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Getting Into the Reading Zone

Live from the Celebration of Teaching and Learning, New York

I just got back from a talk by Nancie Atwell, a 7th and 8th grade English teacher at nonprofit demonstration school in Maine and author of The Reading Zone, among other books. Atwell told the story of a former student of hers named Mike, an 8th grader who'd been transplanted to her school from California (apparently after a divorce) and who had severe ADHD. When Mike arrived in Atwell's class, he had very little interest in reading and writing--indeed had indicated on a start-of-the year survey that he was a "bad" reader and hadn't read a single book in the previous year. But over the course of the year, while he continued to struggle as a student, he become an adept and engaged writer and reader. He read 26 books, and completed dozens of writing projects--some of which (as presented by Atwell) were extremely clever and well-done. She saw his growth as one of her "small victories" as an teacher.

So what was Atwell's secret? She claims it was simply--or maybe not so simply--a matter of putting the power of independent reading and creative expression at Mike's disposal. She encouraged him to write in a variety of forms--poems, memoirs, movie reviews, parodies--about topics that interested him. (Along the way, she says, "He discovered he could be funny in print"--which she calls a major turning point for many middle school writers.) Meanwhile, she led him to young adult novels that might interest him (staring with one about baseball) and gave him "time to get lost in good stories" in a community of other student readers. This approach, she contends, was more important than plying him with comprehension, decoding, and meta-cognition strategies. As standardized tests show, she said, "the best student readers are the students who read the most." You don't want to discourage the practice, in other words.

With reference to a poem by William Stafford, Atwell described the power of reading and self-expression as a "thread" that language arts teachers must hang on to, despite the doubts of administrators and policymakers. "If we trust in the power in the reading, writing, and our students humanity," she said, "we can never be lost."

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