In the Middle: New Understandings About Writing, Reading, and Learning Summary

Nancie Atwell

Extended Summary

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 to think. She goes on to argue against solitary effort. Students, like adults, value their social relationships, and it is natural and beneficial to collaborate with others. Finally, she does not approve of ability groupings, or tracking, and cites research showing that homogeneous groupings do not lead to increased performance. Additionally, the students that are grouped together in the lower level classes tend to be receive teaching strategies that exacerbate student passivity and solitary effort. This method of organization does not recognize the nature of adolescents, and it does not give them control over their learning. Atwell prefers a workshop model of education for the teaching of reading and writing.

At first glance, the workshop model seems like it is less structured than other classroom environments. After all, students are given freedom to write individually rather than in response to the same prompt and they are given the freedom to read novels as individuals rather than as a class. However, Atwell shares a story in which she is surprised when she is visited by one of her idols, Donald Graves, and he tells her that the most impressive thing about her classroom is the level of organization. The workshop model cannot work, he explains, without a significant level of organization and structure.

The organizing and structuring process begins before the school year begins, Atwell explains. She organizes the schedule for the year, keeping in mind that students require...

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