Nancie Atwell is the renowned founder of the Center for Teaching and Learning, an award-winning non-profit independent K-8 demonstration school in Edgecomb, Maine, where she teaches seventh- and eighth-grade writing, reading and history. She is the author of numerous books, including the classic “In the Middle: A Lifetime of Learning About Writing, Reading, and Adolescents,” which has inspired teachers for years, and she has won numerous awards, including the first-ever $1 million Global Teacher Prize given earlier this year by the Varkey Foundation.
Atwell’s school has a national reputation for its research-based literacy methods which focus on engaging and challenging students while fostering relationships between faculty and parents. A hallmark of the school are the collections of books, carefully selected by adults, from which students can choose. Afterward the children develop lists of books they found inspiring, an effort to help guide other young people looking for great books to read. The recommended book lists are on the school’s website and popular with teachers around the country.
Here’s a speech Atwell gave at the Clinton Global Initiative in New York City about the importance of providing books to children in classrooms, allowing them to choose the ones that interest them and then giving them time to lose themselves in the stories:
Ladies and gentlemen:
I’m honored to be speaking at the Clinton Global Initiative. The CGI has become one of the world’s most important forums for creating solutions to its most pressing problems. This year’s meeting focuses the global conscience at a significant moment for our planet. The challenges are daunting: climate change, refugees from areas of conflict, hunger, disease, and the access of every child to a quality education.
In March in Dubai, I was privileged to share a stage with nine brilliant, inspiring teachers who excel at providing students with a quality education. When President Clinton presented me with the Global Teacher Prize, I was astonished and humbled. I felt like a character in a book from my classroom library, a story about how literacy can change the course of a life. I’m here tonight because of the transformative power of reading.
When I was growing up, there were no actual books in any of my classrooms. Instead, they were packed with reading materials, reading activities, reading kits, and basal textbooks we took turns reading aloud from in small groups. There weren’t any books in my home, either. My father was a postman, my mother waitressed, and we didn’t have time, money, or a family tradition of reading.
Then, when I was 10, my raggedy throat and aching joints were diagnosed as rheumatic fever, and I was sent to bed for six months. When I began to grow crazy with boredom, my mother ventured into the local library in search of stories she thought I might like. Through her valiant efforts I met Beezus and Ramona, Henry and Ribsy, the March sisters, and the heroes of Landmark biographies: I escaped my bedroom in the company of Clara Barton, Sam Adams, Jenny Lind, and Francis Marion the Swamp Fox, and I vicariously experienced their perseverance and courage.
The day my mother delivered Frances Hodgson Burnett’s “The Secret Garden” to my bedside, I wrinkled my nose at the musty cover and relegated it to the bottom of the pile. When, out of desperation, I finally cracked it open, it was just the right book at just the right time. I was Colin the invalid; I was Mary the obstinate. I was captivated and consoled. I read “The Secret Garden” four times that winter.
All that quiet time reading stories chosen for me by an adult who loved me changed me forever. Now I had all these narratives inside me, all these people, and all this knowledge, not to mention a passion for books and the ability to read fast and with feeling. Graham Greene wrote, “There is always one moment in childhood when a door opens and lets the future in.” This was my moment.
Once I had the habit, I continued to read, but not the books I was assigned by English teachers. I bluffed my way through “My Antonia” and “A Tale of Two Cities,” while at home I enjoyed an underground curriculum of my own devising—Orwell, Fitzgerald (but not “Gatsby”), James Michener, Ian Fleming, and that classic novel of the 1960s, “Rosemary’s Baby,” which my girlfriends and I debated in furious whispers in the back of English class. As a high school student I enjoyed a great social life. I never considered college, let alone teaching. That wasn’t a family tradition, either.
At the end of my senior year of high school, I learned that my scores on the New York State Regents Exam, combined with my parents’ low income, qualified me for free tuition to any state university. My mother, a Depression baby, said, “It’s free. Give it a try.” So I enrolled at a local commuter college where they took all comers. And I loved it.
College was nothing like high school. Suddenly I had autonomy. I could read course descriptions, or check out the titles in the college bookstore that were assigned by the different professors, and pursue my own interests. I engaged full-throttle and eventually declared a major in English.
At the end of four years I had a Bachelor of Arts degree but no idea what to do with it. So I stuck around for an extra semester and did a stint of student teaching, calculating that education was a reliable fallback if nothing better turned up.
