“Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.” William Butler Yeats
Unless you’re a language arts geek like me, I’m guessing you might not know who Nancie Atwell is. This week, I was thrilled to read that Nancie won a one million dollars as the recipient of the first Global Teaching Prize awarded by the Varkey Foundation, an award called the Nobel Prize of Teaching.
So, just who is she? Quite simply, Nancie Atwell is a teacher, and she’s been a mentor-from-afar for decades. Back in ’87, I devoured Nancie’s In the Middle, a book that described just how she established a reading and writing workshop, based on best practices, in her classroom. Later, with the proceeds from her book, she founded the Center for Learning and Teaching, a demonstration school in Edgecomb, Maine, that features small class sizes and a research-based literacy curriculum. Like many teachers nationwide, I’ve found inspiration and practical advice in all of her books. “What would Nancie do?” guided my own teaching, and though I’ve never met her, I posted the news of her award on Facebook the other day as if she were an old friend. My friend Margie commented, “No person influenced me more in my professional life. I read her book and knew what to do.” I couldn’t have said it any better.
Her classroom was my ideal. Choice is the essential ingredient, and the eighth graders read and write what they’ve chosen. In her books, she shows exactly how this happens, how she creates a rich environment where kids are surrounded by good literature and where literary discourse takes center stage. As she said in a recent interview, “There is not an exercise in sight.” Her students are given the time and space to develop as authentic readers and writers, but it’s not a place where anything goes. Nancie has high expectations for herself and her students as well, and, since students’ reading and writing is purposeful, they succeed.
I was never Nancie, not by a long shot, but every August, I reread In the Middle, just to fire me up for the coming school year. When she revised it, I bought the new edition and tweaked what I was doing. Her book Lessons That Change Writers was a godsend to our writing workshops. Of course, Nancie wasn’t the only language arts guru my colleagues and I paid attention to. But with Nancie’s help and best practices research as our guide, we plugged away year after year.
We read aloud to our eighth graders. Their collective groan when I’d close the book and say, “That’s where we’ll start up again tomorrow” was music. Our students read about twenty-five books a year with sustained silent reading a daily ritual. I’d often peek up from my own book and smile at the sight of twenty-five or so teenagers, some hunched over at their desks, some sprawled on bean bag chairs, some plopped into an old loveseat in the back of my room – every one of them with their noses in books they’d chosen to read. We teachers read young adult books ourselves and we built classroom libraries with good stuff that kids wanted to read. They read Gary Paulsen, Neal Shusterman, Sarah Dessen, Laurie Halse Anderson, and a raft of other authors, and hand-sold them to their friends. When I book-talked a new set of paperbacks I’d acquired, I had to get out of the way of excited fourteen-year-olds scrambling to grab the ones that’d caught their attention.
Our students read, then wrote memoirs, persuasive essays, research reports, public service announcements, letters to authors, poetry, short fiction, compare/ contrast literary analyses. They revised their work.They edited, and most of the time, they spelled “a lot” as two words, but not always. For the feature article unit, a boy interviewed his grandfather. When the author read his final piece at a family dinner, everyone at the table, including Grandpa, was in tears. Another student, a girl named Jasmin, thanked me for helping her write something that became a “family treasure.” I’ve never had a higher compliment.
It’s tempting to wax nostalgic about my teaching career, to gloss over my inconsistencies, my failures, my mistakes. Everything that happened in my classroom was not wonderful. Some of it was terrible. I was certainly no Nancie Atwell. At a National Council of Teachers of English convention, my colleagues and I made sure we were at the front of the line for her standing-room-only session. When she talked about her classroom in her school, a place where she didn’t have the 130 eighth graders we saw in a day, my friend Sue and I were tickled to see that her classroom wasn’t so different from ours. We, too, had writing workshop and reading workshop. We, too, read aloud. Our kids met in literature circles to talk about what they were reading.
That was about a decade ago. It was the Camelot of my career.
It’s not like that anymore.
As I neared retirement, teachers were increasingly being shut out of curricular decisions. State testing, once a weeklong disruption, was expanding, and there were monthly tests to test what would be on the state test. Since then, the calls for “reform”, “accountability”, and “rigor” have become louder, more strident, and more ridiculous.
When I left my own classroom, I spent several years supervising student teachers, and I’ve been in dozens of classrooms, kindergarten through high school. It’s not like it was. No matter how developmentally inappropriate, piles of tests and measures are foisted on kids. Teachers struggle to nurture while marching through the curriculum in lockstep. If the kids are struggling, well, that district assessment will happen on schedule anyway, ready or not. An enrichment project? A special unit on a topic of interest? Reading just for fun? No time.
When CNN interviewed Nancie Atwell, she was asked what advice she’d give to young people considering entering the teaching profession. She answered that she’d advise against going into the public school teaching, saying that teachers are constrained by the Common Core and the emphasis on testing. This doesn’t allow for reflective practice and requires teachers to be technicians who can’t teach in the best way they know.
I loved being a teacher, not a technician, not a data collector, not a test proctor. I will forever be a teacher. Would I steer my grandkids into the profession I love? Probably not, and that breaks my heart.
The Varkey Award honored Nancie for her innovative teaching practices, preparing students to be global citizens, and creating dialogue about the teaching profession. Isn’t it past time for the rest of the teaching profession to be recognized for these qualities as well?
I’ll get off my high horse now, and save my rants for another time. But kudos, Nancie, for all you’ve done to inspire and guide kids and teachers. I owe you big time.