Blogstitute: Moving Beyond the 4×4 Classroom

July 1st, 2015

Right before the holiday weekend here is a great read for you from the talented,  brilliant Kelly Gallagher. In this post Kelly takes us through the year in his classroom and how he is re-evaluating how much and what his students read and write about, how he grades them, and how his choices in the classroom will impact his students’ learning. Be sure to leave a comment or ask a question for a chance to win free books at the end of the Blogstitute. You can also follow us on Twitter and use #blogstitute15 to comment!

Moving Beyond the 4 x 4 Classroom
By Kelly Gallagher

kellygallagherWhen I first started teaching, I ran a “4 x 4 classroom.” My students read four “big” books a year (one per quarter), and they wrote four “big” papers a year (one per quarter). Four big books and four big papers—a 4 x 4 classroom.

At the time, this made sense to me. It took a week or two to teach students how to write a specific essay. They took another week or two to move their papers completely through the writing process. Then it took an additional three weeks to read and comment on 180 papers. (While students were waiting for their papers, I shifted the focus in the classroom to the core work we were reading.) By the time I eventually returned the essays, we were into the next quarter and it was time to start thinking about the next big paper.

The same pacing held true when I taught core novels and plays. I took a week to prepare my students for the reading of Book X. We then spent six weeks reading the work, stopping frequently to make sure students were analyzing it to death. Then we spent a couple of weeks revisiting the work via numerous “beyond” activities. By the time students finished these culminating activities, we were into the next quarter and it was time to start reading our next core work.

Years later, I have come to understand the severe limitations of the 4 x 4 approach. The central reason 4 x 4 doesn’t work can be summed up in one word: volume. Volume matters a great deal, and, simply put, students stuck in 4 x 4 paradigms do not read and write enough over the course of the school year to significantly improve. A 4 x 4 approach ensures adequate progress will not occur.

As I write this post, I am three weeks away from the end of another school year—a year in which I have spent a lot of time and energy breaking free of the 4 x 4 mold. Considering the importance of volume leads me to think about my students’ reading and writing journeys this year. Following is a list of the reading and writing tasks they have completed:

• In-depth study of three core works: All Quiet on the Western Front, Hamlet, and 1984
• An in-depth study of The 9/11 Commission Report
• Various other books and articles on 9/11
• Book club books (self-selected from a list)
• Four (or more) self-selected recreational reading books
• An article of the week (every week)
• Numerous articles, maps, graphs, charts, infographics, speeches, and political cartoons that were woven throughout the curriculum

• Weekly Article of the Week reflections. Students wrote thirty-plus of these, each one page in length. (For more on the AoW, see
• Weekly pieces in their writer’s notebooks. All of these topics and genres were self-selected by the students and shared in their writing groups each week. (We did this for half a year.)
• An inform/explain essay (students chose the topics)
• Multiple narrative essays (students chose the topics)
• Poems
• A literary analysis essay on All Quiet on the Western Front (students chose the topics)
• An essay that connected Hamlet to the real world (students chose the topics)
• An argument paper after reading 1984 (student chose the arguments)
• A historical investigation into 9/11. The average paper was twenty-two pages. The shortest paper was twelve pages; the longest was forty-eight pages.
• Numerous reflections spun from classroom discussions and from video (YouTube)
• On-demand writings

in-the-best-interest-of-studentsAm I completely satisfied with this reading and writing output? No. On the reading side, for example, I want my students to have more choice when it comes to book club selections. (This is a budget hurdle; I am working on clearing it.) I am moving toward what I have deemed a 20/80 approach—20 percent reading of whole-class, core works; 80 percent reading of extended works, book club selections, and independent reading choices (for more on this, see Chapter 8 of my new book, In the Best Interest of Students. In regard to writing, I also want to build in more choice, perhaps moving toward a 20/80 split there as well (20 percent teacher-generated topics; 80 percent student-generated topics).

Though I am not completely satisfied with my students’ reading and writing output, I can say without hesitancy that the young men and women about to leave my class have written and read much more than my former students who were mired in a 4 x 4 approach. My classes are moving in the right direction. Volume is increasing.

Here are two factors that have helped me to turn up my students’ volume this year.

I recognized the importance of choice.
Looking at my students’ reading this year, there were times where they had no choice, times where they had limited choice, and times where they had wide-open choice:

No Choice: The class read three major core works together (see above).
Limited choice: In the 9/11 unit of study, for example, students were presented with numerous books on the topic and chose the titles they wanted to read. In book club settings, students were given a choice between eight different titles and then selected the book they wanted to read. (Instead of picking from a list, I would love to have wide-open choice in book clubs, but budgetary limits and school bureaucracy prohibit this. Again, I am working on it.)
Wide-open choice: Students independently read a number of self-selected books.

