Nancie Atwell and Real Learning

If you’ve read my article on the Teachers section, you know I think a good portion of what we do in our public schools is a waste of time because it’s not driven by any natural motivation. The result is that  students are bored more than they need to be. They develop a distaste for many subjects that could provide them great joy. Finally, when they do learn, it’s for a test, not life. And so when the test is over the promptly forget what they’ve learned. 

This is not to say that I’m against testing or teaching to a test. Far from it. A good test demonstrates that you’ve learned what you’re supposed to have learned. A good test focuses on the main things you want to learn. Good tests (and there are many types of tests) are critical.  The problem is the objectives the tests are built on. If the objectives are idiotic then teaching to the test becomes idiotic.

Now Nellie just got a job (we’re so happy!) teaching 7th and 8th grade English. For some of you that will elicit groans. The memories of supreme boredom produced by endless grammar lessons and assigned readings with worksheets are still that strong. And Nellie and I had the same feelings. If her job was to teach grammar et al for nine months, she was going to shrivel and die.

Because grammar is bad? No, for heaven’s sake. Because grammar isn’t the point. Nor are assigned readings. Or iambic pentameter, rising action, theme, character, plot, induction, deduction, the six traits and all the rest of the usual suspects. The point is to enjoy writing and reading for the things writing and reading do.

So we’ve been working and disussin how she might still meet all the state requirements yet teach the practical joy. Becasue if she teaches the joy, then the students will become better readers and writers than they ever could be otherwise. Which means they’ll be able to do and enjoy the things that can be enjoyed and done when you know how to write and read.  Case in point: our girls. Nellie’s done such a good job teaching the joy of reading that we have to ground them from books every once in a while.

So anyway, I came up with some ideas, a first draft of a curriculum. Of course, starting from scratch is a huge project. There were issues with it. More importantly, would it work? You don’t want to risk your first year on the job. Luckily, Nellie is smarter than I am and found someone who already discovered this wheel. Nellie handed me Nancie Atwell’s In the Middle.

I began to read, and I didn’t stop until almost 1 AM. Everything I’ve learned about teaching in the last 20 years, everything I’ve learned about learning how to write in the last 20 years–it’s all there. The key principles are all there. And the implementation of those principles is simple and proven (they actually test results).

What are the principles? What is the program?

Read the book. Heck, just read the first chapter.

I cannot tell you how excited I am for Nellie. We ordered these books and can’t wait to devour them.

  • In the Middle: New Understanding About Writing, Reading, and Learning
  • The Reading Zone: How to Help Kids Become Skilled, Passionate, Habitual, Critical Readers
  • Lessons That Change Writers
  • Naming the World: A Year of Poems and Lessons
  • Side by Side: Essays on Teaching to Learn

Nellie is also going to apply for a four-day intership at the Center for Teaching and Learning in Edgecomb, Maine. I hope she gets in. She’s also going to do a week-long writer’s workshop at BYU.

Stay tuned. I’m going to twist her arm and see if she won’t blog about her experience this first year.

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2 Responses to Nancie Atwell and Real Learning

  1. martellid says:

    I have taught 8th grade for 10 years. Each year I kept thinking that I am missing something big with my students. I knew that I wanted them to love my class – but did not actually see it. Then I read the Nancie Atwell books….Especially In the Middle and The Reading Zone. It changed who I am as a teacher. It provided the answer to my “missing something big”. Now my students love my class – but more importantly they love to read and found passion in their writing. Thank you Nancie!

  2. John Brown says:

    So where do you teach Martellid?