The Writing Conference in Nancie Atwell’s Room (Part 1)
By Donald LaBranche
A summary from two editions of In the Middle
- I see no reason to spend your life writing poems unless your goal is to write great poems. –Donald Hall, “Poetry and Ambition”, 1983
- Here is what I remember: She dismisses her students to go to their seats to write with the benediction “Work hard. Make Literature.” The children—eighteen seventh and eighth graders—move with practiced and confident precision back to their places to pick up with their poems, stories, letters to the local editor, or memoirs about a summer adventure. After a few minutes of waiting for her writers to find their rhythm, the teacher takes up her clipboard and small bench and starts to move around the classroom. It’s March so she doesn’t have to start each conference with an open ended question any more, the conversations between her and her student-writers are on-going and serious. They are built on a foundation of mutual trust and respect, an understanding of the craft of writing, of the needs and desires of each student as a writer in the moment, and a deep understanding of learning theory and adolescent development. She sits down next to a writer and they talk about the work: what stage it’s in, what’s working and what’s not, where it might go from here. Then she moves on to the next conversation.
- That teacher is Nanci Atwell and these students were in her classroom at the Center for Teaching and Learning in Edgecomb, Maine. I was there for a week in 2002, as part of an internship program devised by Atwell and her colleagues to bring teachers from all over the country to observe and learn how CTL operates and how it turns out thinkers, writers and readers of the highest quality, year after year.
- The first edition of In the Middle, Atwell’s record of her early transition into a life of teaching children to read and write from where they are was published in 1987. The second edition came out in 1998, and looked at the transition from teaching in Boothbay Harbor Elementary school, a K-8 public school in Maine, to the opening and flowering of the demonstration school in Edgecomb. Heinemann has recently announced that the third edition of In the Middle will be published this fall. What I would like to do is to go back over the development of Atwell’s thinking about the writing conference during this twenty seven year span of time. I’d like to cover the ’87 and ’98 editions here and then look at the ’14 edition at a date down the road.
- Atwell says that in the beginning, she was a creationist. That is, every school year she created a writing program full of methods, assignments, and the Teacher’s voice. Then she superimposed her program on her students. Then in the late 70’s, she went to the Bread Loaf School of English Writing, a summer retreat in the state of Vermont. She had to write, to revise, to share her work with peers, and think hard and deep about what she was producing. It was the first time she had been faced with being intentionally literate, and it seems, when you read her account of it, that it set her back on her heels. As a teacher, she couldn’t help but compare the writing she was producing out of her own life that summer in Vermont, with the writing her eighth graders were producing in response to her “created” assignments.
- When she went back to Boothbay, Atwell had questions that needed answering so she and seven other K-8 colleagues formed the Boothbay Writing Project as a staff development initiative to find answers. They brought in scholars, writers, and other teachers to read, write and argue together over a two year period hoping to find a way to break the mold and improve on the experience of writing for their students. The result was Boothbay’s version of the Writing Workshop Classroom. The students would have freedom of choice in their writing. They would be taught the craft of writing through mini-lessons, and their teacher would confer with them frequently to keep track of their progress. Atwell had become an “evolutionist”, a teacher who would learn the craft along with her students.
Come back next week for Part 2.
Donald LaBranche (Writing Fellow, ’93) graduated from West Chester State College and Widener University. He taught health, physical education, swimming, third and fifth grade in the Chichester School District. In 2002 he participated in a week long internship at the Center for Teaching and Learning, Nanci Atwell’s demonstration school in Maine. He has taught graduate level courses for PAWLP as well as a class in Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror to fascinating teen writers in the Young Writer’s summer program. He is a poet whose work has appeared in numerous publications.