These three types of reading—no choice, limited choice, and wide-open choice—were found on the writing side as well:

No Choice: The entire class wrote a 9/11 paper.
Limited choice: My students had just finished reading 1984 and I asked them “to write an argument under the umbrella of 1984.” Some students wrote arguments within the four corners of the book (e.g., “The central theme of 1984 is . . .”). Others wrote arguments outside the four corners of the book (e.g., “1984 remains valuable to the modern reader because . . .”). Whether they remained inside or outside the book, students created and answered their own prompts.
In some papers, I blended the level of choice. For their 9/11 papers, for example, the first half of the essays were dedicated to informing the reader of both the prelude and the events of the day; in the second half of the paper, students generated their own arguments and answered them (e.g., “Has the Patriot Act gone too far?”). I call these “50/50 papers”—half assigned, half choice.
Wide-open choice: My students did a lot of writing in their writer’s notebooks, and they generated almost all of this writing (topics and genres).

One thing is certain: when students are given a choice—whether limited or wide open—they read and write more.

I recognized that grading everything slows my students’ reading and writing growth.
Recently, Nancie Atwell received the first Global Teaching Prize (and the $1 million award that accompanies it). This award nicely coincided with the release of her third edition of In the Middle (Heinemann, 2014), arguably the most influential book ever published regarding the teaching of language arts. It is interesting that in this newest edition, Atwell states:

I have never graded individual pieces of writing. Growth in writing is slow. It’s seldom straightforward, and it varies tremendously among young writers. It also happens on a wide array of fronts, as writers learn to generate, experiment, plan, select, question, draft, read themselves, anticipate, organize, craft, assess, review, revise, format, spell, punctuate, edit, and proofread. One piece of writing can never provide an accurate picture of a student’s abilities; rather, it represents a step in a writer’s growth—and not always a step forward, as new techniques, forms, or genres can overload any writer of any age. (300)

This bears repeating and should be shouted from the rooftops of every school in the land: the teacher who was recently recognized as the best teacher in the world has not graded an essay in forty years. Atwell’s students demonstrate remarkable writing growth, but let us not forget that her students’ growth occurred without a single essay being graded. Grading does not turn students into better writers. What makes Atwell’s students better writers? The same things that make our students better writers: Modeling. Conferring. Choice. And lots of writing.
The volume of writing is the key ingredient. If I provide good modeling but my kids do not write much, they will not grow. If I confer with them but they do not write much, my students will not grow. If I provide a lot of choice but they do not write much, my students will not grow. Modeling, conferring, and choice are critical to growth, but if my students are not writing a lot, these factors become irrelevant.
In my school system, I am required to score essays, and I imagine this may be true for you as well (Atwell runs her own school and gets to create her own rules). But let’s not lose sight of the lesson Atwell teaches us here: students should be writing way more than a teacher can grade (I have a goal of at least a 4:1 ratio). When teachers grade everything, the writing pace of the classroom slows down. Volume suffers. It is only when students begin writing (and reading) more than the teacher can grade that they approach the volume necessary to spur significant growth.

Moving Beyond 4 x 4
As this school year winds down, I cannot shake the feeling that, despite the progress in my classroom, my students are still not reading and writing enough (especially considering the deficiencies some of them have). My thoughts are already turning to next year’s classes, and, as I approach summer, I am wrestling with some big questions: How can I build more choice into the curriculum? When and where can I provide more modeling? How can I build in more time to confer? What else can I do to increase the volume of my students’ reading and writing? And, most important, what else can I do to move beyond the 4 x 4 approach?

Entry Filed under: Blogstitute

24 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Monique Bunero  |  July 1st, 2015 at 10:00 am

    This is great! Although I work with younger students, I can adjust this approach accordingly. Realizing that you don’t have to (and shouldn’t) grade everything frees up so much time and space for encouraging real growth in young writers. I’m inspired to follow this model!

  • 2. Dave Stuart Jr.  |  July 1st, 2015 at 10:47 am

    Great post. A lot of value in here. Thank you, Mr. Gallagher.

  • 3. Kerry  |  July 1st, 2015 at 12:49 pm

    Thank you for sharing your reflection- I love that we have a job that is never finished & there are always more ways to better our teaching for students. I hope to continue moving away from the 4×4 traditional classroom model and increasing the volume of reading and writing in my classroom.

  • 4. Julie Clay  |  July 1st, 2015 at 1:30 pm

    I deeply appreciate the discussion of student writing by two of my favorite education professionals: Gallagher and Atwell! Finding a balance in my curriculum is a yearly struggle, and as I grade students’ formal research papers by the end of the year, I make mental notes of all the concepts I should have covered better. My colleagues and I have noticed the regression in student writing, and we have tried to find ways to address this complicated issue. Thank you for the insightful and encouraging post.

