Nancie Atwell's work has long inspired and guided teachers nationwide. Now, the educator and researcher has created a pioneering school in the rural Northeast where visiting reform-minded teachers learn to be agents for change
Down a snowy lane in Edgecomb, Maine, a town with more steeples than stoplights, the blanket of white is interrupted only by spruce trees and the occasional house with a snake of smoke escaping from the chimney. Fences of stacked, weathered rails zigzag across the frozen countryside.
Just off the road stands a two-story, clapboard structure with an addition jutting off one side. It looks like any other house—except for the bell on the roof. Inside, a sea of children are seated on pillows in a large carpeted room. Facing them, with sun pouring through three windows behind her, is a woman with thick, dark hair pulled back in a headband, Hillary Clinton style. Dressed in a maroon sweater that covers a flower-print blouse and a long gray-green skirt, she sits—legs crossed—in a rocking chair, leaning forward with elbows resting on her knee like a mother reading to her children.
The woman is Nancie Atwell, renowned teacher, author, and researcher. The building is the Center for Teaching and Learning, the K-6 private school she built with royalties from her popular book, In the Middle—and with her own sweat and blood.
In the back of the bookshelf-lined room, three women furiously take notes. Teachers at Fayette Central School, a little over an hour away, the visitors don’t want to miss a thing. Atwell doesn’t want them to miss anything either—they are, after all, the main reason she built this school.
The center represents Atwell’s vision for school reform in the United States: give thoughtful teachers real and practical models of good classroom practice—what she calls “primary sources”—so they can go back to their schools and be agents for change. Atwell admits it’s a “slow growth” model; only a handful of teachers at a time can visit her center. But those who do are able to immerse themselves in a school that’s organized very differently from their own. They can watch as students do real-life work; they can see how the children talk to each other and interact with teachers, how parents are involved, and what the tools of teaching actually look like.
Atwell’s own experience has taught her to be respectful of the time one needs to change. It was a long and painstaking journey that led her to this quaint New England building. Years of reading, thinking, talking, observing, and experimenting spurred her to reshape her classroom. Then she tried to entice other teachers to reexamine their teaching. The school was born of the frustration Atwell felt when earlier efforts—speeches, workshops, and classroom demonstrations—fell short. But she believes she may have hit on a solution.
“It’s the problem of trying to imagine teaching in a different way,” she explains. “How do you do that when you went to traditional school for 13 years, went to college for six more years, and then went into a school that’s always been organized one way? The only way to break the lock step and mindset is to put people into a situation that is organized completely differently. Let them learn the rhythm and incorporate it into their heartbeat.”
The only books that Nancie Atwell had easy access to as a child growing up in Clarence, N.Y., a semirural bedroom community near Buffalo, were a set of encyclopedias. Her parents, a mailman and a waitress, worked hard to make ends meet. “Books,” she says, “were just not something people could afford.”
In high school, Atwell was a tough kid who traveled with a tough crowd. “She was smart as hell but not necessarily playing the school game,” says her longtime friend and well-known educator Donald Graves.
“Education was really not where my ambitions lay at all,” Atwell recalls. “I just wanted to get out of high school, marry my boyfriend, live in a trailer, and party.”
Her school days may not have turned her on to education, but they had an impact. “I’ve always found her an enormous champion for the underdog,” Graves says, “for kids who have known what it is to struggle—because she has known it, too.”
Atwell and her brother were the first members of their extended family to attend college, but even that was mostly by happenstance. She won a New York Regents scholarship, which would pay her way to the State University College at Buffalo. She remembers her mother saying: “This is too good to pass up. Go for a year; if you don’t like it, you don’t like it. At least give it a try.”
She started out majoring in art, a subject she loved in high school. But after a year of taking only art courses, she realized that she missed reading and writing, so she signed up for some English classes. In the fall term of 1970, Atwell landed in a seminar taught by a professor named Toby McLeod. “It completely turned my head around,” she says. “It was a course where people talked passionately about ideas that were represented in literature, argued, acted out scenes from plays, and debated. It wasn’t just people flapping their gums; we had strong personal opinions that were rooted in text. I had never heard this kind of discourse, certainly never in an English class in high school.”
