Teachers learn to teach writing

School's founder says students should choose among real-life projects

May 02, 1999|By Jennifer Sullivan | Jennifer Sullivan,CONTRIBUTING WRITER

Sharon Malec blames the seeming chaos of her classroom at Beall Junior High School in Allegany County on tips she got from a teacher in Maine.

In an effort to make writing less of a chore, pupils in her seventh-grade English classes are not given assignments, but choices. While one pupil might be writing a fan letter to a favorite rock star, another might be writing poetry, and another drafting a short story.

Taking the advice of Nancie Atwell, Malec and teachers across the country are turning their classrooms into writing workshops.

Atwell's methods are so popular that a recent appearance at Park School lured about 250 elementary, middle and junior high teachers from across Maryland -- and the subject was deemed so important that their schools paid a $119 fee for each to attend.

The half-day "New Bridges to Literacy" seminar featured Atwell and three other instructors from the Center for Teaching and Learning, a private, nonprofit school for kindergarten to eighth grade that she founded in Edgecomb, Maine. The Maryland teachers shared their methods with their Maine counterparts, and learned new ways to spice up writing lessons.

"Nancie has done pioneering work with the writing workshops," said Marcia York, reading specialist at Watkins Mill Elementary in Montgomery County. York, who attended with two teachers from her school, believes Atwell's book, "In the Middle," propelled teachers away from the five-paragraph essay.

"It [Atwell's book] puts you in an environment to take risks," York said.

The first edition of "In the Middle" was published in 1987 by Heinemann, a New Hampshire publishing group that specializes in resources for teachers. In it, Atwell relates her experiences as a middle school teacher in Maine, including her drive to create a more workshop-like setting in the classroom.

A second edition, which includes material based on work at her school, was published in March 1998. She considers the 80-pupil school a laboratory for experimenting with new teaching methods. To support it, she and the seven other teachers on the staff have traveled as far west as Denver and as far south as Miami to talk about their methods.

Atwell, who teaches reading, writing and history to a mixed class of seventh- and eighth-graders, said her pupils produce 25 pieces of writing a year, and she expects most to see their work published -- online or in print. Some have appeared in "Voices from the Middle," a national publication for student writing.

"Teachers know in real life people don't write book reports or five-paragraph essays," Atwell said, adding that teaching children to write short stories -- and metaphors -- is more important.

In addition to Atwell's talk on writing workshops, teachers at the seminar heard lectures about writing and literature in science and history, and about minilessons for writing and reading.

Anne Thompson, who teaches a class of fifth- and sixth-graders at the Maine school, spoke about writing and using different kinds of literature, poetry, songs, and nonfiction to teach history.

Pupils choose what they want to read for writing assignments. Teachers need to go beyond subject matter, Atwell said, and talk about themes and techniques common in writers' style. Atwell also advised teachers interested in understanding students' writing troubles to write and get published themselves.

Atwell and her staff believe their methods could be used in all types of educational settings. But teachers -- particularly those in public schools -- have to find ways that fit with their challenges of preparing students for mandatory state tests, contending with large classes and working with children at varying levels of ability.

Bill Fidyk, a second-year English teacher at Central Middle School in Anne Arundel County, said Atwell was "considered the guru" by his professors at Pennsylvania State University. But he noted that she has one class of 18 students, while he has five classes of seventh-graders -- the biggest having 34 students -- in levels ranging from above average to special education.

Atwell suggests that teachers hold one-on-one daily conferences with students. A good idea, said Fidyk, who attended the seminar. But with all the students in his five classes, that would take a week.

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