Friday, September 10, 2010

In the Middle

I've often written about Nanci Atwell's In the Middle. Simply, it was THE book I used when I facilitated writing workshop for my students in Cotulla ISD. The instructions and information in this book kept my classroom afloat...I honestly felt I taught everything from Nanci Atwell, including every minilesson, etc. It was a pleasure to re-read this book after such a long period of time, visiting with an old friend.

An imperfect summary of Nanci Atwell's In the Middle appears below:

 Traditional writing classes are rule-bound and focused on adhering to a set curriculum. Atwell’s approach is to teach from knowledge a la apprenticeship model, demonstrating writing as a writer herself, providing a framework for teachers of what writing classes can be when the teacher becomes a co-learner, rather than the sage on the stage.

Learning How to Teach Writing
“As long as I write and read, pay attention to who my kids are, and keep in touch with each writer’s needs and intention, there’s a good chance,” shares Nanci Atwell, “that I can avoid the worst of the orthodoxies--the maxims that prevent me from teach my students what they need to know. I can be less caught up in adhering to a program or curriculum and more concerned with responding to my kids, leading them, and helping them grow.” Atwell slips the bonds of traditional writing instruction that may focus on students learning to write by working “systematically through a sequence of modes” a la James Moffet’s hierarchy of discourse. In Atwell’s classroom, students take ownership of their writing because that is the end goal of any activity with children--enable them to act independently.  Atwell considers personal experience of the thing being learned, her knowledge of children at a particular age, and specific knowledge of a particular child.

Scaffolding Choice
Forsaking orthodoxy means scaffolding student choice in reading, as well as writing. Social interaction with students about the reading they choose can be done with dialogue journals that explore reader processes, speculations about authors’ processes as writers, making connections between readers, published works and one’s own writing, feelings and experiences.

Those feelings and experiences are often constrained in middle schools for adolescents. Writing and Reading Workshop put more choices in the hands of students, enabling the teacher and students to utilize the experiences outside of school IN school. This type of writing--based on reflections of experiences and feelings--grants students power, involving them in the very stuff of adolescence.

Organizing Writing Workshop
Provide writers, Atwell suggests, with “regular, frequent chunks of time they can count on, anticipate, and plan for.” Such an approach means allocating 4-5 writing workshops per week for students; she provides specific outlines for when writing workshop is the curriculum and when competing with a required curriculum that must be covered. There are many components to writing workshop, including the following: a) Pencils, pens, lined paper, colored pens, scissors, tape, stapler, paper clips, correction fluid; b) Reference resources including student samples of past writing in a variety of genres, how to publish professionally; c) overhead projector for modeling writing and photocopier for instant publishing. Atwell also recommends arranging the physical space of a classroom. Students are expected to have a composition notebook, and a spiral notebook. Students also organize folders with checklists prepared in advance, and complete. Atwell sets her expectations for reading and writing the first week of school.

The main components of writing workshops include 1) Mini-Lesson, about 15-20 minutes long; 2) Status of the Class done as students are writing; 3) Conferencing; and 4) Group Share. Topic-search mini-lessons, modeling of the teacher writing help students identify what topics they will write about. Examples from published writers model that. Sources for mini-lessons come from a variety of places, including craft mini-lessons, conventions of writing, reading strategies, writers’ experiences and procedural lessons about the workshop itself. Evaluation of student writing has 3 components: students’ portfolios and self-assessment questionnaires, teachers’ written comments, and student-led conferences with their parents and the teacher.

When facilitating writing/reading workshop, Atwell employs a status of the class that enables her to track the following: 1) What each student is working on as a writer/reader; 2) Progress on work begun or completed, including homework; 3) What the student needs help on, whether they are stuck or have made a “breakthrough;” 4) Patterns in writing and reading over time. Atwell employs a status of the class (SOC) record for a week of writing workshops and a SOC for a month or so of reading. Comments to parents flow from these records. The “purpose of a conference,” points out Atwell, “is to make a record;” this makes it a priority to introduce students to concepts.

Conferencing is focused about asking questions that can help students address specific problems in their drafts; Atwell provides a series of questions to ask students. Conferences also work when writers conference with themselves about purpose, information, the lead and conclusion, titles, and styles.

In regards to reading workshops, Atwell employs a variety of strategies, chief among them, reading or dialogue journals. She addresses what they look like, who would write when, how letters about books being read would be exchanged, and where journals would be kept. Most of the latter part of the book goes on to address specific mini-lesson topics, conference topics applicable to both reading and writing workshop.

Atwell’s In the Middle serves as a treasure trove of how to organize and facilitate writing and reading workshop for adolescent writers. Her book--with its excellent appendices--provide rich resources for teachers seeking to organize writing and reading workshop in their respective classrooms.

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