After receiving her bachelor’s degree in English, Atwell stayed around the area for another semester to get certified to teach. “Teaching was something to do until I figured out what I really wanted to do,” she says.
But in the classroom, she understood for the first time what it means to have an aptitude for something. “What happened, even during my student-teaching, is that I discovered I loved it,” she says. “I had never done anything that I loved as much as teaching.
“It just seemed to be miraculous that you could have this kind of dialogue with kids,” she adds, still with a note of incredulity in her voice. “That this would be a job and that you would be paid to do it. It gave me extraordinary pleasure.” She pauses. “It still does.”
Atwell says Tonawanda Middle School, where she did her student-teaching and later landed a full-time job, was an extraordinary place to begin her career. At the time, her methods were mostly traditional, but her principal, “an enlightened instructional leader,” expected teachers to be learners, constantly questioning their practice.
The wild beauty of the Maine coast, however, lured her away just a year and a half later. While on vacation with her new husband, Toby McLeod, the professor who brought literature to life for her, Atwell interviewed for an opening as an English teacher at Boothbay Harbor Grammar School. The superintendent of schools there asked her flat out if she would focus on teaching grammar. She said no; she had trained to teach kids to write, and that would be her first priority. As she left, she was certain that she wouldn’t get the job.
Days before the start of the school year, Atwell got a call from the Boothbay superintendent. The other job candidate had seen the classroom where she’d be teaching and backed out. The superintendent asked Atwell if she still wanted the job.
So the couple put a new muffler on their beat-up Valiant, tranquilized the dog, and headed back to Maine. The day before school was to start, Atwell saw for herself why the other candidate had jumped ship. The school building, a Civil War-era structure, should have been condemned. There were rats, and raw sewage was seeping into some of the classrooms. Her own classroom was half of a big room, separated from another class by massive sheets of plywood. The tile floor was half gone, and bare light bulbs hung from the ceiling.
But it was in these shabby surroundings that Nancie Atwell gave birth to “thoughtfulness” in her classroom. The story of how she came out from behind her desk to sit with her students and understand better how they learn has reached more than 200,000 teachers through her book In The Middle (Boynton/Cook, 1987). In it, Atwell describes how she puzzled over students’ behavior, invited researchers to observe and comment on her class, and looked critically at her practice. Deep analysis of what she does when she writes spurred her to experiment with structures that would help, rather than hinder, students’ writing. “I saw the choices I made as a writer—deciding how, when, what, and for whom I’d write— weren’t options available to writers in my classroom,” she recounts in the book.
In the process, she reached out to other teachers in her school—not with answers but with questions. With a two-year grant from the federal government, she launched the Boothbay Writing Project to study the writing process. The 23 teachers involved read research papers, attended professional conferences together, kept detailed logs of observations of students, and discussed their own writing.
The teachers met formally and informally. Many of the conversations took place at the Thistle Inn, a bar they frequented. “We were madly talking all of the time about what we were finding,” she remembers, “thinking about how the whole system of writing instruction in the school needed to be changed based on what we were learning.”
“The process worked,” she writes in In the Middle. “It worked because it was so complex. Layer upon layer of experience accumulated to form a body of shared knowledge and expertise. No one handed us a program from on high; in intense and personally meaningful collaboration, we invented our own wheel. Together, we learned from ourselves, each other, and our students.”
They created a model for a “writing workshop” for students that later spread throughout Boothbay Region Elementary School, the new consolidated school they taught at. Students were given regular chunks of time to write. They chose their own topics and genres and were given feedback during—not just after—the writing process. Teachers covered the mechanics of writing in short mini-lessons and when issues came up during individual writing conferences. The teachers wrote themselves and talked to students about their own writing.
Donald Graves, then a professor at the University of New Hampshire, remembers his first encounter with Atwell’s 8th graders’ work. “We were just amazed at what her students wrote,” he says. “It wasn’t just single pieces; she showed us whole collections where you could see how students first started and what they could do toward the end. I’ve seen very few situations where students changed so dramatically.” In 1985, her students scored the second highest in Maine’s writing assessment; a fifth of her students were in the 99th percentile.
