Today, I began my journey in the text, In The Middle: New Understandings About Writing, Reading, and Learning by Nancie Atwell. I have to say I’ve found a kindred spirit and mentor from this book. Atwell’s discoveries about her students captivate me, and remind so much of mine own. Also, she discusses how her experiences as a mother helped her to be a better teacher. I know that is true for me. My goal is to work and finish this book before July, because I want to start focusing heavily on my unit planning at that time.
Items of interest that I’ve learned so far–
1. Belief in a student centered classroom– Yes! Middle grades students need to feel valued. Atwell states that she does much more listening than telling in her classroom. The students write, write, write, while she listens, listens, listens.
2. Offer brief mini-lessons- Atwell’s lessons are no longer than 7-10 minutes. She admitted that some lessons go as long as thirty but that might also include some discussion. Many times I begin with the students reading individually an article or chapter. I have them take notes (annotate) while they read, so I can circle around and see how they are progressing. I set a timer and give them a goal for how many notes that I want down on their paper. I check their notes as I circle the room. Then we discuss and the mini-lesson takes place. Following they usually write in response to the readings and discussion.
3. Serve as a model of a writer at work- Teachers of writing need to be writers themselves. I believe in this totally. How can we get kids to follow us if we are not mastering and loving the content ourselves? Teaching from my blog serves as a powerful motivator for my students. They see my planning, my writing, and it creates authenticity. That authenticity helps to develop trust. Atwell writes herself as often as possible and shows her students how writing is relatable to real life by writing a poem to her daughter, writing a letter to the local government, or sharing a short story she wrote about her childhood.
4. Develop relationship with students- Allow your students to have a voice. Ask them what they want to get out of the class. I am a big believer in this, especially in middle grades. This past year I created a classroom contract with each one of my classes. I asked them, “What do you expect from your fellow students?” “What do you expect from me as your teacher?” We brainstormed, narrowed the selection down, voted, and made a final copy. I created a big poster of each contract, had the students sign it, and hung each one on the wall. It was interesting what the students said. One student caught my attention. When I asked what they wanted from me, she retorted sassily, “I want you to teach!” She meant it. She wanted to learn. Another young man said he wanted more opportunities to use technology. I took his advice to heart and we began having weekly trips to the computer lab to blog our writings. Students know what they want. Let’s give them a voice in the classroom.
5. Teachers as coaches– Atwell says, “Teachers, get out of the way.” I say, “Amen”. As a student I got very impatient with teachers who just liked to hear themselves talk–talk–talk. I like the idea of the flipped classroom. I want them to come in prepared, ready for discussion, and get to work asap. The more they produce, the more that they learn. The teacher can serve more as a coach or mediator guiding the students in the right direction depending on their individual need.
Video of Nancie Atwell at work with her students.