How Nancy Atwell’s “Case for Literature” Really Got Me Thinking

On a day in which I could have done a slew of other things, most notably chores around my house that have been hanging around for a while, I found myself trying to catch up on my reading.  I’ve spent the better part of the last two weeks ignoring most of the interesting reading that has come my way.  I’ve been in classrooms, and if a pile of reading is my trade-off for that, it’s one I would gladly make any day.

We’ve completely reshaped our focus in our K-5 literacy program this year, and our teachers are doing a wonderful job transitioning to the program and all the new materials and methods that it requires.  The past two weeks were spent in as many of the classrooms as time would allow.  The program, a combination of Pearson’s Good Habits, Great Readers and a phonics program from Wilson called Fundations (with some modification for grades four and five), places emphasis on teaching students at their own instructional level.

We often speak about the kinds of data that we truly need in our schools and the amount of time and money that data would cost us.  We can’t possibly base our successes and failures on once-a-year indicators whose results are given back to us far too late for any decisions to be made that would affect the current year.  However, data that is gathered at multiple points, based on one-on-one interaction with students in both conversational and written format, is powerful, and I’ve just seen that.

Our teachers work with students in this program at various levels: instructional, shared, and independent.  The goal of the program is to instill the habits of great readers in these students while exposing them to various genres and styles both in reading and their own writing.  Being in these classrooms this year, and comparing them to the visits I made last year is like night and day.  The students, as young as second grade, are using the vocabulary of readers–we heard phrases from students like “text to self connection” and “my portfolio shows that I’ve been able to do that this year”–and interacting with all types of materials.

Nancy Atwell’s piece in EdWeek on Monday, entitled “The Case for Literature,” pushed me to really look at what I saw in those classrooms, and what I want to see as these students move to our middle and high schools.  We are spending a good part of their time in language arts at the elementary level showing them what great readers and writers do, their habits, their practices, and their traits and then asking them to practice those same skills in texts that are on a level that is not too complex, but not too simplistic.  By the time these students reach the middle school, as Atwell attests, these students need to immerse themselves in literature that is important to them:

They find their interests, needs, struggles, and dreams spoken for in the crafted stories that fill their library. More importantly, they get to experience the interests, needs, struggles, and dreams of young people unlike themselves. At a critical juncture, they learn about a diversity of human experiences and begin to consider both what they care about and who they might dare to become.

I see our students progressing from a high-frequency of skill building in the elementary schools, to more focused study of high-interest materials in the middle school.  Also, as Atwell points out about her students:

But most importantly, from my perspective as the teacher responsible for their literacy, my students become strong readers. They build fluency, stamina, vocabulary, confidence, critical abilities, habits, tastes, and comprehension.

and I don’t plan on losing sight of the reading skills our students have learned in elementary school as they enter into middle school, because there is that other element that we don’t talk about too much as they transition from elementary to middle school: the rampant loss of enthusiasm for school.  While not occurring in every classroom, I think it is worth noting the drastic change in energy from the elementary classroom to the middle school classroom.  In looking at continuing to ignite passion for reading, as Atwell wants us to do, we’ll need to look at a redesigning the energy within our middle school rooms.

How do we do that?  I am still working on that one.

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