Atwell soon began to wonder how all she’d learned about writing applied to her reading program. Her talks with Toby around the dinner table became the yardstick by which she measured her reading class. “It is a literate environment,” she says of her dinner table in In the Middle. “Around it, people talk in all the ways literate people discourse. We don’t need assignments, lesson plans, teacher’s manuals, or handbooks. We need only another literate person. And our talk isn’t sterile or grudging or perfunctory. It’s filled with jokes, arguments, exchanges of bits of information, descriptions of what we loved and hated and why. The way Toby and I chat most evenings at that table were ways that my kids and I could chat, entering literature together. Somehow, I had to get that table into my classroom and invite my 8th graders to pull up their chairs.”
The “table” she developed for her classroom was the “reading workshop.” The idea behind it was that students learn to read by reading. She let students choose what to read just as real readers do and gave them opportunities to discuss what they were reading. Atwell flooded her room with books—both recognized literature and popular novels, such as S.E. Hinton’s The Outsiders. She required students to read all period long and regularly write letters about what they were reading to her and other students. Students who had never voluntarily read a book were reading an average of 35 a year.
Throughout In the Middle, Nancie Atwell shows in painstaking detail that thoughtful change happens only through careful observation of how kids learn to read and write. She became an avid data collector. Her students’ writing stayed in school all year; she scoured the material, looking for growth and changes. Every day, she filled out a “status of the class” chart, so she could look for patterns over time. She did some number crunching, keeping track of how many books students read and what genres were represented, what punctuation they used in writing, and what students chose to write about and why. She even interviewed her students about their own learning. “My experience as a teacher who observed her students—as a teacher-researcher—has changed me forever. Everywhere I look I see data,” Atwell writes in a later book, Side By Side. “As I filled my notebooks, my teaching became more patient and more sensible.”
Still, she needed a structure for all this information. “In the Middle became a story of me and my students and our struggles to make sense of school,” she writes, “and I became the rueful, insightful, cheerful first person that my husband sometimes wishes he were married to when he finishes reading a manuscript with my name on it.”
In The Middle, which struck a chord among teachers because it presents teaching as an intellectual activity but in a practical way, won her a loyal following and critical acclaim. She was the first classroom teacher to receive the David H. Russell Award for outstanding research in the teaching of English from the National Council of Teachers of English and the prestigious Mina P. Shaughnessy Prize from the Modern Language Association.
The awards were a welcome affirmation but didn’t really change how she felt about herself and her work. “I have such an ego,” she says with a selfdeprecating laugh, “that I really believed I had something to say.” Still, the attention was not for naught. She believes that the recognition she received lends credibility to other teachers who want to conduct research in their own classrooms.
The acclaim also made her a hot commodity on the lecture and consulting circuit. Atwell had left the Boothbay school system after her daughter was born in 1986, the year before In The Middle was published. Over the next few years, she conducted independent research and directed a writing-across-thecurriculum project for elementary schools through the Breadloaf School of English in Middlebury, Vt. But between 1987 and 1990, she also accepted more than 30 speaking engagements. She welcomed the opportunities, hoping she would be able to reach other teachers with her discoveries and challenge them to re-envision their classrooms.
She found the process of writing speeches rewarding; it forced her again to sit down and think about what went on in her classroom. “I’ve never written anything where I wasn’t surprised in the act of writing,” she says. “I’m always amazed by what turns up.” She remembers one speech-writing epiphany in particular. She was writing about two very different students who had been lagging but gradually became successful in her class. “I can remember almost falling off my chair when, as I was sitting there with my data in my dining room, I figured out what was going on with these two kids,” she says. “There is no other feeling like that, finding the connection and then trying to find the language for it before you lose it.” Many of these speeches later evolved into articles for publication.
