Book Review: Nancie Atwell’s In the Middle

by Joanna Waggoner-Norquest

 “The logic by which we teach is not always the logic by which children learn.”

Glenda Bissex

 The second edition of Nancie Atwell’s In the Middle is a text designed for teachers looking for an approach to teaching reading and writing that makes sense for adolescents.  In this thorough and instructive text, Atwell has pulled together her extensive knowledge and experience in order to share it with other practitioners of the art and craft of teaching middle school.  She advocates for the use of the workshop approach, a structure in the language arts classroom that ensures time each day for the following: “a poem, a writing-reading minilesson, independent writing and conferring, a brief read aloud… and time for independent reading” (96).

Atwell emphasizes the human side of teaching in her approach—“one of the best things middle school teachers can do for our students is acknowledge that the thorns of adolescence are real and cause real pain” (55).  She understands the unique challenges and opportunities that come with teaching middle school students and seeks to help provide teachers with the necessary tools and framework to establish and execute an effective reading and writing workshop.  From basic schedule ideas, lists of materials needed for workshops, and appendices full of reproducible resources, to in-depth discussions on the content of minilessons, genre studies, and honing reader response, Atwell has produced a complete guide to the philosophy and practical elements of leading an effective reading and writing workshop classroom.

While this text targets middle school teachers, as an elementary school teacher I found a wealth of ideas that I can easily incorporate into my own classroom.  Don’t be daunted by the length of this book—its 500+ pages are easily navigated thanks to detailed table of contents and excellent index.  While it is beneficial to read from cover to cover, reading only small relevant chunks would still be helpful.  This text is an excellent resource for any teacher, middle school or not, interested in pushing herself and her students to higher levels of achievement through the use of reading and writing workshop.

Note: The quotation from the beginning of this post is also found at the start of the first chapter in In the Middle.

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