In March this year a teacher from rural Maine in the United States, Nancie Atwell, was announced as the winner of the first ever $1 million Global Teacher Prize awarded by the Varkey Foundation. Here she describes the thinking behind her revolutionary teaching methods that have global adherents, as well as the success and acclaim that go with it...
I discovered my own love of books while bedridden with rheumatic fever as a child, but I never wanted to be a teacher. I wasn’t even going to go to college; nobody in my family had gone to college. My mom said I should just go to the local college, so I went along with it. After four years I had a BA in English and no idea what to do with it, so I stuck around and did student teaching. The first time I walked into a classroom as a teacher it felt like home and where I was meant to be; I had a real sense of belonging.
I felt so strongly about what was happening in my classroom and what my kids were capable of, that it seemed absolutely imperative to tell other teachers what my methods were, so that they could adopt those methods and their kids would have the same opportunities. I decided I would create a place where I could teach children and teachers at the same time. It’s why I founded and still to this day teach at the Centre for Teaching and Learning in Maine. It’s a non-profit demonstration school created for the purpose of developing and disseminating effective classroom practices. For 25 years now we’ve been teaching 40-50 visiting teachers these methods and it sends out these amazing ripple effects into the world. Teachers tell me that they use my methods in their schools in all sorts of different settings, because it just works.
The essential ingredient in my teaching style, and which makes it so different from many other methods, is choice. Children choose what they are going to read and they choose what they are going to write about. I cannot say enough about the power of reading, the vicarious experiences that children have, the people they meet, the ideas they encounter.
I think that stories are the English teacher’s "superhero-power". I can illustrate that with a story of a boy I taught a few years ago. He said he had never read a book. I watched him teach himself to read and he read 36 books as an eighth-grader, and in every instance it was because he wanted to know what happened next. He couldn’t wait for me to shut up in class so that he could get to the independent reading.
My own students, who are 12-14 years old, produce an average of 20 pieces of publishable writing and read an average of 40 books each year, everything from Harry Potter to Hamlet, and they excel as readers and critics.
It’s not possible any longer for children to just understand their local communities. They need to understand the world and have vicarious experiences of it. And they need to have empathy for the range of experiences that exist beyond their own borders. We’ve operated on a number of fronts to achieve this: we celebrate every kind of religious or ethnic holiday, but then there are the books! There is such rich children’s literature about children who live all over the world.
I am so lucky in that I get to demonstrate what is possible, teach what is useful, establish conditions that invite engagement, support the hard work of literary reading and writing, and enjoy the kinds of relationships with adolescents that drew me to education in the first place.
The secret of all this is that this is relatable to everyone – students and teachers alike – we all share this. What teachers needed to hear from me, when I was travelling around to introduce them to this methodology, was that this is real and how it applies to them. In all the years that I journeyed at weekends to give speeches, I told whoever was introducing me: "Really, you don’t need to talk about the number of books that my students read in a year or the awards, just tell these people I taught yesterday, that’s really what they need to hear, that I was in the classroom yesterday like they were."