Although she enjoyed preparing the speeches, Atwell found that giving them wasn’t a very effective way to reach teachers. She felt like “a talking head.” And delivering them, she remembers, was often a letdown. “The unfortunate thing about speaking is that the learning part was over by the time I left my house,” she says. “Then I had to go deliver the speech. By then, it was dead on the page.”
She was further dismayed to see that a kind of cult movement had formed around her work. After giving a speech, she would find herself hounded by teachers, who said things like: “Your book is my bible, and you’re my guide.”
“It’s one thing to have people say in a letter, `I admire your work,’ but it’s another for people to take work that is serious and intellectual and turn it into a charismatic movement,” she says. “In the Middle offers a model of a teacher who found her own problems and used every resource available, especially her own students, to solve the problems. I want teachers to be professional enough to respect the genesis of the story.”
Traveling around the country, leading teachers in inservice training, Atwell saw some other trends that disturbed her. “Everywhere I went, I would be sandwiched between the Madeline Hunter person and the thinking-skills person,” she says. The programs these people were touting seemed to force artificial frameworks on teaching and learning and missed the crux of the problem and the solution: the relationship between teacher and student. “There was always some obstacle between us and kids, some prism through which you have to look at kids, something that will make teaching more efficient, easier, cleaner, neater, less emotional.”
To break through this barrier, Atwell began looking for opportunities to teach teachers in situations where they could witness and experience a different kind of interaction between teacher and students. In graduate courses she taught through Northeastern University, she ran half of each class as a writing workshop, treating the student-teachers like her 8th graders, so they could feel how it worked. And she took up demonstration teaching, where she would take on a class and invite other teachers to observe. Atwell’s friend Donald Graves watched her teach a class of students in Atlanta that she had never seen before. “She has that knack of making almost instant contact at a student’s level,” he says. “She doesn’t do it by coming down to the student. She is able to produce this incredible invitation to the student to go where she is going.”
Atwell recalls those experiences with mixed feelings. “That was closer to what I wanted because at least teachers could see it happening with real kids,” she says. “But in some ways it was still artificial because they weren’t my students. I had no idea what had happened before I came in; I had no idea what was going to happen after. So the context was strange.”
Atwell was ready for the next step. She wanted to continue teaching and working with teachers, but she wanted to do it right, without staying in a Holiday Inn every weekend. She also wanted to remain in Maine, an area that she and her husband love. And she needed a place for her daughter, Anne, to go to school.
So on Aug. 2, 1990, a grueling year after Atwell decided to start her own school, builders broke ground on the Center for Teaching and Learning in nearby Edgecomb. By Aug. 29, they had fit together two pieces of the prefab house and secured the roof. On Sept. 10, Nancie Atwell cried; the movers had brought the furniture, and, for the first time, the center looked like a real school. On Sept. 12, she and four other teachers opened their doors to 30 students.
In a part of the country that is run by town meetings, the students at the Center for Teaching and Learning have a distinct advantage: They are learning to speak out. When they are taken on field trips, the guide inevitably asks: “Who are these kids?” It’s not because they are brilliant or particularly articulate; it’s because they have a voice. They ask questions and want to know things.
One reason is that the school day starts and ends with a meeting attended by all 58 students, kindergartners to 6th graders, who sit side by side with their teachers in one room. On this bright winter’s morning, Nancie Atwell leads the group from her rocking chair, peppering the talk with Spanish phrases the students have learned.
The meeting starts simply enough, with children raising hands to tell their news from the weekend. One describes a ride on a snowmobile sled; another tells how she spotted a fox. Atwell asks if anyone has heard any national news. “Arthur Ashe died of AIDS,” one offers. Teachers and students alike talk about who this man was, the disease, and the loss.
Then Atwell leads them in reciting a poem; students clap and snap their fingers in rhythm. After that, Atwell reads aloud an excerpt from an interview with Eloise Greenfield, a poet they have read. According to the article, Greenfield does her best writing from about midnight to 4 a.m. The children gasp. Greenfield’s advice to young writers: If you read a book you like, read it again to see how the author puts the words together.
Atwell then reads from a book about the Underground Railroad, and the group discusses it. Following the discussion, the students sing a song that they wrote about the work of the school.
