Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Slice of Life Story Challenge - What I Know For Sure - Nancie Atwell and Mentors

     It's Day 18 of the Slice of Life Story Challenge, started by Two Writing Teachers.  I am writing around the theme topic of "What I Know For Sure." (See Day 1 for a full explanation.)

     Just a couple days ago I wrote about my roundabout journey to become a teacher.  When I was hired by Mason City Schools to teach 8th grade language arts and social studies in the spring of 1991, the district made one stipulation: I must take the Ohio Writing Project course at Miami University first. I don't remember if I read Atwell's In the Middle (now in its 3rd edition) before or during that course; what I do remember is that they came together to form the foundation of my teaching philosophies.  She and Lucy Calkins were my first literacy mentors.

     In that first job, I put to practice the pure reading/writing workshop.  Not everything fell into place perfectly, of course - I was teaching 8th graders at an inexperienced 24 years old, for one thing.  There were days when they practically ate me alive.  However, I knew the workshop worked.  I knew that kids thrived when given choices, were immersed in authentic reading and writing, and were guided along the way.  When I changed to 6th grade, it really came together since I realized the intermediate age group were the kids I was meant to teach.  Those 6th graders did some amazing work under the pure workshop model.  I left teaching in 1996 when Katie was born and became a stay-at-home mom to Libby and Katie for 8 years.

      I got a little tripped up when I came back to teaching in 2004  and found that the workshop philosophy had practically disappeared, at least in the district where I was hired, and at least in my perception.  Another writing program had been adopted, and I floundered a bit trying to figure out how to do what I believed and also follow the district's expectations.  Don't take me wrong - it was a wonderful district in which to work, it was just that literacy philosophies had changed a bit since I had been gone. I also needed to remember what I loved - since I had been gone for awhile, it was difficult to find my way again. I needed to work my way back into it with the help of a few more mentors, who revitalized the workshop for me.  Through some collaboration with my colleague and friend, Megan, we took what the literacy gurus were talking about and made it our own. 

     Through those years, though, I wouldn't have fought my way back if it weren't for literacy mentors and a couple of wonderful conferences, the Lakota Literacy and Dublin Literacy Conferences. There, my new mentors became Katie Wood Ray, Lester Laminack, Ralph Fletcher, Franki Sibberson, Penny Kittle, Donalyn Miller, and Kelly Gallagher.  These amazing literacy educators reignited and kept my passion alive.  I continually learn what it means to teach reading and writing in an authentic and exciting way today and in the future.  I love going to literacy conferences and learning from these folks and more because it keeps my work current and joyful.  Thank you to my mentors for all that you teach me!

     What I Know For Sure:  Teaching is hard and is changing fast, but when done right is one of the most rewarding jobs on Earth.  In order to stay passionate about it and to keep up with best practices, you need inspiration from experts and mentors.  This is the case in any job.  Everyone needs people to inspire them in their careers and life.  Mentors are vital to learning.
Addendum 3/19/15:  After reading Tara Smith's blog post today, I was inspired to add some thoughts to this post about Nancie Atwell's final comments on the CNN interview about public school teachers becoming technicians. 
What I Know For Sure, Part 2: While I understand Atwell's disappointment and cautionary tale about where public schools might be heading (and it doesn't take away from all that she has given to literacy education), she is mistaken.  We public school teachers are not technicians.  We are artists, creators, dreamers, think tanks, cheerleaders, counselors, inspirations, nurses, advocates, writers, readers, practitioners....teachers.  Public school kids need us - now more than ever.  Young educators need us - now more than ever.  We should NOT give up, ignore, avoid, or leave public education.  We need to stand and fight for best practices.  Teaching in public schools is a great honor, and the only way we're going to change the perception that it isn't is to come and stay in droves, with all our energy, passion, and love for teaching and students.  We need to show and tell EVERYBODY we are not technicians...we are TEACHERS!




  1. Teaching is hard, yet rewarding work. New ideas appear all the time and it seems we are always running to keep up with the best practices. Having mentors really helps.

  2. I write about mentors today too! Mentors are so crucial and you have some of the best in your corner teaching with you when you are influenced by those you name. Thanks for sharing what you know for sure.

  3. This is my 8th year of teaching, and I think about how much I and my teaching have changed because of these same people you have mentioned. We need mentors. I am working on a presentation for student teachers and I talk about this same thing. They are vital to our profession.

  4. How fortunate you are to have read and studied with so many literacy leaders. And now with Twitter and blogs, it's wonderful that we don't have to wait for conferences to learn so many people's freshest thinking.

  5. I was introduced to In the Middle when I went through our Writing Project's
    Summer Invitational Institute. What a wealth of ideas! The book stayed in my classroom until I retired and now it is home with me.

  6. YES! YES! YES! In response to the entire blog post and the addendum. Is teaching in a public school hard? YES. Is standardized testing what we are about? NO. (Read Leigh Anne's post: We shouldn't. We CAN'T leave. What happens if we leave?!?! I love In the Middle. I admire Nancie Atwell. I understand the bigger picture of what she was trying to say...but I am sad and disappointed in the way she chose to say it. We need support from the Nancie Atwells of the world! I felt that support lacking in that CNN interview.

  7. You and I are friends who haven't met yet...each and every one of your posts resonates with me. We are "kindred thinkers"! My daughter is a junior preK-3 major at OSU-Lima. But I can't tell you how many of my colleagues (and other community members) question me about why I'm "letting her" go into education when it's a "mess". I respond that she's a natural...she's had the opportunity to learn from her mother's 28 years of teaching experience...she doesn't know anything different than "teaching is my life's mission and passion". We DO need to be there for the young teachers...the teachers-to-be...the teachers who have lost their order to be there for our students. Thank you for your SOL posts...and for being a wonderful educator!

    1. Thank YOU, Dawn! What a nice comment. :-) I think that's wonderful that you're cheering your daughter on!

  8. Oh yes, we so need mentors.
    And that doesn't mean we always agree with them. <3

  9. I am standing up for your addendum. I feel I need to add one of my own. I saw the comment differently but now have a new lens on and realize she was wrong. We need to stand up for who we are...teachers! That is a word that encompasses much.