  • 5. Kelly Mogk  |  July 1st, 2015 at 2:27 pm

    Yes! This! “Volume matters a great deal, and, simply put, students stuck in 4 x 4 paradigms do not read and write enough over the course of the school year to significantly improve.”

    I also love you saying you are not completely satisfied with the volume but you know growth is happening and have plans in place to make improvements. This is the type of reflection I try to use in my own practice so that students can benefit from my own learning. Thank you so much for sharing this!

  • 6. Sarah Miller  |  July 1st, 2015 at 6:41 pm

    I totally love this terminology. 4×4- so traditional, not the best! So hard to break the mold. Maybe I would like writing if I had the opportunity to write more and was not dictated on what to write in school. Luckily I read on my own, but for those that don’t choice and time to read are huge! Thanks again for validating my thoughts and beliefs! Now how to implement when coworkers don’t believe…

  • 7. Lisa C  |  July 1st, 2015 at 8:05 pm

    I need to increase the volume again. I see some ideas here for how to do that, even in a grade 4 class! I really like the “article of the week” idea.

  • 8. Sharlene  |  July 1st, 2015 at 9:35 pm


    Thank you for this fresh perspective on teaching reading and writing in the classroom. I agree that the”4×4″ approach limits our students’ opportunities to read and write more frequently. It also limits their choices of reading and writing texts and genres.Your advocacy for volume and choice reminds me of the philosophy of the 2014 UCI Summer Writing Project, at which I heard you speak last July. The co-directors, Carol Booth Olsen and Catherine D’Aoust, promote a similar philosophy of choice for student-centered book groups and writing groups. As a 2014 fellow, I renewed my commitment to increase volume and choice, accomplishing both to a degree, but with room for growth next fall. I found myself constantly wrestling between the direction of the structured district pacing guide and offering my students the flexibility of choice whenever and wherever possible. It is a balancing act, but one worth pushing the envelope for, since my students showed noticeable growth in their reading and writing ability, as well as critical thinking and insight. As a result, I plan to devise ways to stretch the confines of the “4×4” classroom next year to encourage more choice in reading and writing opportunities for my ELA students.

  • 9. Helen Erickson  |  July 1st, 2015 at 11:56 pm

    Thank you for sharing your thoughts and questions. I am thinking of trying writing circles next year. A lot of our students are familiar with literature circles…and if they read and discuss together, perhaps they can write and discuss their work? Stephanie Harvey and Harvey Daniels include a section about writing circles in their book Inquiry in Action. I think writing circles is a framework that will allow for choice, encourage students to write more and opportunities for lots of informal feedback.

  • 10. Dan  |  July 2nd, 2015 at 8:00 am

    As someone who implemented the Articles of the Week last year, it is such a wonderful addition to my class. I also have the students do a Socratic Seminar on Fridays with them as well.

    I agree with Kelly completely. I too often do not assign new writing because I haven’t finished grading the other. I need to start adding more volume with less grading. This blog post has given me some ideas to think about.

  • 11. Cheryl  |  July 2nd, 2015 at 11:17 am

    I love the idea of increasing volume and decreasing the need to “grade” everything. I started implementing this idea after my first encounter with the National Writing Project summer institute for teachers many years ago. I noticed a difference in student writing just because I started providing more opportunities for them to write without feeling the need to grade it all. It was freeing (is that really a word?) for all of us. And I started writing with them at least a couple of times a week. As Kelly shares his own on-going learning as a teacher through writing and reflecting so must we all model that for students. There is never an end to learning, and students benefit when we let them see how we too must keep reading, writing, thinking and revising all of those pieces for ourselves and for them. Thanks for your transparency and honesty, Kelly!

  • 12. Teresa  |  July 2nd, 2015 at 5:14 pm

    Great post! I started adding more student choice for reading and writing assignments a few years ago. At the end of the year, my students and I look at all their major writing assignments and make a chart of all the things/skills/areas they learned and/or improved. It’s amazing to see how much they have grown. I give credit to Atwell and Gallagher and their ideas. They have helped me become a much better teacher than when I first started. I wish more of my coworkers would read their books and follow their examples.

  • 13. Sarah  |  July 2nd, 2015 at 7:56 pm

    First of all, love your work! I have been using your Article of the Week for 2 years now and I love the results I see at the end of the year. My students (9th grade) begin to discuss like educated adults! It’s amazing! I could blabber on about this for pages, but to address the point of your blog, I will get to the point. One strategy that I use with some success (it needs tweaking) is to prompt students to write a variety of pieces, all of which either I give a cursory read or peers read, and then I have them choose one to work through the revision, editing and publishing process. This increases the amount of writing that they do while minimizing the amount of careful grading that I have to do. Like I said, it’s not a perfect system. I have to award some points or the students won’t do all of the drafts. It’s the culture of my school. I am still trying to find meaningful ways to motivate them to write, including implementing more choice, as you mentioned.