This rich exchange takes about 15 minutes.
The only people who remain silent through the meeting are the three teachers from Fayette Central School. One of eight teams of teachers invited to spend a week at the school this year, the “interns” are asked not to speak to the children or teachers during class. This way, Atwell says, they can concentrate on observing and reflecting without interfering with the dynamics of the school. In fact, to minimize the disruption, no other visitors are allowed in the school.
“The great thing about the center is that these are real kids in a real school,” Atwell explains. “We have a stake in what happens to them.”
The interns are encouraged to take detailed notes and jot down questions to ask the teachers during meetings that are scheduled throughout their stay. As the week progresses, these women sometimes sit shoulder to shoulder with a teacher as she confers with a student; they scrawl notes but say nothing.
The application process for the intern program is rigorous. The teachers in each team must write essays about their professional development and their educational philosophy. The team application must include a letter from the school administrator stating that the teachers will be allowed to make changes based on what they learn during the visit. Each team leaves at the end of the week with a long- and short-term plan and three graduate credits.
When the morning meeting adjourns, most of the students scramble off to their work; a few stay behind to put the pillows back into an oversized closet.
Unlike at most schools, the students at the center don’t have assigned desks. Instead, they move among four major rooms—the reading room, writing room, math and science room, and projects room. The rooms are plentifully stocked with the tools that real readers, writers, scientists, mathematicians, and artists would use. Students are broken into four groups by grade levels—kindergarten, 1-2, 3-4, 5-6—so most students stay with the same teacher for two years.
This morning, Atwell joins teacher Susan Benedict and her 5th and 6th graders in the writing room, an open space with wooden tables of different sizes to accommodate different size children. Strategically placed around the room are folders, papers, pencils, pens, scissors, books on writing, a dictionary, and a thesaurus. Atwell joins the students in a circle of chairs. A quotation by the poet Rainer Maria Rilke posted on the wall behind her captures the essence of the mini-lesson Atwell is about to teach: “Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart, and try to love the questions themselves.”
Atwell tells them about an experience her friend Donald Graves had recently on a flight to Atlanta. Graves found himself sitting next to someone from Boothbay, a man named Barry Sherman, whose 23year-old son, B.J., had died in a car accident a few weeks earlier. Graves asked Sherman if he knew Nancie Atwell. “Yes,” he replied, “She was the best teacher B.J. ever had.” Sherman went on to tell Graves how he cherishes the piece of B.J.’s writing that Atwell excerpted in her book. When he reads it, Sherman says, he can hear B.J.’s voice and understand his feelings.
Atwell hands out copies of B.J.’s story about moving out of his mother’s house to live with his dad. “We’ve been talking about narrative voice,” she says. “This is in the third person. I call this fiction. Some of it is real; some is made up.”
As she reads aloud, the students follow along, gripped by the tale. She finishes, and, after a long period of silence, she asks quietly, “Why did Barry Sherman remember this piece of writing?”
“Because it was an important incident,” one student offers.
“Because B.J. was trying to work out his feelings in it,” another adds.
Atwell lets other ideas emerge before she adds her own: “Because it was something that mattered to B.J. I call it authentic fiction. These are the things that last. When you sit down to write, ask yourself: Is it a real need I have? Is there some tension or problem I want to work out? Otherwise, all you’re doing is an exercise to fill time.”
She ends with a quotation from playwright Neil Simon: “I can’t write anything unless my character wants something dearly.”
Although Atwell does not have a class of her own in the center, she thinks of herself as the instructional leader. When Atwell and Benedict noticed that students in Benedict’s class were turning out a lot of beautiful but voiceless writing, Atwell offered to teach a series of mini-lessons on the purpose of writing. Donna Maxim, a teacher at the center who knows Atwell from Boothbay Writing Project days, says: “To watch her do a mini-lesson is one of the greatest pleasures in my life. She’s such a great writer, and she can just talk to kids and make them aspire to be great writers, too.”
As the writer’s workshop continues, the students move off to tables to work. Some meet with Benedict for a writing conference during which they pose questions about their work in progress, read the piece aloud, and ask for comments and suggestions.
