By Nancie Atwell (1998, Boynton/Cook Publishers)
Nancie Atwell doesn’t just teach her students writing and reading, she shows them how to be an accomplished writer and reader. She treats her classroom as a reading and writing workshop where everyone works and learns together. By writing with her students, Atwell gives them the tools they need to understand the hard work and process involved in being a writer, and it appears to work better than any traditional language arts curriculum ever could. In her book, In the Middle, she describes in practical, comprehensive detail how anyone can bring this innovative program to their students.
One of the more surprising aspects of Atwell’s method, which she developed in the classroom over the course of two decades, is that giving students the choice of what to read and write actually works. She realized that this caused them to be invested in their work, and “their commitment to their ideas and purposes made them work hard; their hard work made significant writing happen.” Students are encouraged to explore many difference genres and styles in their reading and writing, and to keep notes on what they have read and written. They are also encouraged to abandon a book if they don’t like it, noting on their reading list why it didn’t work for them. And above all, students are given the time and space to read and write in class because it is only by reading and writing copious amounts that a reader or writer moves beyond proficiency to true mastery.
Atwell’s emphasis on sharing the reading and writing experience (“I write out loud in front of my students…I show them my drafts. I ask for their responses… I read with my students. I show them what I’m reading, and I talk about and lend my books.”) is what really makes her approach unique. Parents and teachers of students who are homeschooling, distance learning, or attending brickand- mortar schools can all incorporate this approach into their lives. By sharing how reading and writing work in real life—how we write and when, why we read and what we’re reading—we can enhance our students’ academic lives and more importantly, their overall growth as human beings. As Atwell points out, writing can “play a crucial role in helping [students] grow up, making it possible for them to capture who they are, then come back and measure themselves against their earlier selves.”
Packed with “minilesson” topics, student work samples, teaching anecdotes, and dozens of very practical lists, this book is well worth the time it takes to read its 500+ pages. Atwell’s candid, friendly style gives the flavor of how inviting her classroom must be. In the Middle invites all of us to join the reading and writing workshop and share the love of reading and writing with our children.
Reviewed by DeeDee Hughes, Managing Editor, Living Education