Nancie Atwell’s IN THE MIDDLE: A Lifetime of Learning About Writing, Reading, and Adolescents book is an excellent resource for aspiring and also established teachers.
It advocates a revolutionary action: allowing students, beginning in Kindergarten through 12th grade, to choose the books that they would want to read. Of course, teachers in Kindergarten and elementary school grades can offer an in-class small library – with diverse children’s book options. Atwell was in the teaching trenches for many years. I love how Atwell begins her book as she explains her journey of becoming a teacher and her first year of teaching. She soon learned that students were bored and were not necessarily inspired nor motivated to read or write.
Atwell learned through years of classroom teaching experience – that you have to allow students to select books, of their choice, that they would actually enjoy reading. She did not select the books for them. She created an inhouse small selection of books and also offered students the opportunity to go to the school library or public library – to search for books that each student would select and enjoy reading.
At times, she has used a mentor book – but her philosophy is to empower each students, by allowing him/her to choose the book that they want to read. She slowly and methodically began to develop an effective system of teaching English literature. She went to conferences and met other extraordinary teachers and experts in the field of English teaching and learning methods. Atwell eventually learned that students must be given time to read in class. They need to read in order to become effective writers. Atwell developed key systems in how to structure her room with adequate reading and writing resources.
Atwell likes to give 100% individual attention to each student. She makes them feel extra special and she instills in each student that they can become good to great writers. The expectations that she sets up for her students are extremely high and she provides the key tools and resources for students to succeed. She uses an overhead projector to show students writing activities and requires students to have writing pencils/pens and writing notepads. She allows students to brainstorm and freewrite. The first few weeks she spends getting to know the personalities, likes and dislikes of each student.
One of the most successful aspects of Atwell’s teaching strategies is that she is extremely organized.
Atwell developed a system that she has everything she needs in her classroom – such as paper supplies, pens, pencils, markers, technology. But it’s really her passion, compassion, and enthusiasm in teaching English that is contagious. She adores the written word and has a true passion for teaching. She goes out of her way to allow students to read, write, and have amazing discussions in class that are related to what they have read or written. She allows students to become free thinkers and to believe that they can become great readers and writers.
The writing workshops are wonderful – instead of just creating “lesson plans,” Atwell has developed a detailed system of teaching that includes hands on activities that the students themselves implement. Each day was exciting for her students. In the videos that showcase Atwell’s teaching in action, it is evident that her students wanted to be in her class reading and learning. They were extremely engaged and committed. She has been able to take out the boring aspects of reading and writing. She has been able to describe and include amazing advice on how to become an effective English teacher.
As a guest author/speaker – I have been to classrooms where no paper, dry eraser markers, nor books exist. I have asked the students ‘how does your teacher teach?’ and students respond “they just talk, on and on, and lecture non-stop” No wonder the students fall asleep and tune out. They hate going to school or to boring classes. Atwell has been able to go beyond lecturing. She knows that young people lose attention span within the first five minutes unless the teacher develops activities that students will enjoy.
Atwell discovered– and is now sharing with the world– key advice that can be implemented in the classroom. New teachers feel overwhelmed and many quit within the first or second year of teaching in tough public and charter schools. Atwell provides not just hope, but actual tools and resources that can be used to become an effective teacher. I enjoyed reading her book. I tend to find some textbooks that are used in public schools rather boring, not culturally relevant, and it makes sense that students also find them extremely boring.
Atwell’s advice of allowing students to select the books that students want to read is revolutionary and radical. Atwell’s book is useful at all levels of k-12 education. I admire that she taught middle school, for many decades, since it can be really tough to get middle school students to want to read and write, but they still have enthusiasm and motivation to learn.
The tough level is high school since students become extremely apathetic, especially 12th graders who just want to graduate from high school and are really tired of hearing teachers lecture.
New teachers can definitely implement the strategies and advice given by Mrs. Atwell. I truly believe that a book can change a life. Imagine if book choice was implemented in low income, struggling public and charter schools? Let us just hope that new teachers will allow students to select or choose books that they would want to read. Book choice can definitely help to create lifelong readers and writers!
Randy Jurado Ertll
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