  • 14. Mary KH  |  July 2nd, 2015 at 11:55 pm

    Thank you for reiterating what I learned from the Ohio Writing Project: Students should be writing more than I can possibly grade. Until last year, I used Vopat’s Writing Circles extensively — in fact, I based my masters research on the method. It is amazing. Like Atwell, I saw major improvements in my students’ writing when they were writing all the time about things that mattered to them. I taught formal academic writing separately. It worked. I did not use writing circles last year because an administrator forbade “creative writing” and mandated that all student writing be grounded in a published author’s work, all in order to drive up student test scores. That was a sad and serious mistake which backfired. Next year, I am going back to writing circles. My students deserve it.

  • 15. kelly wernex  |  July 3rd, 2015 at 7:28 am

    Well said. Last year I moved from 5th gr and full readers/writers workshop to 6th gr and 4×4. My middle school ElA teachers seems to have a different mindset! I immediately saw the decline in students reading and writng and what a disservice we are doing. I am hoping to change that! I would love a copy of your book to help me propel away from this and to share with my colleagues.

  • 16. Lori  |  July 3rd, 2015 at 4:40 pm

    Thank you for providing such an excellent model of an end of year reflection. I love that you explore how you are using time, and how you can use time differently to have students engage in a greater volume of meaningful reading and writing activities. I plan to print this out and share it with my ELA department when we return in the fall. It will serve as a way to open the discussion about why we are doing what we do and how we can use our time with students in a way that engages them in an ongoing reading and writing journey.

  • 17. Stephanie  |  July 4th, 2015 at 10:18 am

    As you go forward, do you hope to add more diverse works (written by people of color and women) to your class novel studies?

  • 18. Diane Anderson  |  July 5th, 2015 at 8:04 pm

    So important to remember: when given a choice, even a limited choice, students read and write more.

  • 19. Joanne Bell  |  July 6th, 2015 at 6:45 am

    That’s so true. While I am trying to get through 180 papers, they are losing ground because they’re not writing. This year, while I continue to work on giving more choice, I want to add more writing.

  • 20. Tracy Mailloux  |  July 9th, 2015 at 7:35 am

    Typical Kelly Gallagher, giving me something that resonates with me and makes me think! 🙂 When I read this post last week, so many ideas and comments popped into my head right away. Not being able to post my response right away gave me the opportunity to really mull what Kelly is saying over and have new insights for myself. Currently I teach 2nd grade, where it seems easier to give students choice in what they are reading and writing about. Even in guided reading groups my kids have “limited” choice where I’ve selected 4 or 5 texts and the group chooses which to read. All of their independent reading is self-selected but some little ones need explicit instruction on how and what to choose. I taught upper grades for many years and can see how easy it is to fall into that 4×4 routine. I do think it is important for classes to tackle a text together, as a group. I’m not completely against the whole class novel, in lower grades easily done as read alouds. My experience as a parent mirrors what Kelly Wernex (comments above) said about what she noticed about the 4×4. As a parent I saw only 2(!) books read the entire year! One major historical document was covered in the first term. Is this because the number of students taught goes from 20-30 to 100+? I have wondered about this a lot and see how Articles of the Week can drastically increase the volume of reading and writing one student can do even when the class is working on a whole class novel. Will be looking at ways to incorporate weekly articles into my work with second graders. Thanks Kelly!

  • 21. Rachelle  |  July 9th, 2015 at 9:15 am

    I’ve heard many times that students need to read and write a lot to become better, but I’ve never heard before that “students should be writing way more than a teacher can grade.” What a freeing thought! It gives me more time to plan better conferences and analyze data. I appreciate the ways that you looked at student choice, too, and how important it is to give students the ability to choose their own material.

  • 22. Tamara  |  July 10th, 2015 at 9:32 am

    Thank you for sharing your always-inspirational thinking, Mr. Gallagher. Sitting at my desk, surrounded by teetering towers of professional books–yours well-represented among them–your post has reminded me of the need for an elevator pitch for my year. What is most critical? Volume and choice. If I don’t have a concrete plan for increasing both volume and choice, I limit my students’ growth.

  • 23. Julie Eggiman  |  July 14th, 2015 at 8:23 am

    This article is packed with such vital information–crucial to encouraging student success. As an instructional coach, it’s a hard sell to teachers in the trenches. I will say that I am still going to try!

  • 24. Moving Beyond the 4 X 4 C&hellip  |  July 23rd, 2015 at 2:09 pm

    […]×4-classroom/ […]

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