In In the Middle: New Understandings About Writing, Reading, and Learning, Second Edition, Nancy Atwell explains her workshop approach to teaching reading and writing. Atwell recalls when she first began teaching; she characterizes herself as a “creator,” a teacher who invested time in a heavily scripted curriculum designed to help students become great writers. She admits that when her students did not become great writers, she blamed her students and her colleagues. Atwell explains how she became an “evolutionist,” a teacher who starts every year with her students’ expectations about what to write about and how to write. She is still a “teacher with a capital 'T'” because she will tell students what she knows in order to help them become better writers, and she suggests that teachers use minilessons to share their knowledge. Atwell considers herself a mentor of writing, a mediator of writing strategies, and a model of how writers write.
Atwell also discusses how she learned to teach reading. She introduces Frank Smith’s concept of implicit and explicit “demonstrations,” and explains how many of the implicit and explicit demonstrations about reading that she witnessed as a high school student failed to inspire a love of reading. Further, they did not correspond to what readers do in real life. Atwell suggests that many teachers envision a “good reader” that looks up every unknown word, but points out that few adult readers do this. Instead, real readers talk about literature around a dinner table, and she begins to teach reading with this in mind. Atwell explains that she allows her students to pick their own texts to read, and she engages them in conversation using “dialogue journals.” Atwell observes increases in fluency, comprehension, and reading rate. Over time, she began to engage her students more directly in more analytic conversations about literature and found that they were able to use the reading workshop to achieve this as well. Atwell encourages her students to read young adult fiction, and she has noticed that this love of learning often leads students to discover literature independently.
Atwell takes issue with what she calls the “Middle School Status Quo,” which manifests itself in three ways. She takes issue with the way that classrooms tend to be organized by the teacher, who is often the only active person in the room. Student passivity does not lead students...
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