on July 26, 2003
I bought two copies of this book from Amazon, for myself and my class aide, on the strength of the other teachers' recommendations here. The book is as good as the most enthusiastic reviewers say it is, but it is seriously flawed, and to some degree self-contradictory, because it talks too much. As good as are the author's approaches, she doesn't really need 484 pages, plus numerous appendices, to get the message across. In fact, she buries the message in verbosity.
Note that other reviewers found the book easy to read. But if you are already convinced that you want to refresh your approach to teaching reading and writing, you may grow impatient with the overabundance of anecdotes, homilies and elaboration.
Teachers know there is no itemized recipe for teaching, but a book on teaching writing could at least demonstrate the virtue of being concise. Mrs. Atwell should read her own quotes and not "cloud the issues with jargon in place of simple, direct prose...." (p. 16). (This is one of numerous quotes of Donald Graves, who returns the favor by endorsing her book in an exemplary brief foreword).
As one who likes quoting great writings in every chapter, the author could have used and applied the Hellenistic Demos: "I will be moderate in all I attempt and do Nothing to Excess."
Summary: it's just too much of a good thing. I'm going to spring for the workbook (Lessons that Change Writers) and generate even more royalties for the author, in the hopes it is more to the point.
on February 19, 2013
This book is about starting a new way of life in the classroom, where all work is based on individualized reading lists determined by each student, and written language is placed at the center of middle schoolers' emotional, social, and intellectual worlds. From the vast examples of teaching moments pulled from her own classroom, it is clear that Nancie Atwell is a learned, gifted teacher who knows how to strike the balance between explicit, teacher-directed instruction and facilitation of meaningful, student-centered learning. It is the marriage of these two practices that lies at the heart of her approach to teaching, and which inspires her to speak to her students as peer to peer in an adult voice, from a vantage point full of wisdom. While the differentiated instruction concepts that she promotes (although she never mentions DI outright because her writing is pre-DI) are so straightforward and sensible, implementing her approach will require of any teacher a huge amount of organization, energy, and time-management.
Unlike in the traditional classroom, students select their own books to read, and they choose their own personally meaningful topics about which to write. Everything they study will be based on these. Studies have shown that student choice increases fluency, reading rate, and comprehension, although common sense might tell us the same. Equally important, her classroom structure provides continuous opportunities for social interaction. The classroom routine also includes daily written dialogue between teacher and student in journals. Ms. Atwell highlights the details of her routine, which is now a commonplace practice in many classrooms, by providing a list of guidelines for both the student and the teacher's response that maximize the journal's usefulness and purpose. Her very practical list of expectations for writing and reading come from a loving and rigorous perspective. The scope of her writing curriculum is broad and deep. Her goal is to help her students discover a variety of purposes, genres, techniques, ideas, and the way things are done in the grown-up world. This last point I believe is crucial, and one that I have often ignored in my own teaching. It is easy when asked, "Why do we have to learn this?" to say, "Because in the long run..." or "Because when you get to high school...." I love Ms. Atwell's attitude that middle-schoolers must learn to follow the conventions of writing now so that their writing will be taken seriously by others, not in the future, but right now. She uses this rationale with her students, for example, to explain the need for correct spelling, grammar, and syntax. As an example of authentic purpose, she teaches the class in detail how to write a note of condolence when the situation arises for one of her students. She also demystifies the genre of poetry, and teaches both how to read poetry, and when and how to write poetry as an emotional outlet.
Authenticity takes a key position in her scheme. Everything that a student discusses and writes must come from truth, honesty and meaningfulness, or the student will lack purpose. Ms. Atwell models these characteristics in her own writing and reading selections by using examples from significant events of her own personal life. It is easy to see that her openness might encourage her students to take greater emotional risks.
Ms. Atwell's explicit instruction assumes the form of minilessons, which fall into four categories: procedural, literary craft issues, conventions of written language to be taken seriously, and reading strategies. She will insert a minilesson into the day's activities when the class as a whole needs that instruction at that moment. The minilesson helps to focus the process of writing or reading into small, manageable tasks. It could be something as small as capitalization in titles, or exposing students to a genre that they haven't yet considered, or explaining why titles are created at the end of the writing process. As most good teacher's do, Ms. Atwell often demonstrates her metacognitive processes ("taking off the top of her head", as she calls it) as she teaches these minilessons. Although the idea of student-centered learning might seem to run contrary to "teaching to the test", she includes cloze games and an analysis of the four types of questions asked on standardized tests to help students navigate their way through tests. All of the many concrete examples of minilessons sprinkled throughout the book provide a detailed look at what this explicit instruction in any classroom might actually look like.
After finishing this book, I asked myself whether I could implement a program like hers. Ms. Atwell sees her students for ninety minutes daily, which is quite a luxury. For those teachers who see their students for forty-five minutes each day, the central approach to reading and writing could be implemented, albeit on a less comprehensive scale. Most of us would have to choose how to scale back on breadth and depth. The author herself recommends a minimum of three class periods per week to become a "habitual writer." There are, however, certainly plenty of useful teaching examples to follow that do not require adaptation of the entire program. For example, her students review weekly in pairs their independent word studies. They say the words to each other, visualize the word, study the word shape, and touch each letter with a pencil as they proofread their words. This detailed approach to word study could work in any classroom. An entire unit, such as writing memoir (which she carefully distinguishes from autobiography as a literary art), could also stand on its own in any classroom. As with so much of her instruction, she uses very personal, and in certain cases heart wrenching, examples. Some of Ms. Atwell's concepts might seem mainstream now, but in 1998 when she published her second edition, I would imagine an entirely student-centered reading and writing curriculum might have contradicted many school philosophies.
This book will benefit those who need her sweeping anecdotes and impassioned convictions to become inspired to implement the same kind of classroom that Ms. Atwell has created. It will also benefit the teacher who already sees the big picture but needs the nuts and bolts to get started. Her lists are numerous, extensive, and invaluable. The eighteen fantastic appendices alone make the book worth purchasing. They include such forms for use in the classroom as reading and writing surveys, student writing record (blank and filled in), student reading record (blank and filled in), personal spelling list (blank and filled in), weekly word study (blank and filled in), a very specific peer writing conference record, an editing checksheet that addresses grammatical, syntactic, and spelling errors, a weekly homework assignment sheet, and a form for final self-evaluation of writing and reading. The forms are simple, and when viewed altogether, helped me to understand how and why she organizes a classroom and its routines as she has. Ms. Atwell also includes in the appendices extensive lists of her favorite adolescent literature and collections of poetry (which of course are only as current as 1998), and a wonderful list of wall quotes for reading and writing workshops, which would work in any classroom. My only small criticism is that she could have condensed her philosophy of teaching and revisions in the second edition into fewer pages, but because she is a fluid and engaging writer, the reading went quickly.
Upon reflection, Ms. Atwell's approach to teaching harkens back to the wonderful old tradition of teacher and apprentice, where students learn and practice a trade that is embedded with practical purpose. To this end she and her students focus on getting their works published through such sources as newspapers, magazines, competitions or even the school photocopier. I can only imagine how many students have become life-long readers and writers as a result of her instructional and inspirational model.