Atwell: Creating Readers for Life

My job this week was to make sure that people are participating on the blog so I am going to start conversation based on the readings I found interesting and hope that everyone will pitch in their thoughts. I could deeply appreciate what I read of Nancie Atwell’s The Reading Zone, because throughout my adolescent years, reading was my favorite hobby, aside from sports. I loved it when teachers let us read alone in class, which wasn’t very often, but enough to keep me interested, so that when I got home, I would finish all the reading assignments for the week, and then move on to whatever I was reading on the side. I was always looking for my next great book, and I think the system that Atwell has devised within her classroom is, well, awesome.

All of our class discussions have really made me think about my position on if every kid in class needs to be reading the same book, and according to Atwell, this is not only silly, but also unfair to the kids who are more or less advanced readers. I think that she provides a lot of support for why kids should be allowed to read whatever they want, as long as they are reading, which they probably will be if they have a say in the decision making process. Her method gives the kids an individualized reading experience. However, they eventually have the opportunity to share with their peers through book reviews, which I still frequently consult before choosing a book. Further, her method gives the students ownership, in that they can decide what they like to read and it allows them to read comfortably and at their independent level (Holiday, Challenge, or Just Right). Her method especially emphasizes that reading isn’t always an “efferent” process where we read “to acquire information”, but that reading is also “aesthetic”, when we read for pleasure. I think this last point is especially important, because very few people I know read for pleasure. My Dad, my boyfriend, my best friends, all don’t read as a hobby, something that flabbergasts me but also saddens me. Reading books/literature was always a tedious process for them, not something that they ever experienced as fun, relaxing and pleasurable. If my Dad has been given a choice regarding what to read, he would have read sports lit, and my boyfriend would have undoubtedly liked Gary Paulsen, and anything related to outdoors. My best friends could easily relate to contemporary works by Jenifer Weiner or Jodi Picoult. There is something for everyone, and I love that Atwell’s classroom appreciates this fact. I also think that Atwell’s techniques all emphasize how reading can be a fun activity and as she stated, help children become readers for life.

I was also shocked and impressed with some of the books that her students were reading! I didn’t read Vonnegut until college. I didn’t read The Things They Carried until high school, and even then we didn’t read the entire book. I have never read Girl, Interrupted, but I would love to. And I just finished The Glass Castle, and Pride and Prejudice within the last year, at age 21. Clearly, people were underestimating my reading abilities, if these are the books and topics that 7th and 8th graders are reading.

Any thoughts on Atwell?!




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10 responses to “Atwell: Creating Readers for Life

  1. jillian24

    I loved this reading so much I’m going to read it again! I’m just lucky that it was my assigned reading for this week. I could imagine myself in a classroom where lessons took ten minutes and then we read for the rest of the period. I was very excited about the resources that were listed throughout each chapter and I found myself structuring my unit around this concept.

    Still, reading and reading comprehension are not a full class in most schools, so there is a balance that must be established. The other readings stressed equally important aspects of English education and we’re still only discussing the reading portion. Writing has to play a role.

    I can’t imagine anyone challenging the value of this strategy, although I’m sure some do (just not in Dr. Stearns’ class!). So, my question is how do we balance the readings? Can we create a reading zone in a classroom with so many goals? How? How much time each week should be designated for reading in class? Should we not assign other homework to make sure students continue to read? Has anyone ever participated in a class with a regularly scheduled reading workshop?

  2. ll123

    Hi, Everybody,
    My job for this week is to facilitate class discussion about Nancie Atwell’s The Reading Zone. Throughout this wonderful book, Atwell emphasizes the importance of helping kids to become skilled, passionate, habitual, critical readers. As we see one example after another of Atwell’s kids “lost in the reading zone” (13), we have to whole-heartedly agree upon what she concludes,” The only surefire way to induce a love of books is to invite students to select their own.” I also read another book I Won’t Read And You Can’t Make Me (by Marilyn Reynolds), which has confirmed Atwell’s successful practice in her classroom. However, as far as I admire Atwell’s method and passion, I still have the following problems that I believe I will have to encounter when I actually become the classroom teacher, and I am eager to know what your opinions are regarding the following questions.
    1. How can we balance the time in between the preparation for standardized test, the Dept. chair’s concrete requirement and our own time for the reading zone?
    2. I wonder if it is realistic for us to follow Atwell’s footsteps when we enter into a new classroom, when we don’t have her fame, when we need that tenure contract while doing what we believe definitely benefits our kids. Shall we be accused of being lazy? Or being not qualified?
    3. I am kind of worried , deep in my heart, that what if one kid asks me to comment about one specific book that he/ she is reading, and I have never heard of, do I go ahead reading it? In that case, I will spend most of my time on reading too many books from different kids’ list. Do I have enough time to prepare my lessons?
    4. How can I find all those books that can potentially satisfy my kids’ taste? Or do I follow Gruwell’s example (buy them out of my own pocket, and in her case, out of her father’s pocket. Lucky for her!)
    As a foreigner, I know for sure that Atwell’s method can be used in a college classroom as in Dr. Stearns’ class, which we have all benefit from it; I am also sure that I can use it in my future college classroom in China since we do have certain flexibility to choose texts and methods if we are college teachers. But I know for sure it won’t work in China’s primary to secondary school at all because the competition for grades there is incredible. By L. L.

