” but there are many, many possibilities–you’ll learn things about your kids as writers and teaching writing by just piloting and experimenting. 

One thing I want to acknowledge though before moving on is that teachers are trying to do the right thing for their kids. They want them to pass and get good scores on the SAT, and they’re also under tremendous pressure to raise test scores. We just need to recognize that the best way to teach writing is individualized and personalized. If we do this, they will do better on tests. We don’t have to get there through this other path.

MJ: So let’s get to poetry. At one point early on in the poetry chapter you say that poetry is as essential as an essay or book club, and right there I felt like I almost heard like a gasp from the language arts community–like a quiet, embarrassed gasp–because I think that a lot of us love poetry, but if we’re being honest, we don’t put it up there with essays and the “core” literature we’re reading. So would you mind elaborating, why, with everything else so many have to cover, poetry is so important? 

PK: I would say the number one reason is the engagement and the passion that kids have for it. When they’re exposed to modern poets and spoken word, it lights up the room. My students write more when we read poetry. They get excited to talk about a line or a phrase and come up with something on their own. They begin to hear language differently. Within poems are all of these amazing ways to talk about brevity, consistency, clarity, the effective use of literary devices–not just naming them, but using them. That’s such a critical difference because we don’t want to just teach stuff, we want to help kids write better by knowing this stuff. I read poems every day because I’m constantly trying to figure out the best way to say something. 

Also, if you’ve noticed, there has been this shift with a burst of poetic novels growing very, very popular with kids. It’s not because there are fewer words, it’s because we’ve all become accustomed to brevity. I don’t want you to explain this thing for six pages, I want you to deliver it. And poetry tends to really speak to that. 

MJ: That’s so great. I never really thought about the fact that part of what makes an Elizabeth Acevedo or a Jason Reynolds so popular with my students right now is how accustomed we have all gotten to brevity. 

A quick, related aside that just popped into my head. I have to admit that I didn’t expect it going in, but the poetry section was actually my favorite chapter of the whole book. It just felt so personal and had so much new stuff in it that I’d never seen anywhere else. 

PK: Yeah, I think what you’re hearing there is that poetry drives you to the personal. My students as well. And that’s what we want in this time of incredible social-emotional trauma that kids have experienced. They’re coming to us desperate to figure out what they’ve been through. My students kept saying, I’ve never written this much, I’ve never wanted to write this much. They have things to say, and poetry gives them a frame to get going. 

In that chapter I talk about writing a poem for my writing group and how they just tear it apart, and I was crushed because all I wanted them to know was that when I went to the grave of my brother, it was a profoundly difficult thing. But none of them could hear that because they were looking for line breaks and stanzas and stuff, and I was like, that’s not what that poem was about. 

In that chapter we also try to talk about the volume of poetry. We’ve got our pyramid wrong. I think it’s an essential thing. One day I sketched a quick drawing in my notebook and I said to Kelly, everybody’s teaching poetry like this: 

From 4 Essential Studies pg. 82

We get a poem, tear it apart six different ways, and then the next day we do it with a different poem and in the end, they’ve only read 10 or 12 poems in that unit really closely with lots of discussion of craft. Instead, why not have them creating a large volume of their own drafty poems, day after day after day, and then occasionally take time to deeply study a poem. The idea is to flip it around:

From 4 Essential Studies pg. 83

I think that might invite more people to try a unit on poetry because you don’t have to be the expert. Instead we explore poems together. 

MJ: Let’s talk about digital composition. I am a film elective teacher, and when I say that people often raise an eyebrow, like film is a course where seniors go to eat popcorn and talk about movies. I’ve always bristled at that because film is actually my most rigorous class. We have the best conversations and go so deep, and learning about film is so essential in this film-centric age. I feel like when you talk about digital composition, it is a similar dynamic. When discussing student short films or podcasts or songs, you talk about how there is a similar kind of eyebrow raise and questions about rigor suddenly pop up, and yet you say directly in 4 Essential Studies that digital composition is critical and we should elevate it. 