(Even the kindergartners at the center learn this process; they, for example, have written a parody of the popular children’s book Bread and Jam for Francis, a piece called Bagels and Salsa for Nancy, about how their teacher eats bagels and salsa for lunch every day.)
Later in the day, Benedict’s students gather, sprawled comfortably on the floor of the reading room, to hear her read aloud from Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry, a book by Mildred Taylor set in the 1930s. In the chapter, a black man who has gone into town with his son is attacked by white men on his way home. After the reading, Benedict asks the students what they think. The conversation that ensues is easygoing but firmly rooted in the text.
“She describes too much...that part about the cracking bones,” one girl says with a shudder.
“I predict Papa’s going to die,” a boy adds.
“What does Mildred Taylor care about?” asks the teacher.
After a moment, Curt, who is reclined on the floor, says: “She wants to tell us what really went on at that time, to really feel it. Not like the history books. She wants to show us the human side of history.”
Nathaniel, obviously troubled by the events in the book, asks, “Could a white person get arrested for shooting a black person?”
In virtual unison, the kids say: “No. Now, but not back then.”
Kristin expounds on the idea: “I think she’s against racism. She’s showing how wrong it is for a white person to shoot a black person.”
Benedict pushes: “Is she promoting integration?”
When the students answer no, she asks, “What in the book leads you to believe that?”
They point out that the blacks and whites in the book live separately and that one of the most prominent characters, a black gentleman whom readers grow to respect, is against his son’s becoming friends with a white boy.
All of the students at the center spend half an hour to an hour reading independently each day, but there is also ample opportunity to hear good literature read aloud. Like most teaching at the center, the decision to read aloud to the students was based on research. It has been shown, Atwell points out, that listening to someone read builds students’ long-term memory. “Reading aloud isn’t just charming,” Maxim tells one of the Fayette teachers. “It is essential.’
Since the opening of the Center for Teaching and Learning, the dinner-table talk at the Atwell-McLeod house has not been confined to books. Recently, their daughter, Anne, who is now a 1st grader at the center, cleared off a space at the table after dinner to draw electronic circuits in series and in parallel on paper napkins. She wondered which kind of circuit would conduct more power. Anne was still thinking about her science class, where she’d learned about circuits by making them. Students at the center investigate science as real scientists do, by asking real questions and setting up small experiments to prove or disprove a theory.
Recently, when teachers at the center talked about how they were going to have children write formally about the work they were doing in science, Atwell dug up a series of papers that a rain forest biologist who visited the school had presented at a scholarly conference. The teachers studied them and decided to use them as a model.
Today, in keeping with this real-world philosophy, Donna Maxim starts a conversation about magnets with her 3rd and 4th graders by passing out magnets and asking students what they know about them. On a piece of chart paper, she writes their ideas: “Magnets attract and repel.” “They have poles.”
A student named Meghan interrupts with a question: “Do magnets attract all metals?” Maxim writes down Meghan’s question—it is, after all, the point of the lesson—and asks her what made her think of it. Meghan explains that she has a butterfly magnet at home that doesn’t stick to all surfaces.
Maxim hands a nail to each student and poses a question: “What will happen to the nail if it is kept near the magnet for a while?” The students think out loud: “It will make the nail lighter?” “It will make it rust?” “The magnet will `magnetify’ the nail.”
“Is a nail a magnet?” Maxim asks. Most of the students say no, but one boy says yes. Maxim asks him: “Will this nail pick up a paper clip like our magnet?” The boy says no.
“Is it a magnet?” she pushes.
The boy doesn’t budge; he says yes. Another student postulates that maybe all things are magnets, but in different degrees. With that, the class launches into a discussion about electricity, conductors, and insulators—all aspects of one of the school’s themes this year, energy.
It is just this kind of rigorous exchange that Patricia Dickinson, one of the teachers from Fayette Central School, says really shakes up her thinking. “Everything they do is a meaningful learning experience for the children,” she says. “They never ask the students to do anything unless it is authentic and has a reason. This is something I will think about constantly now. Is this really an authentic activity? Could I make it more so? How could I do it?”