The first time I took over a class, I knew I was home. I couldn’t believe people got paid for spending their days talking with kids about novels and poems and plays. Forty years later, I still can’t believe it, my relationships with student readers—and writers— have given me so much pleasure.
As a young English teacher, I began to push against the boundaries of my profession in search of sense and satisfaction for my students. I researched methods and developed my own, wrote about my experiments and my kids’ experiences, and raised my voice to advocate for rich literacy for everyone’s students. I discovered I could have an influence—that students in diverse settings would benefit as my own did if only I could get the word out to other teachers in compelling, accessible ways. This year saw the publication of my thirteenth book about teaching—about what matters, what works, and what lasts.
That’s my teaching story. Every teacher deserves a story about his or her growth and fulfillment as a professional, just as every student deserves a great education. We here tonight have it in our power to make this happen.
People who care about children and the future are heartened by the progress being made toward universal access to primary school education, which was one of the U.N.’s core Millennium Development Goals. Around the globe, more children than ever are attending school.
Which made it that much more disheartening to read the latest round of PISA scores when the OECD released them this spring. Despite a substantial increase in attendance, a shocking percentage of 15 year olds around the globe are failing to achieve even minimal levels of literacy—in the U.S., almost a quarter of our kids. It turns out that methods matter, a lot. What happens once children are in a classroom is at least as important as getting them there in the first place.
I lucked into my literary life. Students shouldn’t have to be lucky to discover that book reading is just about the best thing about being human and alive on the planet. Policy makers have either bypassed or dismissed the conclusions of a wealth of evidence-based research about the power of voluminous, independent experiences with books. Instead, politics, ideologies, and commercial interests have set the agenda for how teachers teach reading.
We now have a quarter century of studies that document three findings: literacy blooms wherever students have access to books they want to read, permission to choose their own, and time to get lost in them. Enticing collections of literature—interesting books written at levels they can decode with accuracy and comprehend with ease—are key to children becoming skilled, thoughtful, avid readers.
At my school, where the students represent a range of ability levels and socioeconomic backgrounds, every child becomes a skilled, thoughtful, avid reader. The teachers do for our students what my mother did for me: we search for books that will intrigue them. Nothing equals the power of the right book at the right time. Whether or not they have books in their homes, all students benefit when their teachers take care of them as readers—when we cultivate diverse secret gardens.
Surrounded by good books the faculty collects, our students decide which ones they’ll read. Because they decide, they engage. Because they engage, they experience the volume of committed practice that leads to stamina, comprehension, and a passion for reading. My own students, ages 12-14, finished an average of 40 titles a year, from “Harry Potter” to “Huck Finn” to “Hamlet.” They excelled as readers and critics. More importantly, they discovered what reading is good for, now and in their literate lives to come. Choice and time encourage readers of every ability and background.
Take Mike. He entered our K-8 school as an eighth grader. On a survey students complete on the first day, he wrote that sports was his favorite school subject and comics his favorite genre to read. He couldn’t name any book he’d like to read someday. He identified no strengths as a reader. His only goal was “Staying with the book. Sometimes I doze off.” He said he hadn’t read a single book over the previous twelve months. He summed up his feelings about himself as a reader in one word: “Bad.” At home that night, when I read his survey responses, I groaned so loudly I woke up the dog.
The next morning I asked him, “You read zero books last year? How can that be?” He explained that he’d been given one fat textbook in English class. The teacher assigned them to read a selection and answer the questions at the end. If the assignment was homework, he copied someone else’s or just didn’t bother to do it. If it was classwork, he “fake read.” He explained, “Usually I played with a computer game that I hid behind the book while I fake read it.” When I reviewed his school records, I found failing grades, standardized test results that placed him at the 15th percentile in reading, and a diagnosis of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.
Mike did not have a lot going for him as a reader. But what I had going for Mike, as his new teacher, was an unbeatable combination: proven methods for teaching reading, a schedule with daily chunks of time for independent reading, and a classroom library packed with great stories. The lure of stories is a reading teacher’s superhero power.
At the start of class each day, I introduced books from my library—told a bit of the plot and ended on a cliffhanger as an invitation to intrigued readers. With Mike in mind, on the second day of school I book-talked three sports novels. He practically ripped one of them out of my hands, he was so eager to find out what happened next. It was the right book at the right time.
