Lessons Learned In Combat

Lessons Learned from Nancie Atwell

Last week I had the pleasure of hearing Nancie Atwell speak at the Durham, NH Public Library. I have been an admirer of hers for over fourteen years now, having solidified my role as a Nancie Atwell fangirl since my mentor, Gert, introduced me to the outstanding book In the Middle, the third edition of which is due to come out this November from Heinemann. Being the humble and gracious educator that Nancie is, she opened her talk by doing what few established educational gurus do–by describing some of her most glaring missteps as a teacher of writing.

As she spoke–of her attempts to teach her middle school students to write fiction by having them study young adult literature, create elaborate background lives of the main characters in their stories, and reference Freytag’s Pyramid when devising their plots–I found myself cringing and sliding lower and lower in my seat because I, too, had used all of these strategies to teach my middle school students to write fiction–and I, too, had failed miserably. (It didn’t help that I sat next to a former colleague of mine who, at one point, turned to me and said, to my utter dismay, “You used to do that!”) Instead of writing fiction that was compelling, meaningful, and at least partially plausible, Nancie’s students–mirroring the experiences of those I had taught–struggled through twenty and thirty-page stories that were at once staggeringly outlandish and painfully boring. Even more tragically, Nancie admitted, students’ interest in writing fiction waned dramatically.

Being the kind of educator that, as Tom Newkirk describes, continually “pushes for excellence” and relentlessly interrogates both her work and her process, Nancie, after years of reflection and refining her work, discovered a way to teach her students to write fiction that was compelling, concise, and enjoyable for both the reader and the writer.

How she did this is much more eloquently described in her book, but the essence of what she shared with us last week boils down–in incredibly simplistic terms– to the voracious reading and study of micro fiction, which Nancie did alongside her students using a variety of examples (including those included in this 1996 collection by Jerome Stern). As she explained the process she and her students took and shared extraordinary examples of the micro fiction her students wrote, I tried to figure out how the lessons Nancie was teaching us could apply to teachers’ work with younger students. Is there an “equivalent” genre for younger students to read and study (and try out in their own writing)? I wondered.

Upon further reflection, though, I realized that I was missing the point. (I was missing several points, if you want to know the truth.) While the examples of micro fiction Nancie and her students used were useful as mentor texts, we can attribute their usefulness, at least partially, to her students’ developmental readiness for these texts–these “micro” stories. Presumably, Nancie’s students had been offered multiple and ongoing opportunities to write–and to play with writing. Presumably they had, over the years, written a variety of pieces that fall into a variety of genres (including some that cannot be easily categorized into any particular genre). Presumably they’d had an enormous amount of choice in what they wrote and had been given the support needed to develop their writing (when appropriate and desired)  into a published piece. Presumably they’d had at least some practice studying and emulating the writing of mentors they love.

While many of us recognize that these are essential pieces of any writing “program,” the truth is that these are huge presumptions–of both the students that Nancie taught and of all students who enter middle or high school. And so as I have reflected on the wisdom that Nancie shared with me and other members of the audience last week, I have focused on the presumptions I made about her students’ writing instruction up to that point that helped make their experiments with micro fiction successful (besides the obvious fact that they were under the influence of one of the most knowledgable and revered teachers in the world).

And as I thought about our younger writers, I remembered that, for them, it is not about a particular genre, but about the writing habits, behaviors, and attitudes that we have the opportunity to influence as their teachers of writing. That, by turning the presumptions that I had into reality, we will equip our students with the tools and the mindset they need to become the writers they have the potential to be–whether they are lucky enough to have Nancie Atwell as their teacher or not.

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