Book Reviews

October 01, 1998 5 min read

In The Middle: New Understandings About Writing, Reading, and Learning, second edition, by Nancie Atwell. (Heinemann, $32.50.) Because change in education usually occurs at a glacial crawl, the 1984 publication of Nancie Atwell’s In the Middle qualified as a cataclysmic event. Within a year or two, English teachers long content with assigning Silas Marner and the five-paragraph essay from behind their massive desks were sitting alongside students, talking about ownership, self-expression, and literature. Following Atwell’s lead, teachers at all grade levels began dismantling the traditional classroom to create a “genuine” community of writers in which students discuss and edit each other’s work.

Now, nearly 15 years later, Atwell’s followers may have to do some rethinking. For in this greatly expanded second edition of In the Middle, Atwell retreats some from the very revolution she helped create. “As part of my transformation, I embraced a whole new set of orthodoxies,” Atwell writes of her teaching in the 1980s. “As enlightened and child-centered as the new rules were...they limited what I did as an English teacher.”

What Atwell renounces in this second edition is the pact of noninterference she advocated in the first. Determined to set young writers free, the younger Atwell urged teachers to let their students write what they wanted and to avoid marking up their work. So what changed her attitude? In the late 1980s, she took a sabbatical to raise a daughter who sometimes needed to be told what to do and how to do it. Atwell came to see that being grown-up means “acting like a grown-up, like someone who is competent, has good advice, and wants to make a task as easy as possible for a child.”

To English teachers who have always been suspicious of the “just let them write” school of teaching, this hardly sounds profound. But rather than bemoan Atwell’s naiveté, we must credit her for revolutionizing, in a mostly positive way, how English is taught. Atwell was one of the first to realize that the all-too-deadly English classroom could in fact be converted into a writing workshop-a kind of newsroom where students discuss writing ideas, rework drafts, and publish the results. By treating her students as real writers instead of as semiliterates hooked on the comma splice, Atwell has been able to get them to produce worthy and sometimes moving writing.

In this second edition, Atwell continues to treat her students as real writers, only now she gives them a managing editor-namely herself. In this role, Atwell is as encouraging as ever, but she also makes explicit suggestions for revision, insists that students aim for correctness even in first drafts, and gives focused lessons on such things as capitalization and punctuation.

In addition to being a good teacher, Atwell is one of those rare people who can write without sentimentality about loving each of her students. Demanding from them rigor as well as creative expression is, she has apparently come to understand, the ultimate act of caring.

Imaging Education: The Media and Schools in America, edited by Gene Maeroff. (Teachers College Press, $23.95.) Since the publication of the apocalyptic A Nation at Risk in 1983, the media has gleefully magnified every blemish of our education system. This leads Maeroff, editor of this balanced collection of essays by journalists and academics, to assert, “There is something curious about the ubiquity of the negative slant in the media when it comes to education.” Contributors David Berliner and Bruce Biddle, both scholars, see something downright conspiratorial in the media’s treatment of public schools, writing that “the newspapers have become a natural ally of those who believe that public education has failed.”

Journalists rightly respond that the press, in the name of vigilance, has an obligation to err on the side of skepticism. Nevertheless, as several essayists here point out, the press has long had a tendency to put a negative spin even on good news out of schools. On a 1992 international achievement test, for instance, American 9-year-olds scored second in the world in reading, which made big news everywhere but in the United States. But when 70 percent of U.S. students scored at the proficient level in geography on the same challenging international test several years later, newspapers like USA Today focused on the 30 percent “who are barely literate in geography.”

Still, to link conspiracy with the persistence of negative education reporting is unnecessarily paranoiac. The real problem, as Maeroff points out, is that the greenest reporters are usually assigned to the education beat, virtually ensuring superficial coverage that too often echoes the fear-mongering of politicians looking to score points. Only when we have more knowledgeable journalists reporting on education can we expect reporting that is, if not more positive, a whole lot more balanced.

Paradise Lost: California’s Experience, America’s Future, by Peter Schrag. (New Press, $25.) When Proposition 13 passed in California in 1978, few foresaw the devastating consequences it would have on public services in general and public schools in particular. Schrag, then an editorial writer with the Sacramento Bee, was one who did. In this account of the loss of civic obligation, Schrag shows how the drastic property-tax cuts of Proposition 13 turned one of the nation’s best school systems into one of the worst, robbing it of the will and resources to educate many of its students. In some of the districts Schrag describes, school librarians, counselors, and even textbooks simply disappeared.

This loss of funding, Schrag argues, has been followed by a destructive loss of local control. Proposition 13 and newer mandates have made it extremely difficult for communities to raise money for their schools, whether for facilities or reform; as a result, citizens increasingly feel disenfranchised from their local schools. And so-called “populist” ballot initiatives like the “English for the Children” measure, which passed this spring and virtually bans bilingual education in the state, haven’t helped.

To those states wanting to jump on the California bandwagon, this outstanding book should serve as a cautionary tale.

-David Ruenzel

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