Mike finished Carl Deuker’s “High Heat,” about a crisis in the life of a high school baseball player, in a week. Technically it was beyond his reading ability, but my introduction, a compelling plot and main character, his curiosity, and baseball enticed him into a fictional world and held him. When I circulated among the readers in his class to confer with them about their books, he could tell me what was happening and what he thought so far. He was comprehending. That was all I needed to know.
Then he was on the lookout for the next book on the list he kept of titles that intrigued him. The genres included realistic fiction written for young adults, fantasy, free-verse novels, journalism (like “Friday Night Lights”), memoirs (“The Glass Castle” was a favorite), and horror (lots of Stephen King).
By June, Mike had finished 36 books. Without worksheets or workbooks, phonics instruction, discussion questions, vocabulary lessons, close-reading sessions, or digital platforms, he became a motivated, adept reader. He developed reading habits, critical abilities, preferences, and, for my money, one of the surest signs there is of full, rich literacy: he had plans for what he wanted to read next.
Anyone’s achievement, child or adult, is driven by interest. Until eighth grade, Mike had no reason to be interested in reading. But when he was offered vicarious adventures with characters he came to care for, he wanted to practice reading. Through voluminous practice, he became literate in the most authentic, productive sense of the word. He became a reader of books.
And he became a better person—more knowledgeable about life, more curious and compassionate, attuned to a range of human experience, and a fully-fledged member of a community of adolescent boys who talked about, traded, and liked books. I never had enough.
Multiple studies have documented the impact of classroom libraries: there are more books in the classrooms of high-achieving schools, and more students who read frequently. As reading researcher Richard Allington put it, “If I were working in a high-poverty school and had to choose between spending $15,000 each year on more books for classrooms and libraries, or on one more [teaching assistant], I would opt for the books … Children from lower-income homes especially need rich and extensive collections of books in their school …”
And they need actual books, not electronic devices that store books. Real books don’t require electricity or batteries. They survive rapid changes in technology and digital storage. While my students did experiment with e-readers and Kindles, all of them reverted to paper books. They said they missed the sense of geography they enjoy with a real book, where they’re aware of how many pages the author has left to resolve the plot, and when they can flip back with ease to clear up a confusion. They remember more of what they read—and even experience healthier sleep patterns—when they curl up at night with a real book instead of a bright screen.
And they enjoy richer social lives. The covers of books function as badges that students bring with them to class. Without them, children miss out on the camaraderie—the questions, advice, opinions, and literary gossip—that develops within a community of book lovers. It’s hard to reap the social benefits of reading when everyone is carrying around a grey screen.
If I had funds beyond my dreams, I’d fill the classrooms of the world with books that tell stories, because engagement in reading them is the single most powerful method for fostering reading growth. If I had influence beyond my dreams, I’d direct the educational decision-makers of the world to pay attention to literacy scholarship: to focus on comprehension, bring children’s literature from the periphery of reading instruction to the foreground, and put engaging stories front and center. And if I had the ears of leaders of NGOs, foundations, and the U.N. —um, I guess I sort of do—I’d advocate for Global Classroom Libraries, a cooperative initiative to build sturdy bookshelves, purchase interesting, appropriate books, and train teachers how to teach with children’s choices, building on the kind of work that Room to Read is engaged in in ten countries in Africa and Asia.
Students at my school continuously assess their own progress as learners. In June, when I asked the kids in his class to describe their breakthroughs as readers, Mike wrote:
I never really read before. I’m picking out good books now. I’m enjoying reading. I’m noticing the way authors use details, create a theme, and make a movie in the reader’s mind. I know when it’s right to go through the whole text or just skim it. I notice when authors slow down the story so they can highlight the important stuff. I can put myself into the lives of characters. I can tell when I’m bored, because I made a bad book choice, and find another book. I’ve learned what kind of books I like. I have three favorite authors: Walter Dean Myers, Gordon Korman, and Ned Vizzini. I love teenage dialogue, humor, strong characters, and strong themes. As long as I can choose good books, I will always like reading. That is my biggest breakthrough of all.
Instructional fads come, and they go. But human needs and desires remain constant. Every student—every Mike in every country in the world—deserves the pleasure and meaning that literate adults find in the pages of books we love. Nurturing that love is the rightful work of reading teachers everywhere. It’s not just a nice thing to do—it’s the essential thing to do if we’re ever to increase literacy achievement around the globe.