With that in mind, can you make the case for why digital composition is so important and then explain how we can do it right, because I think a lot of teachers like the concept of it but don’t own a fancy microphone or know how to use Final Cut Pro?

PK: This is where it came from. I don’t know how many years ago, I’m standing in a Taylor Swift concert with my daughter, and every kid in front of me is not only filming her, they are editing it on their phones and posting it. I was like “look at them all using digital composition happening at this concert! “

We also need to do digital composition because our kids are consuming more media than ever in the history of kids. You can’t continue to consume without analyzing how it’s working on you, if you’re going to become a critical thinker about what you consume. Our kids are consuming and consuming and consuming. If we don’t talk about how digital composition works, they continue to be ignorant of how things are working on them.

In terms of how, I’ll tell you how I started this fall. I said to the students that your first first movie is a one week project. You are to give me a year, a moment, a sport or whatever. Choose a subject, and give it to me at the length of one song that fits with what you’re trying to say about your subject. Then use photographs, title slides, and, if you are savvy, go ahead and try some mini movies as well. And off they go. 

I only have them two days in the week, so I got to confer with every kid the first day: “What’s your subject? What are you working on?” When they came back a day later, now they’ve got a little bit of their project started, their writing groups are trying to figure out what is next. We start watching a few of them in class, and we start to notice and share things.

This little mini show-me-something is just to play with the tools and learning about digital composition. My kids don’t have Final Cut–we Google free software–and most of them just use their phones to make them.

For the second project, which was a mini-documentaries, I upped the requirements of what you need to include and how you need to frame a subject and what kind of story you’re trying to tell. And at first, there are kids are all saying “I don’t know what my subject is” or “I forgot how to put in a title slide.” But you just learn from what they’re doing. When they share a draft, you pause, and say, “Wait, what did you just do there?

So don’t be afraid of what you don’t know. They always know more than I do. And so I’m just learning with them. 

MJ: So I’m asking this of all my guests, but considering all that is being asked of teachers right now and how many are just trying to make it through this next day or the next class, what suggestions do you have for things teachers can do to improve their pedagogy without adding more to their plates or maybe even ways they can become better teachers by doing less of certain things that might not be adding much value?

PK: Well, I immediately went to this Emily Meixner tweet that I retweeted the other day. She said “Here’s the thing. English teachers – If the only reasonable thing to do at this point is to have your kids write about what’s meaningful to them and read what they want, that’s enough.” And then she writes, “It’s. Enough. It’s always been enough. 

PK: So what I would say to teachers is this: Number one, if you’re still on your feet, that’s an impressive show of will in this time. Number two, our students, my students, wanted to read more than ever this fall. Many hadn’t had books in their houses for two years, many hadn’t had the opportunity to dig through a library like I have. They wanted time to read. They wanted to rediscover what’s possible–even kids who hadn’t discovered it in many years–and they wanted time to write in their notebooks. There were days when I would come out with my mini-lesson and there would be kids who had their shoulders slumped because they wanted to keep working in their notebooks. Why was I getting in the way? 

I really feel like if teachers should think about letting go of so much of what we think we have to do right now and give kids space to tell the stories, I had one day where I said tell us tell one story from the pandemic, and I was knocked out by the things they wrote in their notebooks.

MJ: Is there anything else you want to add?

PK: We are in the final stages of rolling out the Book Love Summer Book Club, so if you have any readers who haven’t joined us yet, we had 1,350 teachers from 15 countries at the Summer Book Club last year to raise money for the Book Love Foundation. Also, we’re going to give out lots of libraries this year and applications are up on the website, so apply and get some book money!

MJ: Thank you so much for talking to me! This has been a true pleasure! I can’t wait to try these things out in my classroom tomorrow.

If You Liked This…

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2 responses to “4 Essential Studies: An Interview with Penny Kittle”

  1. […] with Fun Tools: In my interview with Penny Kittle a few weeks back, she recommended using the end of the year to experiment with multi-genre […]


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