Beans & Rice for the Soul

teaching, learning and living around the world

Why Nancie Atwell should be a household name

Teaching is a performing art.
And one of the greatest artists of our time is Nancie Atwell.

When I studied teaching at UVA, I specialized in secondary social studies.  History, geography, politics, and economics.  My first full time position at TASOK was a combination of middle school social studies and middle school language arts.  As soon as I accepted the job I was eager to read up on the language arts side of things. I reached out to a high school buddy who was also at the Curry School but in the English teaching program.

516kWKLsADL._UY250_Her #1 must read was Nancie Atwell’s book, In The Middle.

So I bought it.

It quickly became a dog eared, post-it-noted hot mess of a beloved, well used book.

Since the beginning of my career I’ve striven to be like Atwell.  When I heard she was one of ten finalists for the Global Teacher Prize I thought,

Yes! Of course!

I saw an interview of her where she highlights the fact that this prize is recognition for the entire profession.  She’s right. I like that.

What I don’t like is the common digression of “There are so many great teachers out there.” Actually, I think there AREN’T THAT many truly great teachers. There are few. I absolutely HATE the notion that ALL teachers make a difference. It’s just not true!  First of all, anyone I’ve ever spoken to across three continents… is able to name and describe their best and worst teachers. Second, the research also says not all teachers perform well.

From the Measures of Effective Teaching project,

Research shows that a teacher’s contribution matters more than anything else within a school. More than class size. More than school funding. More than technology. For decades, most initiatives to improve public education have focused on improving poor performing schools. But studies show that there are bigger differences in teaching quality within schools than there are between schools. This means that in the same school, a child taught by a less effective teacher can receive an education of vastly different quality than a student just down the hall who is taught by a more effective teacher.

So I say, Nancie Atwell! You deserve this prize. YOU.  You are NOT one among many who teach this well. You are a freaking one in a billion rock star.  You deserve MORE than a million dollars.


In her acceptance speech for the Global Teacher Prize, she focuses on the common link between her and the other nine finalists. She says,

We invite our students to engage in worthwhile school work and we ease the way whenever we can. This instruction isn’t indulgent or soft, it’s immersive and demanding. It’s satisfying for the teacher and the student. The goal is excellence, always. And engagement in the task, whether it’s teaching or learning, is the means to achieve excellence.

Let’s unpack this carefully crafted statement about my favorite performing art.

1. I invite my students to engage in worthwhile school work. This instruction isn’t indulgent or soft, it’s immersive and demanding. It’s satisfying for the teacher and the student.

This is about curriculum.  The word curriculum means a lot of things to a lot of people.  When I say curriculum I mean how any single teacher has intentionally designed their year, their units and their lessons.  Yes, planning is part of the art. Yes, there are a lot of things in poorly designed schools that get in the way- but that’s another topic for an entirely different post. The point is, great teachers do not fly by the seat of their pants.  Great teachers are intentional. Great teachers template. Great teachers iterate. Writing a year long course is it’s own work of art.  It’s writing a novel. There are chapters, there are sentences, there are words.  There’s a structure to it. It’s also a piece of music. There are tempos, dynamics and moods. Crescendos and decrescendos to every lesson, unit and year.

Great teachers know how
the angle of each single brush stroke
connects to the bigger picture.

My own journey on the path toward worthwhile work went a little something like this.

My first three years teaching middle school social studies I dabbled in various kinds of student work.  Reading a history textbook and answering questions.  Making vocabulary flashcards. Doing simulations.  Doing projects.  None of it felt like worthwhile work compared to the more authentic Atwell based language arts class I taught.  None of the social studies work built up to anything. I couldn’t see kids getting better and better at it.  I still didn’t know what the ‘it’ was for social studies.  (For more on that read this, this and this.)

In the end, I found it.

Very structured modeling and practice of historical research
was the authentic,
worthwhile work
that was immersive
and demanding,
that was satisfying for both teacher and student.

This last measure is SO important. Work that is “satisfying for both teacher and student.”

Just like I hate the notion that all teachers are somehow good, I also hate the notion that all possible approaches to writing curriculum are good.  So let’s further define Atwell’s measure.