The center’s teachers and the interns probe the issues surrounding thoughtful teaching in a series of meetings, often held in the teachers’ upstairs office. (The space is comfortable. The teachers each have their own desks, but they are grouped together to promote collegiality.) They first discuss some of the surface details the interns have noticed about the school. The way teachers and students remove their shoes when they enter the building, so the floors stay clean enough for students to sit and lie on. The way there are no chalkboards so there is less dust. The way students call their teachers by their first names so they realize the teachers are real people.
Then the talk turns to bigger issues. How to create a rigorous intellectual atmosphere in which students still feel safe enough to take risks. How to give students real choices in a structured way. As they get into the nitty gritty, the teachers quote liberally from research on teaching and from reading they’ve done in the subject areas.
As the week draws to a close, the conversation at these meetings focuses on the most pressing issue: How will these three teachers be able to go back to their public school and create a more thoughtful learning environment? Although their classrooms are housed in a trailer, the Fayette teachers hope to create a kind of ghetto for real learning next year. Among other things, they decide to meet weekly to talk about their practice, to make presentations to parents and administrators about their experience and ideas, to begin reshaping their classes, and to work to get doors installed between their classrooms.
But Atwell insists that this group will go away with something even more important. “They began to understand that they could be brave together,” she says, “that there was real power in the coherence of their theory. There was a new sense of what was possible when teachers who shared beliefs got together and tried to forge some common ground.”
Nancie Atwell calls the time she spent preparing to open the Center for Teaching and Learning “the nightmare part” of her life. When she went looking for a place to house the school, the first three sites fell through. Her decision to build a new school gave her more control over its layout but also filled the following months with hundreds of details she had to work out. Even after the land was purchased and a blueprint drafted, it took four months to get approval from the local planning board. The application was roughly 100 pages long and cost more than $4,000 to compile.
“I have never worked so hard, so long, so consistently on anything in my life,” she says. “They were 18-hour days—developing the plan, walking the site, taking measurements, digging holes, and meeting with groups of people about one thing or another.”
Fund-raising was an enormous chore. Atwell knew that her teaching model would not hold water if she served only the typical private school clientele. To make sure her students represented the socioeconomic profile of rural Maine, she wanted to offer generous scholarships to offset the $3,350 tuition. So she sent a mass mailing to teachers she had come into contact with over the years, asking for donations. (She now receives about $10,000 a year in checks, ranging from $10 to $100.)
But she still needed more money to build the school. “It’s been awful, the most humbling experience in my life,” she says of her fund-raising effort. “I think I have this great professional reputation, and I go to foundations, and they have never heard of Nancie Atwell, they have never heard of In the Middle, and, after I explain my model for changing schools, they tell me they won’t fund a local project.”
Despite grants from the Bingham Trust, the Betterment Fund, and The New York Times Foundation, and a $50,000 no-strings-attached donation from veteran actor James Whitmore, she still had to collect her pension from Maine’s teacher retirement fund to make a down payment on a mortgage. Some of her royalties from In the Middle go directly to the school. So far, she has received no pay from the center. Her husband keeps asking, half-jokingly, when she is going to draw a salary.
Despite her fiscal precariousness, Atwell is ready for a new challenge. She plans to open a secondary school by 1994. “If the model we have for the elementary school is powerful,” she says, “the next level of work is going to be absolutely groundbreaking.”
Others agree. Secondary education is her area of expertise, and there is a real paucity of models out there for middle and high school teachers. No matter what Nancie Atwell is doing, Donald Graves says, she provides a powerful example for others. “She expects so much of herself,” he says, “that to hang around her you start to think, 'My god, am I carrying my weight?’ She’s not demanding that you do it, but you want to join her professionally.”
The tough question is whether others can really follow in Atwell’s footsteps. “You can’t bypass the fact that she is one hell of a reader, writer, thinker, and learner,” Graves says. “On the other hand, there are lots of teachers out there who are on the verge and who just need the chance to see a real pro at work.”
Vol. 04, Issue 08, Pages 21-25