By Maureen Barbieri
“A pitcher cries for water to carry
And a person for work that is real.”
Marge Piercy, ‘To Be of Use’
Sunday, March 15, 2015, for teachers around the world, a day that will live in grace, honor, and pride. Nancie Atwell of Edgecomb, Maine has won the first annual Global Teacher Award of one million dollars in recognition of her lifetime achievement as a classroom teacher. The competition attracted more than 5000 applicants from 107 countries. Ten finalists were flown to Dubai, United Arab Emirates, for a conference in recognition of excellence in teaching.
Nancie will donate the entire prize to the school she founded, The Center for Teaching and Learning, in Edgecomb. As I watched the awards ceremony via live streaming on my computer, I was moved by various speakers’ memories of teachers who had been influential, teachers who had encouraged, listened, challenged, supported, and ultimately made a difference in their lives. Just by establishing such an award, which some are calling ‘The Nobel Prize for Teaching,’ the Varkey Foundation is honoring teachers everywhere, acknowledging that their work is profound, long-lasting, vital.
Surely Nancie is the quintessential teacher, the one who has touched not only the lives of thousands of students over the years, but also the lives of countless teachers who have come to the Center for Teaching and Learning as interns, who have heard her speak at conferences or studied with her on Martha’s Vineyard, and who have read her many professional books and articles. Her voice has been loud, clear, and compelling for as long as I can remember.
I first encountered Nancie’s work when I was a graduate student at the University of New Hampshire, taking a research course with Donald Graves. “Do I have a book for you,” he said, handing me three manuscript chapters of the first edition of In the Middle. I was an eighth grade English teacher, like Nancie, and when I read about her way of teaching, my heart started to pound, my throat closed, and chills ran up my spine. She wrote about passion, about loving books and poems the way some people love the ocean or the sunrise. She described the vulnerability of trying to write with candor. I knew beyond a doubt I must be in the right profession, if this is what teaching could be. While most teachers I knew used literature anthologies with prescribed questions at the end of each selection, or distributed multiple copies of the same district selected classical novel to every kid in the class, Nancie invited her students to choose their own books, and before long, they fell in love with reading.
Instead of dreary writing prompts asking everyone to write on the same topic, Nancie’s kids ‘sat at the big desk’ and chose what they wanted to write about, both the subject and the genre. Nancie took her kids seriously. Their voices mattered to her. Their lives mattered – their fears, hopes, opinions, passions – all of it became the language arts curriculum. When In the Middle: New Understandings about Writing, Reading, and Learning, came out in 1987, the one with the beautiful pink cover, I was thrilled. She wrote in such concrete detail that I, like legions of others, began to see how I could emulate her.
Nancie’s way of being a teacher shook me to the core. She saw teaching as intellectually rigorous, and told us this was why she loved it so. “When I found myself in the classroom,” she said, “I knew I was home.” She described her own very literate life of reading novels, essays, newspapers, educational journals, research articles, and, most beloved of all, poems. Her reading life informed her teaching, so she decided to set up her classroom to resemble a conversation around her dining room table, each reader encouraged to share reactions and perspectives, the way Nancie and her husband and friends did all the time.
She took her writing seriously too, sharing drafts with her students and showing them how she made decisions as a writer. In this way she reminded me of Donald Murray. Like him, she celebrated discovery in the act of writing, delighted in finding new insights. It was not surprising to learn that her students were embracing writing, entering and winning contests, and using writing in their lives in authentic ways – letters to the editor, poems as gifts to their moms, book and music reviews, advocacy essays – beyond the school walls. This is what I wanted for my students.
Besides learning how to teach from looking at her own reading and writing and from keeping up with research on the art of teaching, Nancie learned from her students. “The biggest lessons I’ve learned as a teacher,” she wrote, “I’ve learned from my kids.” If we paid close enough attention, she told us, the students would show us what they needed. She was the first classroom teacher I knew who did research right in her own classroom. Action research, it came to be called, and it was empowering. If Nancie could do this, then why not us?
When she received the David Russell Award for research at NCTE in 1990, she was characteristically generous, “By giving me this award,” she said, “you are saying to classroom teachers everywhere, your work counts as real research.” Surely on that day every teacher listening sat up a bit taller and felt a bit more determined to listen carefully in the classroom, so as to learn what it was our students needed from us.
She showed generations of teachers that we too could become part of the professional conversation. By taking the details of the craft to heart, she told us it was important to share our own observations and experiences and to be specific. Being a good teacher, she believed, meant knowing reading, writing, and literature, knowing adolescent development, and knowing the specific kids in front of us. Soon other teachers were submitting articles to professional journals and even writing books of our own. She was the mentor we needed, the teacher we were proud to stand beside, shoulder to shoulder, embracing workshop teaching. I thought of her every single day I was in the classroom and every single time I sat at the writing desk. How many authors who write about their teaching to this day would say the same?
In 1990 she decided to open her own school, The Center for Teaching and Learning, to work with other teachers and families to provide excellent education from the earliest days. Now a K-8 school, CTL is a happy place, where poetry and art grace every wall, where special attention has been paid to provide comfortable spaces for reading, writing, doing science experiments, and making music. Nancie and her colleagues welcome teachers from all of the country to stay for extended periods to observe, question, and discuss what happens there every day, taking back plans to reinvigorate their own curricula. With each new book she’s written, Nancie has shared the evolution of her thinking, moving towards more direct instruction and more structure. But her priorities remain clear: student choice, time in class to read and write, and authentic, ongoing response from the more experienced reader and writer, aka THE TEACHER. She shows us again and again, what it means to be literate, what it means to care about kids, what it means to learn.
“The days that make us happy make us wise,” Nancie said in her acceptance remarks, “The ten of us on this stage know this to be true.” Typically gracious, she expressed her admiration for the other nine finalists for the Global Teacher Prize. Looking at their faces, I could tell they share her passion, her energy, and her commitment. Knowing this gives me hope for children everywhere.
Congratulations, Nancie, and thank you for sharing your insight, your experiences, and your convictions. Thank you for all you have done over the decades to challenge us, support us, and lift us up. Thank you for making us better teachers, for reminding us, again and again, this is ‘work that is real.’
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