There are all kinds of satisfying, feel good moments we teachers experience.  NPR recently did a great piece on why teachers teach. Because other adults are failing kids, because teaching is more complex than a desk job, because sometimes kids laugh at my jokes, because the kids need me, because of the smiles and hugs throughout the day…  Atwell’s measure, however, is NOT that broad.  Don’t get me wrong, these are all great things!  These are all things I, too, find satisfying about teaching!

But of all these reasons, only one teacher commented on Atwell’s measure.  Finding satisfaction in the WORK of our students is:

That’s it.

My best recommendation for how to start working towards worthwhile work is to read Schooling by Design. (As well as Atwell, of course, if you teach middle school.)

So, how can you tell if you’re measuring up to Atwell’s satisfaction standard? I think the answer lies in this nugget from her speech:

2. I ease the way whenever I can.

This is about feedback.  Great teachers CHECK work often. They play the staccato notes of rapid fire cold calling.  They walk, andante around the room reading over kids shoulders, all grazioso like.  They are jazz artists who improvise- not so much that they change the song completely- but enough to get students to engage with this song, this lesson, this work.

The frequency of checking and quality of feedback matters.  Great teachers check the work of as wide a variety of kids as possible, as often as possible.  The quality of the teacher’s response also matters… and THIS is how I knew, during my first few years teaching social studies, that I was NOT passing Atwell’s satisfaction test:

I hated marking.
I rarely gave good, authentic, important feedback.
I rarely saw kids “getting better” at stuff.
I never gave kids opportunities to apply my feedback.

I knew I had transformed my social studies class into a place of worthwhile, satisfying work when…

I LOVED reading and marking their work.
I gave good, authentic, important feedback.
I could SEE kids getting better at writing evidence based arguments.
I could SEE kids applying my feedback, from one paragraph to the next.

I found myself sharing their work with others. With other students, with other teachers. It was genuinely good.  I found myself taking photos of their work, so I could hold onto it for years to come.

I have hundreds of photos like this:

Sample 1 Sample 2 Sample 3

3. The goal is excellence, always. And engagement in the task, whether it’s teaching or learning, is the means to achieve excellence.

This is about high expectations for behavior, effort and work.  I could tell within my first few weeks of teaching that I wasn’t hitting this high bar.  How did I know?

Kids would call out.
Kids would interrupt me and each other.
Kids would not get started on their work right away.

Mostly that rowdy 8th grade class.  So I asked my colleague how he handled them and he explained a nice and simple, basic three strikes rule. This way, anytime they called out or didn’t follow directions I’d just say, “that’s 1.” Second time, “that’s 2.”  Third time means I call your parents and you have to copy Rudyard Kipling’s poem IF 10 times, due to me the next day.  Not a perfect system but it worked like a charm for those first few years.

A cartoon.


The combination of high expectations AND worthwhile work.
The cartoon makes it sound ridiculous.  But it’s NOT!
And one without the other equals less than great teaching.

I’ve seen control for the sake of control, without the worthwhile work.  That’s exactly what I was doing my first few years teaching. I’ve also seen teachers attempt worthwhile work and fall flat on their face because they didn’t have any management skills.

The combination is important.
In fact, it’s the ultimate.
The masterpiece.
The timeless symphony.
The great novel.

 Generating not only good behavior, but good effort on that worthwhile work we already talked about.  THAT’s the path to excellent work, to excellent teaching.

So you see how she packed SO much into that SHORT speech!
Don’t even get me started on the economy of words part of great teaching.

I could gush about her all day.

Like a music and dance fan gushes about Michael Jackson.
Like a basketball fan gushes about Michael Jordan.
Like a… reality tv fan gushes about… the Kardashians? Yikes.

Teaching is a performing art.
And Nancie Atwell is one of the greatest artists of our time.

That’s why she should be a household name.


2 comments on “Why Nancie Atwell should be a household name

  1. Alex Rich
    March 23, 2015

    Great post. I agree, not all approaches to teaching are equal. There is more than one way to be effective, but there are also many more ways to be ineffective. It’s easy to convince ourselves that all ways of teaching are equal and all teachers are special and good in their own way. That’s just a rationalization to justify maintaining the status quo.

  2. Miki Ambroziooooo
    March 24, 2015

    Teaching is a performing art – one of the first things in my diary from year 1 at St Jojo! I love the way you plot your own growth in this post, Sara!
    Thanks for the daily dose of inspiration!

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This entry was posted on March 23, 2015 by in books, humanities, inspiration, teaching.
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