Education Trends

Global Teacher Prize Winner Nancie Atwell Takes the Mic

June 26, 2015
Image Courtesy of Heinemann Publishing

"Gobsmacked." For Nancie Atwell, a 40-year veteran of nurturing young readers and writers, that's how it felt to be named the first-ever winner of the Global Teacher Prize earlier this year. The $1 million award, often compared to a Nobel Prize for education, was established by the Varkey Foundation to elevate the stature of the teaching profession worldwide. Atwell, founder of the Center for Teaching and Learning (CTL) in rural Maine, is using her platform to advocate for educational practices and policies that put children at the center. Here are highlights of our recent conversation about the prize -- and much more.

Edutopia: Your story as an educator opens in 1973, when you started teaching middle school English. Since then, you've written nine books -- including the hugely influential In the Middle: A Lifetime of Learning about Writing, Reading, and Adolescents -- and founded a demonstration school in Maine where hundreds of interested teachers from around the world have come to see the writing-reading workshop model in action. What's the enduring theme of your work as an educator?

Nancie Atwell: Too often in education, we're satisfied with mere compliance. People make the mistake of thinking kids either resist or comply. I'm saying there's another option, and that's engagement. Our students [CTL is an independent school that serves 80 students from K-8] like what they're doing. They have choice. They choose their own books as readers and develop their own ideas as writers. And it's quite a robust program. Our students read, on average, 40 books a year. They work in genres. They read all kinds of books. They talk about poetry every day in critical ways. Their effort is fueled by interest -- and it also involves a lot of pleasure.

Edutopia: Yes, I noticed that "joyful" learning is part of the mission statement for the Center for Teaching and Learning. Joy isn't a word we hear in education policy discussions, at least not in the U.S. Can you say more about why joy is essential to good teaching and learning?

Atwell: Americans seem to think, if kids are enjoying what they're doing, then something must be wrong. And then sometimes schools will try to bring joy or fun into a school by giving out bicycles to kids who read the most books. Or maybe the principal will dye her hair green if everybody reads 10 biographies. That's extrinsic. Kids are intrinsically motivated if they love the books they're reading, if they love the topics they're researching, if they love the poetry and essays they're writing because the subjects intrigue them. You don't apply joy on top of a situation.

Edutopia: Your central message seems so straightforward: Give students voice and choice about what they read and write, and they'll engage in meaningful learning. Why is that so hard for many schools to put into practice?

Atwell: The challenge comes from not trusting kids to make good decisions. It comes from not trusting teachers to have the background to steer kids in good directions. There's also an economic effect. You don't need a textbook to teach this way (although you do need a classroom library). You don't need a core program or a basal. The writing-reading workshop doesn't make money for anybody. There's nobody to lobby for it -- and there are plenty lobbying against it, starting with Common Core advocates who definitely don't trust children.

Edutopia: So let's talk about how you help teachers shift to the literacy practices you're endorsing. What's the model for professional development at CTL?

Atwell: Teachers come to CTL for a week to observe literacy instruction at the same grade level they teach. There's no dropping in for a day. We limit it to six interns per week. They have to apply, which means we start with an audience of teachers who want kids to have choice. To really understand the rhythms of the writing-reading workshop -- to understand how it's such a predictable, reliable structure for kids that they can lean on and do big, brave, creative things -- you've got to live in that situation for a week.

Edutopia: What are interns doing during their week at CTL?

Atwell: They're not interacting with children at all. They're observers who then debrief with our faculty. And they begin to anticipate how they can go home and adapt or adopt what they've seen at CTL in their own classrooms. This is the best work I've ever done with teachers. It's the most real, the most specific, and the most resonant. They see how we talk with kids and how kids talk with us. They see the work our kids do and how we inspire that work. It's very nitty-gritty.

Edutopia: In addition to specific classroom practices, what else might visitors notice about the culture of your school?

Atwell: This is a community of readers. Conversations about books are happening at lunch, at the lockers in the morning, in the carpool to a field trip. Discussions are very social, and also rich and critical and comparative. The book you're reading is like a badge that you carry.

Edutopia: Can you remember a particular book that turned you into a reader?

Atwell: My family didn't have books. My mom was a waitress; my dad was a mail carrier. Reading wasn't part of the culture I grew up in. In fifth grade, I came down with rheumatic fever and had to stay in bed for most of the winter. I was going crazy with boredom. My mother went to the library to try to find anything to entertain me. At the bottom of the pile she brought home was an old, musty copy of The Secret Garden. It was the perfect book for me. It was about an invalid. It was about solitude, consolation, connection. I probably read it six times that winter. When I was well enough to go back to school, I was a changed person. I had all these stories inside me, and I was a really fast, fluent, engaged reader. I probably didn't read one of the books assigned to me during high school, but I always read. I had an underground curriculum.

Edutopia: So you know firsthand how literacy changes lives. And you have identified the practices that build literacy. Yet we continue to see persistent gaps in literacy rates in the U.S. What needs to happen?

Atwell: The education issue that people in the U.S. don't want to talk about has to do with race, class, segregation, and poverty. A quarter of our kids aren't doing well, and those are primarily kids living in poverty, in segregated school districts. We're not attending to those kids. Instead we're scapegoating teachers, we're scapegoating children. We're not providing the wraparound services so that children will have the head start they need. Parents need to learn to talk with kids and listen to kids so that they get all that language that middle-class and upper-class kids get as part of their childhood. That's what will make a difference. That's the big reform I'm championing.

Edutopia: Is your message getting heard?

Atwell: I'm hoping that the weight this prize carries will give me a better platform. I'll be speaking at the Clinton Global Initiative when the United Nations is in session. I've had zero contact with the U.S. Department of Education, expect for one phone call from [Secretary of Education] Arne Duncan to say good luck before I went to Dubai [for the Global Teacher Prize gala]. If I'd been a sweet little teacher in a knit suit and an apple pin, I'd probably have been invited to the White House by now. But I'm not.

Edutopia: What would you like other teachers to know about the Global Teacher Prize? Applications are open now.

Atwell: I hope that teachers who see themselves as reflective practitioners will give this a shot. I was nominated by a former student; I still don't know who that was. Once I accepted the nomination, I had to write six essays. The questions were intriguing and revealing in terms of my philosophy of teaching, and then what that philosophy looked like in practice. What had I done to improve the profession? How had I helped my Maine kids be global citizens? What were my innovations as a teacher? It was a joy to write the essays.

Edutopia: And how about giving us a little taste of being on the world stage to accept the prize in Dubai?

Atwell: All nine of the other finalists were larger than life. It was an honor to be in their company. We were each escorted on stage by a child. My escort was a 10-year-old boy from India named Verun. We chatted backstage and got acquainted. He was just a great kid. I told him, no matter what happens out there, this is the coolest thing that we got to be friends. He was the light for me that was shining in that moment, a reminder of what this prize is all about.

Nancie Atwell donated her $1 million prize to the Center for Teaching and Learning.

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