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The Writing Conference in Nancie Atwell’s Room (Part 2)

in the middleBy Donald LaBranche

This is a continuation of last week’s review of the two editions of Nancie Atwell’s In the Middle. Click here to read Part 1.

  • In the ’87 edition of In the Middle Atwell explains that there are multiple types of conferences for different purposes. She identified several, but for brevity’s sake, I’ll focus on two of these: the Status of the Class Conference, and the Conference for Content.

  • Status of the Class Conference. Because she was giving up control of what the students would be writing on any given day, Atwell realized that some system of accountability was necessary. Students still had to produce regular, quality work in writing workshop just as they would in Math class. So right from the second day of school, she started each workshop with a single question asked of each writer in the class: “What are you working on and where are you in your piece?” She designed a chart on which she could record each child’s answer. (One chart with five columns to cover a week.) In order to increase efficiency, the whole process took no more than three minutes. Atwell taught her students a shorthand of writing terms, “First Draft of…” “Second Draft of…” “Editing conference needed for…” etc. (This drive for efficiency is a common element in all of Atwell’s work, there is no time to waste in a writing classroom.) She also observed that as her students listened to this SOC conference, they had their own ideas about genre or topic fertilized by their peers.
  • Conference on Content. This is the kind of conference that might test the resolve of any teacher. Atwell sits with a student who is involved with a piece of writing, and waits. The student explains in her own language what she’s working on, and where she needs some response. (Atwell usually illustrates these conferences in story form. Here’s what the student said to me, here’s what I asked her, here’s what we did from there, etc.) It is worth saying here that there is no program to fall back on in this kind of encounter with a student. Nothing the teacher made up in August and nothing the school district bought from a publisher. This is a teacher of writing alone with a child who is trying to put words on the page.
    • By the time the first edition of In the Middle was published, Atwell had accumulated what she called “Guidelines for Teachers” and “Questions that can help” which represented her distilled thinking from several years of doing these conferences. I remember that when I first read the ’87 edition, I took these lists as gospel, which was a mistake because the writers in front of me had different skills and needs. It was the work that led to the lists that was more important.
  • By 1998, Atwell was still doing the same basic set of writing conferences she had started with, although her thinking about them had “evolved”. When she began in the early 80’s there was a reluctance for a teacher to take over ownership of a paper from the student, to the point that she was reluctant to even take a paper in her own hands. The change came from reading Jerome Bruner’s work on the “handover”. Bruner saw this as “when an adult intervenes (in a learning experience) and gradually provides less assistance to a learner.” Atwell saw that she was doing this as she taught her toddler to tie her own shoes, but she wasn’t doing it with her students. This led to a change in the nature of the Content Conference in which she became the adult in the room; the “literate, experienced, knowledgeable, and intuitive teacher her students need to grow into writers and readers.” So now Atwell took on the role of saying to her students, “I think you could try it this way” or “When I wrote a short story last week, I did this. Maybe it would work for you. Let me know what you find.”
  • By ’98 there was also growth in Atwell’s understanding of all the variables at play in the questions she asked and the suggestions she gave in her classroom. “The longer I write and confer with young writers, the deeper the pool of experience from which I can draw potential options for my kids.” As the years have gone on, Nanci Atwell has gotten better at this. She’s reading widely and writing frequently, she’s thinking about her students as writers, she’s studying learning theory, she’s informing and learning from her colleagues. One of the remarkable things I saw when I was in her classroom in ’02, was how much confidence her students had in her ability to move their writing to a higher plane. They would try just about anything in their work because they thought she was that good.


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.

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