A special Q&A with Nancie Atwell

As part of our World Teacher's Day celebrations here in Australia, we catch up with Nancie Atwell , the inaugural winner of the Global Teacher Prize. The US educator tells Teacher Editor Jo Earp about the school she founded in rural Maine, student choice and sharing successful approaches with teachers from around the world.

For readers who aren't aware of the work that you and your students do, can you give us a bit of an overview of the school and the approach you use?

‘I founded the Center for Teaching and Learning in 1990. My daughter had been born and so I had resigned from my teaching position but, to make an income, was doing consulting work.

‘I began to understand the limits of the “talking head” model of professional development and began to imagine a way that I could teach kids and teachers at the same time, because the other thing that happened was I was just desperately missing working with students.

'So, I took the royalties from the first edition of my book, In the Middle, and I cashed in my teacher retirement and built this small school in a small town - Edgecomb, in rural Maine, which is near where I live. By 1994 we were a K-8 school and at that juncture I stepped in as the 7th and 8th Grade English teacher ... because my special species of student is this young adolescent, so I was delighted as the kids grew up at the school to step in again and be their teacher.

'The point of the school is to teach children and teachers at the same time. And the heart of the school is student choice [in every subject area]. The idea that kids will choose what they read, will choose the ideas they develop as writers ... will choose the topics they decide to research, has made the school, I think, unusual and a model for other teachers. Because, the result of the choice is engagement. The kids are very invested in what they're doing and, because they're so engaged, they work really hard and they're incredibly productive and then, eventually, incredibly skilled.

'So for example my students, the oldest ones (aged 11 to 14), read an average of 40 books a year and produce an average of between 20 and 25 pieces of writing - really good, polished, publishable pieces of writing, across the school year. And both in writing and reading, many genres are represented. So it's a really rich, sort of curated approach to giving kids choice.'

The other aspect is sharing the success with other teachers. It's a demonstration school, isn't it?

'We've been dedicated to working with other teachers. Right from the first year, groups of teachers started coming. They don't come for a day Jo, they come for a week. If they come for a day they read the bulletin boards and they go home, if they come for a week they really can immerse themselves in the routines of the school.

'It's an atypical structure for US schools, but it's deeply structured and so living in the school for a week allows teachers to incorporate its rhythms and then begin to anticipate what's going to happen.

‘For example … every one of our workshop-style classes [will] begin with a meeting of the kids and the teacher to talk about a feature of mathematics or writing or reading ... then kids will go off to do independent work and the teacher will circulate among them and help them with their individual projects. Last week we had teachers from Brazil and then five or six US states who were following teachers around for the week, observing what they were doing and then debriefing with the teachers afterwards. … Not only can they see what happens, but they can understand why it happens that way.

'In addition to that intern program, we write about our work. So, I've written now three editions of my book In the Middle. ... But my colleagues have also written about teaching reading at the Kindergarten level using poetry, teaching fiction writing in First Grade, approaches to teaching mathematics in the middle grades.

'So, there's a real emphasis for us on experimenting thoughtfully, capturing our observations of kids and their experiences and then publishing those - acting as teacher researchers and having permission, not only permission but encouragement, to do that, that it's part of the mission of the school. I think, at this point, we've published 13 books about the work that we're doing with kids and they've been really well received.'

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Image: Varkey Foundation.

For teachers looking at taking this path ... is there anything you'd recommend as a small start?

'I wouldn't encourage teachers to take a small step start because if they don't have a real sense of what it could look like or how it would function I think it would be a disaster. Frankly, if you just said to kids "You're going to choose your own book this year” or "You're going to write about what you want to write about” and you don't know what to do next, it's really problematic.

'I think an individual teacher of nine-year-olds and up could read In the Middle, which honestly I've written as a set of blueprints, with my teaching story at the heart of it, but at the same time really specific suggestions for how to structure one's own classroom as a place where kids function as authentic writers and readers.

'[It's for teachers] who want to see what it looks like when kids stop reading what the teacher tells them they have to, or who stop writing as an exercise and really figure out what it is they care about as individuals enough to write about in poems, memoirs, reviews, essays, profiles, parodies ... across many genres.

'I wrote it because I had so many questions from teachers. I want other teachers' students to be able to experience what my students have. I'm not a natural writer or somebody who really even enjoys it that much, but I felt a kind of obligation because the work that my students do - both as writers and readers of literature - I think it's extraordinary. And I also think it sets them up for a lifetime of really purposeful, satisfying literacy.'

In terms of the Global Teacher Prize, you're six months into your 'reign' as it were. What has the experience been like so far?

'Just personally, it was astonishing and humbling but then really the privilege and adventure of my career. I was in New York last week and, for the second time, met President Bill Clinton and was introduced at a speech I gave at his Clinton Global Initiative by Fareed Zakaria, an essayist whose work I really enjoy.

'And I've just come home from Massachusetts, where I spoke at MIT, which is one of the biggest technological brain trusts in the world. I certainly was out of milieu, but still had things to say and to remind people about - about what teachers want to do, and need to do, and what kids want to do, and need to do, in order for both groups to be engaged and effective.

'So, there've been lovely moments like that. But there've also been intensely rewarding conversations with teachers who have said "Because you've gained credit, acknowledgement, for doing this work, it's given me permission in my school district to pilot this kind of work myself".

‘And that's been the best response of all ... that it's made other teachers have an easier time getting permission to do some authentic kinds of work in writing and reading with their own kids.

'And, honestly, just from a personal level, I'll think that things have kind of settled down [with the Global Teacher Prize] and that the big hubbub is over, and then it'll ramp up again.'

Nancie Atwell donated her US$1 million prize money from the Global Teacher Award to the Center for Teaching and Learning, to fund tuition assistance, buy further books, and renovate the school grounds. Her book In The Middle is published by Heinemann.

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