Wednesday, September 16, 2009


Yesterday, an early morning twitter by Frankie pointed me toward an interview by Nancie Atwell. A couple of weeks ago, the NY Times ran an article featuring Atwell's Readers' Workshop. Evidently, the article has sparked much controversy, and has garnered over four hundred responses. I suspect that many of those comments have to do with whether or not kids should be forced to read the classics, and how much choice kids should have about their reading. Yesterday, Atwell posted her video response on the Heinemann website. It's brilliant, and will take you less than ten minutes- you really, really do need to go check it out. Until then, couple of points I have been thinking about:

• Atwell talks about creating "passionate, skillful, habitual readers." I love her language. That's exactly my goal for readers. Passionate. Skillful. Habitual. Yep!

• Atwell describes the reading workshop as a "deliberate environment." The conditions are thoughtful and carefully created. It's a time when kids are completely engaged and fully focused on their books. Kids work very hard during this time.

• Atwell believes the teacher has a huge and important role in the reading workshop. The teacher is the person who invites, nurtures, and sustains her students love of literature. She is, first and foremost, a reader. She reads tons and tons and tons of books, so that she is always ready to put the right book in the right child's hands. Donalyn Miller describes the teacher as "a book whisperer." That's exactly the person want to be in the lives of my students.

• Atwell talks about the need for frequent and voluminous reading. She cites Malcolm Gladwell, who says people need 10,000 hours of practice to get good at something. Far too often, I think, there is so much going on during the literacy block-- work stations, ELL, interventions. Those are all good and important things, but they are not reading. Many kids don't get the time they need to just read and get better at. Unfortunately, the more time kids need, the less they often get.

• Atwell points out that people who read don't just get smarter about book and words, they get smarter about ideas, history, people, and places. Nancie works in Edgecombe, Maine, a little tiny rural town. Many of her students have the same issues with background knowledge that our inner city Denver kids have. Books open worlds that our kids may never see otherwise.

• Atwell talks about the role of the classics in people's reading lives. She says, "A non reader confronted by a book like Jane Eyre doesn’t stand a chance." I see that in the lives of my own sons. The English curriculum at their school is heavy on classics. Last year Son #1 read TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD, CATCHER IN THE RYE and ROMEO AND JULIET. His teacher, who I adore, did a terrific job making the books real for his students- they watched videos of the books and others that were related, Gregg read aloud to his students, they drew, and acted, and wrote. For the most part, I'm glad Zay read these books, especially TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD, which is one of my all-time favorite books. But Zay needed lots and lots and lots of support to make any sense out of these "classic books." I worry about kids in classrooms where the teacher doesn't provide support beyond a list of comprehension questions or essay topics.

• I really question the value and relevance of some of this reading. I'm not sure a book like CATCHER IN THE RYE, about a wealthy, Anglo boy growing up in an East Coast prep school had much relevance or truth for my son. If the point was to have kids read a COMING OF AGE novel, I wonder why there couldn't be a presentation on coming of age novels, followed by a list of twenty, and kids could choose two or three, and compare them. Wouldn't that be an equally valuable experience? Or could they read sections of CATCHER IN THE RYE, and compare those to their own lives?

• Atwell further points out that many of the classics are books that were written for adult audiences. They are books with adult protagonists. They are better understood and appreciated by adults, or at least by kids who have had a lot of experience with lots of other texts first.

• Adults who are literary, habitual readers got that way not by reading the classics as children, but rather by reading stuff with less "literary value," series like Nancy Drew, the Hardy Boys, and authors like Judy Blume. That voluminous reading gave them the strategies and background knowledge about literature and about life that would later enable them to be successful in handling the classics.

Atwell closes by saying, "Our job as reading teachers is to invite kids to enter that happy state of engagement again and again and again and to help them stay there." If I can do that for kids, every day, or even most days, then I think I've done my job.

Thanks Nancie, for your fabulous response!


Beth S. said...

I love Nancie Atwell. I just went back into my email to watch the video because I had forgotten that I wanted to watch it and it's been sitting in my inbox. Her conviction and expertise is so inspiring.

Angela said...

It was a fabulous response, I agree. I can't understand the pervasive misperceptions that some maintain about workshop, and I can't help but feel that some of it is perpetuated by teachers who do not approach it with intention. As Atwell suggest, workshop works because it is grounded in great instruction, provided by passionate teachers who know their content well enough to teach strategically and skillfully. This doesn't mean we sacrifice the classics or comprehension or anything else. It simply means we work hard to engage kids and empower them as well. Thanks for directing us to the video!

Unknown said...

I truly loved watching her response. I've forwarded it to quite a few people in and out of education.