  3. sunyprof

    Dear Li, thank you for these thoughtful questions which make a great deal of sense to me. Here is how I would, in brief, answer them:

    1. Standardized testing and reading workshop–“. . . I make time every day for our students to curl up with good books and engage in the SINGLE ACTIVITY (my caps) that consistently correlates with high levels of performance on standardized tests of reading ability. And that is FREQUENT, VOLUMINOUS READING” (she italicizes this last line.)

    Ok, next question–you see–my and her point is that all the worksheets in the world will not help kids enter the reading zone, and will most definitely not help them become more sophisticated readers. If anything, they will have and do have the opposite impact.

    2. Being accused of laziness and reading workshop–well, the one thing creating a culture of reading takes is ENERGY, incredible energy. I was constantly in motion doing all of the things she describes, always with the end in mind–finding books that my kids would enjoy reading and then working on ways to get them to talk with confidence and passion about them. Take another look at what she says in chapter. 4 (EASE) about what she and her colleagues do as teachers of reading–bottom of p. 40. Sure sounds like a busy and active “teacher” life to me!

    There is NO research that shows kids become better readers in test prep classroom cultures. Your administrators need to know that! And if they don’t, you can show them!

    3. Do I have to read everything and readers workshop–yes, the only way reading workshop works TOTALLY is if the teacher is a sister/fellow reader, a traveler on the same highway so to speak. No, you don’t have to read everything kids read but you do have to be a reader yourself–I think–primarily so that you know the zone and you know that impassioned territory as well as you know your own face. You need to enter it often yourself to be credible with your kids.

    An Eng. teacher’s “lessons” are only two–1–create opportunity for students to read good books (text) and talk about them (note Atwell has some “rules” about what good books are that you may or may not share) and 2–develop the kinds of relationships with your students that insure they will invest in their reading lives and continue to challenge themselves as readers.

    4. Finding Books and reading workshop–over time you can easily build a classroom library. Even if you don’t have Erin Gruwell’s father, there are many many sources for cheap books and opportunities to acquire the hundreds of title she has collected. That happens over time and a library the size of Atwell’s is not necessary for one just starting out to still be able to develop a reading workshop culture.

    5. Most important, I’m not sure what you see as the contradiction between reading workshop and kids’ competing for good grades. Why wouldn’t they get good grades in a reading workshop classroom culture?

    I wonder as we read Atwell if we shouldn’t all reflect on how we came to be good readers. Mandy does some of that in her blog post. Don’t be afraid to challenge the “what is” in schools when it makes little sense to you–e.g., that kids get to be better readers if the teacher reads the book to them or, well, what are some of the “myths” about reading that you think many schools perpetuate? You could probably list a bunch. KES

  4. allison

    I also thoroughly enjoyed Atwell’s book. I would like to address Jillian and Li’s questions. You both ask how we deal with students reading their own books, as well as the regular class readings. I think Professor Stearns has given us a great example in our own class. What if high school English classes had a “book club” time before the start of each class? Would this work? I think it might. It would certainly have to be a relaxed setting, as ours is.
    Another possible method would be to impliment an out-of-class reading zone. This oculd be an after-school or before-school group.
    Or, What if students could take the “reading zone” as an elective? Although Atwell might discourage the academic slant to this idea, it would allow students the chance to choose their own books and give them the space and time to discuss them. I think such a “reading zone” elective would make it easier for them to explore personal reading goals.

    I would also like to address Li’s fourth question “How can I find all those books that can potentially satisfy my kids’ taste? Or do I follow Gruwell’s example (buy them out of my own pocket, and in her case, out of her father’s pocket. Lucky for her!)”
    Li, I had a similar dilema last week involving the small group discussions from class. I was wondering how we could equip students with texts without the support of the school. Check out Professor Stearn’s posts under the thread “Last Night’s Small Group Challenges.” She has some great suggestions. I found the most helpful to be getting the texts for free online.
    I had my own idea this weekend, too. Why not visit the library book sales? They usually have cheap books (sometimes $1 for a whole bag of them) Just don’t be taking all of the good ones before I get there 😛 hope that helps!!

  5. mandygrl101

    Alison- I think all of your ideas you present above are great. I especially like your idea about having “Book Club” in the beginning of each class. This would be a wonderful way to begin a high school English class. Having Book Club would be an immediate way to get the students reflecting on their books and interacting with their peers and the teacher. This is also an interesting method, because I think that if we can get and keep their attention in the beginning of class, they will hopefully be more in tune for the duration.
    Further, Book Club could be done with books picked by the teacher or with individually chosen books. I like the latter, because it gives students ownership and considers their personal preferences. This is a wonderful opportunity for teachers to connect to their students, and show them that we really care about their opinions and we care about what they want to be reading. Also, since Book Club is more informal, the students observe that being productive doesn’t always have to be in a rigidly structured environment.

