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Buffalo State grad advocates better ways of empowering young readers & writers

Avery Schneider
Nancie Atwell discusses the current state of English Language Arts education with teachers at SUNY Buffalo State College.

A 1974 Buffalo State College graduate and world-renowned educator is continuing to advocate for better ways of empowering young readers and writers.

At a roundtable discussion in Buffalo State College’s English Education Department, educator Nancie Atwell talked about the state of English Language Arts education with some of its soon-to-be teachers, current rookies, and long-time veterans.

A lot of great ideas and experiences come out of this group, but there is also a lot of concern. As Atwell explained, it’s not uncommon to find discrepancies between what research says about how people develop as readers and writers, and the standards and commercial programs being used to dictate classroom methods of teaching.

Credit Avery Schneider / WBFO News
Current English teachers discuss the challenges and successes they find in their field.

“There are also real pressures on teachers right now for their teaching to conform to somebody’s idea of what’s going to be on the test,” said Atwell. “And so, teachers are fearful of losing their jobs, and I think that’s a genuine fear.”

For those brave enough to mix test-based standards with alternate styles of teaching, and those who are well supported by their administration in doing so, Atwell advocates a “workshop” method of instruction. In the workshop method, students choose the books they read, and develop their own ideas as writers. But it’s a concept that can be challenging to accept for those with more traditional attitudes.

“I think that can be threatening to people because it’s not clear that students have ideas, having been assigned topics – for example, for writing – for most of their lives as students,” Atwell said. “But also that students can be trusted to choose good books; that they will recognize, in fact, good writing and will gravitate toward it; that they won’t just read junk or just not read at all.”

It really has to do with the power of stories and the power of self-expression.

In her experience, Atwell has found that when there’s a rich classroom library and an enthusiastic invitation to try particular books, kids will “read up a storm.” But at the same time, she also stresses that using the workshop approach is not a “laissez-faire” endeavor. Book by book, the classroom library is carefully curated by the teacher.

“The teacher’s very active in this situation both as somebody who reads literature, but also knows how to talk to kids about it, and also knows how to move them along to the next big idea or the next great book,” said Atwell.

And while students are advancing through the volumes on those shelves, they’re also writing in response to specific genre studies.

“So for example, we’re studying personal narratives, but the kids are writing memoirs about experiences from their own lives – not based on a prompt I gave them. Or students are writing essays and they’re writing about observations and research that they’ve made of things that concern them in the real world,” Atwell explained.

The work isn’t supposed to be easy, but it is authentic – giving students an experience that is less about the exercise of writing, and more about the practical application they’ll experience as adults.

“It really has to do with the power of stories and the power of self-expression,” said Atwell.

Credit Avery Schneider / WBFO News

But the structure of classroom teaching, and hesitation towards change aren’t the only challenges faced by Atwell and her fellow educators. For ELA teachers, use of technology can be troublesome, too, and Atwell said research shows that people remember more of what they read on the physical page than they do on screens. While some educators give in to the perceived ease of reading technology, others are beginning to pull away from its over-use in the classroom. They shift towards the workshop method’s requirement of reading from actual pages for at least an hour per day.

“We demand that it happens,” said Atwell. “Again, you can surrender to the technology, or you can say, ‘You can have all the screen time you want, but you also need this time with books and stories, this time with the printed page, this time with curled up with a good book.”

In a social-media world where – for many students – a premium is placed on brevity, Atwell said the short-hand literacy of 140 characters must be combatted with writing fully and reading real literature.

“The kids who read the most do better in math, science, and history,” she said. “They’re better spellers. They have richer vocabularies. They’re better writers. As adults, as citizens, these are the people who vote more. It’s been proved that people who read literature are more empathetic. Book readers live longer. We’ve got a lot of reasons that book reading should be the basis for what we’re doing in English Language Arts.”

From Atwell’s perspective, a strong English Language Arts education is not just about looking out for what happens in the classroom – it’s looking out for what happens in the rest of a student’s life.

Returning to SUNY Buffalo State College

Upon her return to SUNY Buffalo State College after decades teaching outside of New York, Atwell said she’s finding her alma mater’s education department is “on the ball” in terms of working with pre-service teachers, educators in the classroom and the Western New York Network of English Teachers.

Credit Avery Schneider / WBFO News

“They really are steeped in research and theory. They know the work, they know what should be going on in classrooms. And they’re such supporters of the teachers here.”

The department is “unified,” according to Atwell. Although she says that wasn’t the case when she attended the school and graduated in 1974.

Since then, Atwell has founded the Center for Teaching and Learning in Edgecomb, Maine, where she puts her workshop method to use.

Recognition for a lifetime of educating

Atwell’s visit to Buffalo was prompted by more than an opportunity to meet with current faculty and future educators. She was the recipient of the school’s English Education Student Association Lifetime Achievement Award and the English Education Alumni Award. Atwell said it means everything to her to receive the awards from her alma mater.

“This is where I decided that the classroom was the place I wanted to be for the rest of my life. This is the place where I did my student-teaching and felt at home the minute I walked into the classroom and knew this was a vocation that I could love for my whole life time.”

Atwell also won the inaugural Global Teacher Prize in 2015 with a $1 million award, which she donated to the Center for Teaching and Learning.