“I want to go deep inside language together and use it to know, shape and play with our worlds – but my practices evolve as my students and I go deeper.” Nancie Atwell, In the Middle
In "Learning to Teach Writing," Atwell takes us on a journey of how she began teaching as a creationist who focused on creating curriculum to becoming an evolutionist who instead allows the curriculum to unfold. She and her students learn together and she teaches students what she sees they need to learn.
While this first course reading for PED 3148 is specifically about teaching writing in the English Classroom versus Writing Across the Curriculum, I chose it because it is above all else a powerful story of learning. Beginning her story when she tells us “the gap was at its widest with an eight grader who taught me that I didn’t know enough” (p. 4). Atwell describes how she moves from using a highly prescribed, systematic ELA program that was accompanied by specific behaviours she expected around learning and used “to manipulate students into bearing the sole responsibility for narrowing the gap” (p. 4) of what they didn’t know and what she expected them to learn. Sharing a story with us from when she says the gap was at its greatest, we meet Jeff and eight grade student who struggles with writing.
Instead of following the process of the prewriting procedures, Jeff drew pictures and his sister helped him scribe his story at home. Despite what Atwell explains as her continual “strong disapproval” of Jeff’s approach, he persevered and was able to pass the course and move on to high school. While it wasn’t only until years later that Atwell realized she had to change her pedagogy to accommodate the behaviors of beginning writers and not expect them to all find ways “to make sense of, or peace with the language arts curriculum or ….to fail the course” (p. 4), it was the experience of not being able to reach Jeff that became for her what Shoshana Felman calls “trouble around the text.” In later reading what she revisited to learn when Jeff was in her class, that sitting behind the big desk in the front of the classroom and following a curriculum structure that prescribed topics and insisted on a specific process, she held fast to the belief that her “ideas were more credible and important than her students might possibility explain” (p. 7).
Poignantly Atwell confesses what many teachers may at some level know but defend against admitting: “I had missed the chance to understand what I was doing to talk to him and learn from him how to help him” (p. 9). Here the teacher becomes an interventionist (Taylor, 2000, p. 48) where turning away from a prescribed curriculum she moves to a writing workshop model that allowed students choice in what they would write and how they would write to later refining her pedagogy further “reintegrating the teacher to central in the writing classroom” (Taylor p. 48). Using a backwards design strategy of sorts, Atwell is direct in her approach of being very clear in her expectations and what students are responsible to achieve. To support her students, Atwell uses an apprenticeship model and uses what Jerome Bruner called the “handover” method, also known as gradual release, as the teacher intervenes and gradually provides less support for the learner to help students learn skills and synthesize knowledge, as they become confident writers.
It is here that I see what we can learn from Atwell’s story of learning and the sort of pedagogies we may want to adapt when thinking about teaching writing across the curriculum. In building our own knowledge based and use of instructional strategies that Peterson (2008) offers in her text for teachers, we can begin to imagine what are the possibilities for the diversity of writers in our classrooms.