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The Writing Conference in Nancie Atwell’s Room (Part 3)

By Donald LaBranche

This post is the third in a series of reviews of In The Middle, by Nanci Atwell, Third Edition, 2015. Click here to see the previous reviews.

inthemiddleHere’s the first verse from Robert Bly’s poem “Things to Think”

Think in ways you’ve never thought before
If the phone rings, think of it as carrying a message
Larger than anything you’ve ever heard,
Vaster than a hundred lines of Yeats.

When the best teacher in the world is a middle school English teacher, folks who do the same thing for a living might want to sit up and pay attention. When she has written book after book for decades telling us how to avoid becoming mere “technicians” and hold true to what is best in the teaching profession we might ask, “Have I heard what Nanci Atwell has to say?” and if the answer is no, then ask, “Why not?”

In the first edition of In the Middle, Atwell told the story of how the faculty of her K-8 public school in Boothbay Harbor, Maine became dissatisfied with their English / Language Arts program and so formed their own two year Writing Project to read, talk, write and study with each other to come up with a plan based on the Writing Workshop model. In the second edition, she showed how those ideas led to the founding of The Center for Teaching and Learning, a K-8 demonstration school in coastal Maine, that flourished and became a magnet for teachers all over the country who came to see first-hand how Atwell and her colleagues had put this together and were getting remarkable work out of regular kids.  I had the chance to spend a week at CTL in 2002 and count that experience as one of the high points of my career as a teacher. (My Writing Institute in ’93 and subsequent PAWLP involvement being the other.)

So this year, after 40 years in the business, Atwell has retired from active teaching at CTL. She has also published a Third Edition of In the Middle, which will serve as a capstone to her marvelous career. But more importantly, I think it could be THE mentor text for any English / Language Arts teacher who wants to think in ways you’ve never thought before.

Some highlights:

    • There is primary value given to student choice in what they write about (within a curriculum that requires certain genres to be completed)
    • There are “regular, frequent chunks of time that (students) can count on, anticipate, and plan for” set aside for writing and reading.
    • There is the belief that student work should mirror what literate adults do in the world. Her students write poems and stories that go into anthologies. Their nonfiction goes into blogs and newspapers and journals. They win prizes.
    • At the center of all of this is Atwell herself, and her drive to improve herself as a resource in the classroom. For example when she sets out to teach free verse poetry, she reads “tons of free verse and writes some of (her own)”. She reads poets on poetry and identifies the conventions that her students need to know. In her units on short fiction, the essay, the memoir, etc. she has done similar work to understand each form from the inside out so she can have meaningful conversations / conferences with her student writers.
    • The chapters on Atwell’s Reading program are worth special mention. Her students have choice in what they read. They read dozens of books of all kinds during the year. She monitors their progress with daily “quick check ins” which she keeps track of carefully. Every three weeks each student is responsible for writing a three page “letter-essay” on a book that they have completed. There’s a series of mini-lessons that she teaches on what is expected from these documents and, based on the samples she’s included, her students are adept at doing them.

Of course it must be said that few teachers have the luxury of working in an independent school that they themselves founded. Even back in the “good old days” teachers didn’t have this much freedom to experiment, to risk, to stick doggedly to a good idea until it worked. Teachers today certainly don’t have it. But what we have (and certainly must cling to) is the idea that good writing and effective reading are skills that need constant practice under the eye of a “joyfully literate adult” to grow. When I came back to my fifth graders after that week at CTL I had my enthusiasm, I had  the great luck of working for a principal who had read Atwell in grad school, and I had the will to shoe-horn Atwell’s ideas and practices—vaster than a hundred lines of Yeats— into my Language Arts classroom.

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.

2 Comments Post a comment
  1. Well put, Don! The longer I am immersed in the evidence and the research the stronger my belief–we chose the conditions of our classroom more than we like to admit or realize. All of the limitations, standards, testing can be accomplished within the models presented by Atwell, Graves, Murray…et al.

    You have been exposed to truth longer than I have, but I share your passion. Keep beating the drum, Don. Everyday more of us come to understand that we actually have the control and power we seek.


    June 1, 2015
  2. kathy barham #

    I love the way you link Atwell, Bly, Yeats, and your own pedagogy as poet and teacher!


    May 28, 2015

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