A Student of Nancie Atwell
Early in my teaching career, I was fortunate to visit the Center for Teaching and Learning (CTL) in Edgecomb, Maine, as an intern. This school is an independent demonstration school founded in 1990 by the Global Teacher Prize winner, Nancie Atwell. Nancie is legendary for her work with Donald Graves in the establishment of Writing Workshop. In my days at CTL, I sat at Nancie’s feet to understand how to cultivate and sustain young writers. I heard Nancie say and read repeatedly in her seminal text, In the Middle, that she “never graded individual pieces of writing.” Students grow as writers, and this process is slow and different for each writer. Nancie suggested one piece of writing “can never provide an accurate picture of a student’s abilities; rather, it represents a step in a writer’s growth – and not always a step forward.” As new techniques, new mini-lessons on writing conventions, new genres, and new forms are introduced, young writers are often overwhelmed with the task of incorporating all of this into the next piece of writing. From experience with young, middle school writers, I know it can lead to classroom disasters.
While at CTL I became completely engaged with the way Nancie Atwell conferenced with each student during writing workshop. Those conferences were full of assessment and feedback. They were two-way conversations between a master and an apprentice. As Nancie concludes in her text, I realized at the heart of her assessment process was reliability and validity. Assessment in her classroom was reliable as her conversations with students reflected the expectations she communicated in her classroom each day during Writing Workshop. Assessment in her classroom was valid as it did not impose on the class as a whole a set of objective standards that demonstrated “good” writing. As an intern, I developed an understanding of how she would step back and evaluate each writer’s growth over time and each student’s willingness and effectiveness in trying new things in each piece of writing. Nancie always encouraged us to use our own journey as writers to better understand how to support young, adolescent writers and also coached us to never shy away from the details of a student’s writing development. Clearly, Nancie was a student of her students. And I was a student of Nancie Atwell.
After each student conference where interns were given the opportunity to fish-bowl around the conversation, Nancie would point out the processes she had established to make Writing Workshop succeed. First, she had specific expectations for students to assess themselves. At the end of each trimester, students completed an extensive self-assessment that included questions such as 1) how many pieces of writing did you complete this trimester?; 2) Which genres did you try and why did you choose them?; 3) What are your favorite genres to write and why?; 4) Which two pieces of writing are most effective? Why? List what you did as the author.; 5) What were your major accomplishments this year as a writer? What were your most significant changes? Describe them. And the list went on. Through this feedback from the student, Nancie combined her own notes with students’ responses to create a Trimester Progress Report for each writer. This described accomplishments, strengths, and challenges. Most importantly, Nancie described 5-7 goals for each student writer to focus on during the next trimester. This progress report is shared in parent-student-teacher evaluation conferences at the end of each trimester.
Nancie graciously emphasized her understanding of how each of our schools as interns were probably different than CTL but also encouraged us to work to think through how to improve our current Writing Workshop practices and grading routines to lift the quality of student writing. She encouraged us to at least focus on goals for each writer. In the Middle describes the reasons why this is the right work: “Teachers at CTL do not assign grades. A student’s incentive is the work itself – engaging, working toward goals, and experiencing increasing power and pleasure as writers, readers, critics, mathematicians, historians, and scientists. I acknowledge this is a luxury. I know I’m lucky not to have to stick numbers or letters on my kids. But I also know that without the incentive of grades, my methods have to be strong enough to impel kids – to convince them that what I’m asking them to do has intrinsic worth and meaning.”
My time as a CTL intern confirmed in my practices that Writing Workshop assessment is an opportunity for students’ to analyze their own work, describe their progress, and set goals that support their growth. Assessment in Writing Workshop is an opportunity for teachers to step back and look over the horizon of the students’ experience for a period of time. We can learn about students’ learning. Additionally, this approach to periodic Writing Workshop assessment strengthens what both teachers and students do in Workshop time for the rest of the school year.
Once I came back to my school, I collaborated with other writing teachers in my building. We began to study how to maximize our teaching effectiveness through assessment in Writing Workshop. We met together and studied current writing research and analyzed student work to help one another decide what were the accomplishments, challenges, and goals that we should discuss with students. Without knowing it, we practiced collective efficacy because we held firm beliefs as we met together that we could develop young writers and, in effect, create better humans. We also practiced self-efficacy because we knew as teachers, we could improve our own work. To this day, those teachers are some I hold in the highest regard. I am now a district administrator, and I consistently stress to building principals the need to call good people to best practice and create opportunities for them to collaborate. Watching Nancie Atwell do this each day with her own colleagues at CTL established in my core the vital work of knowing students, understanding and valuing their growth over time, and maintaining collaboration with fellow teachers in order to improve my own practice.
Atwell, N. (2015). In the middle: a lifetime of learning about writing, reading, and adolescents. Third edition. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.
Paige Raney is the Chief Academic Officer of Guntersville City Schools. Paige is a National Board Certified Teacher in Literacy. She serves on the Board of Directors for the Alabama Literacy Alliance. She is always and proudly, a teacher. Follow her on Twitter: @PaigeRaney