A Glimpse Into the Set Up of Atwell’s Writing Workshop

I continue to forge ahead through Nancie Atwell’s In The Middle. I took a couple of days away from from it, mostly because although I love the book, it overwhelms me a bit. Almost like when I read Martha Stewart’s Housekeeping Handbook. Martha is the queen of the home, but as one bookstore clerk laughingly joked to me one day, “Martha has a lot to say.” Yes, so can also be said for Nancie Atwell. Therefore, I must do a little chunking of my own and break this text down a bit so I find the right things to use for my classroom.

Classroom set up:

“Getting the room ready for writing and reading means rethinking its physical arrangement. When students walk through the door the first day, I want them to enter a working environment– to take on the serious, productive affect of writers and readers in a workshop.

No teacher’s desk— In the place of her desk she has a small stool, an easel, and she either supplies a rug, pillows, or whistle-shaped cushions for the students when they gather in a circle for read-alouds or mini-lessons.

Writing Workshop:

Supplies– Atwell fills two low bookcases with pencils, lined paper, ballpoint pens, scissors, transparent tape for cut and revise lessons, a stapler, staples, paper clips, correction fluid. As well as Post-it notes, stationary, envelopes, rulers, colored pencils, markers, three-holed punch, glue sticks, index cards of different sizes, and a crate of clipboards in case the class decides to write outside.

Reference center— college dictionaries, copies of The New American Roget’s College Thesaurus, copies of Writers INC, copy of The Student’s Guide for Writing College Papers, Encyclopedias, Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations, The Scholastic Rhyming Dictionary, Write to Learn, On Writing Well, An Introduction to Poetry, and Writing Poems.

  • The reference center also includes writing samples created by the teacher, former students, or other professionals organized by genre in hanging file folders in a crate. Students can pull them out and read them over when they are having trouble.
  • Genres for the reference center include: book reviews, short stories, memoirs, historical fiction, feature articles, interviews, advertising, songs, poetry, informational writing, profiles, history, and much more.

Author information: Hanging folders with information pertaining to different authors. The folders include interviews, promotional materials, reviews, articles from several publications such as Voices From the Middle, The NewYorker, New York Times Book Review. Atwell refers kids to this resource to learn how their favorite authors create, especially fiction, and she uses it for mini lessons about craft and genre.

Publication center: Instructs students on how to get their writing published. Atwell displays a small bulletin board with information regarding upcoming contests and options for professional publication. She has a file of magazines and publications that publish middle school writing. She displays writing of former students that has been published. Copies of Acorns’ (their own school’s literary magazine), Atwell expects all of her students to attempt professional publication by the end of the school year. She states that most of her students are published before leaving middle school.

Conference Areas: She has two areas within the classroom set up for students to go to if they are ready to evaluate each other’s papers. They must whisper quietly, and the designated areas help to keep the writing going within the classroom. Every student has a peer conference form that they use to assess their writing.

Students’ desks: Atwell keeps her students at separate desks or small tables to write. She prefers a quiet space for students to write. Talking is not allowed unless they are conferencing at a specific area.

The Reading Workshop:

Atwell has an extensive classroom library. She purchases all paperbacks and buys most of her books at yard sales. She shelves them all alphabetically by authors’ last names; each is marked by a red round sticker on the spine and her initials inside the cover. Atwell separates the books by genre. Atwell has a wooden stand that allows her to introduce or display a new title that was recently added to the collection.

Each student keeps a written record of books that they have completed or abandoned with the date and scale the book from one to ten. The student review the list in June and create a best books inventory, which Atwell uses as her source for future book buying.

Note: Atwell has no check out system. She keeps track through the written record of books that they students use (reading log), and assesses them through student conferences.

The way in which Atwell sets up her classroom and conducts her mini-lessons is interesting to me. Atwell will often bring her students around her. She sits on a footstool with her easel, while the students make notes in the writer’s notebook. She confers with them for 10 minutes or so, and then they head back to their desks for reading and/or writing.

I really like this idea, because it breaks things up a bit. 90 minutes classes can be very hard for 12 year olds to sit through. They get fidgety after 50 minutes or so. This could be a way for us to have some structured movement within the classroom. Personally, I don’t use my teacher desk, and I agree with Atwell that teachers aren’t meant to sit behind them. As soon as a teacher sits behind that desk, class is over– I can’t remember where I read that, but I do agree with it.

So– this is how Atwell sets up her workshop–a bit overwhelming, but at the same time totally cool. I love the constructivist approach. It is about creating and less about listening. I am still committed to my teaching units, but I think I could incorporate some of her ideas here on the set up of my class.

Anyway– hope this might give other ELA teachers some ideas for their classroom.

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