    In response to Dr. Stearns question, about how we got to be good readers, I think that most of my reading skills and love of reading was developed outside the classroom. My mom had a huge influence on my reading life, moreso than probably any of my teachers. She really encouraged me to read anything and everything, as oppose to playing video games, or watching television. (She still doesn’t have cable!!) I hate to think that sometimes as an adolescent I resorted to reading because there was little else to do, but this was definitely true in some cases. However, if I had only read inside the classroom, I don’t think I would have loved reading. Some of the books were interesting, but I don’t think interesting enough to make me a reader for life. So I think that as English teachers, we really need to find ways to get kids to love to read within our classrooms, because not everyone has parents who are encouraging them to read or lovers of reading themselves. I think that is why I enjoyed Atwell so much, because she really tackles this issue and presents some fantastic ideas.

  6. sunyprof

    What a nice discussion we are having.

    To me so much of what we are talking about comes back to the essential ? we asked when we started out–what is it we think English “teaching” is? What is it we think our kids need to be able to love, like, “get,” do and “be” to name a few pressing issues.

    I wonder why we immediately bracket a reading workshop that produces readers, discriminating readers, smart readers as “elective.” Have you read her 5 and 6…

    What do we think should be more important than mentoring reading/readers that would take place in “regular” English?

    Aren’t “personal reading goals” the only goals we should want our students to develop?

    Keep in mind when I say this that I mean supporting readers over time in their becoming more and more willing to take on reading that continues to challenge and excite–and encourages their sampling multiple kinds of texts. I never mean stasis.

    It’s interesting how Mandy talks about how she developed as a reader.

    Notice that it was in a relationship primarily–nurturing relationship. And that the reading took place mostly outside of school.

    Imagine how much you would have grown Mandy if you had a teacher like Atwell who helped you to find what you loved and could love in books.

    You had that at home but what if you had had it in school too. Wow!

    The absence of a reading mentor like that in my own life is an absence I mourn. KES

  7. jillian24

    I would like to examine Dr. Stearns’ question “Aren’t ‘personal reading goals’ the only goals we should want our students to develop?”

    I don’t think my view of education allows for only reading goals. I do think they should be personal, if that was where the emphasis was. I believe Atwell’s point about student’s needing to choose their own books (27). Still, what about other types of communication? Aren’t English teachers responsible for supporting those types of goals, as well?

  8. sunyprof

    Hi Jillian, I’m afraid I wasn’t clear–thank you for asking. I mean specific only to reading goals–don’t we want our students to become readers who can make choices, develop new interests (here’s where a great teacher is so important) and continue to negotiate all that there is to read in the world?

    Of course, we have many other goals for our students outside of wanting them to be good readers who take pleasure in reading and who understand how texts work on them, create them, really, make them up!

    I was simply focusing on the reading goals Atwell has for her students. KES

  9. canadawr5

    You have to keep in mind too that most Americans don’t even read one book a year! The average American has a high school diploma and one year of college.
    It will take most people years and years before they can even feel remotely comfortable with the idea of reading for pleasure. Due to the overcomsumption and the overload of information one can get anytime from flicking the remote control switch, most Americans want there information “fast” without even thinking about how they got it.
    So most people view reading as more of a “torture” than it is a chore.
    We are considered nerds to the world. Serious nerds!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    But I’m a cool nerd so I’m okay!

    Ray Canada

  10. You mentioned that your boy friend would like Gary Paulsen. Maybe so. Animal lovers have a problem with Paulsen because he hypes the Iditarod, a race that’s terribly cruel to dogs.

    Here’s a short list of what happens to the dogs during the Iditarod: death, paralysis, penile frostbite, bleeding ulcers, bloody diarrhea, lung damage, pneumonia, ruptured discs, viral diseases, broken bones, torn muscles and tendons, vomiting, hypothermia, sprains, fur loss, broken teeth, torn footpads and anemia.

    At least 133 dogs have died in the Iditarod. There is no official count of dog deaths available for the race’s early years. In “WinterDance: the Fine Madness of Running the Iditarod,” a nonfiction book, Gary Paulsen describes witnessing an Iditarod musher brutally kicking a dog to death during the race. He wrote, “All the time he was kicking the dog. Not with the imprecision of anger, the kicks, not kicks to match his rage but aimed, clinical vicious kicks. Kicks meant to hurt deeply, to cause serious injury. Kicks meant to kill.”

    Causes of death have also included strangulation in towlines, internal hemorrhaging after being gouged by a sled, liver injury, heart failure, and pneumonia. “Sudden death” and “external myopathy,” a fatal condition in which a dog’s muscles and organs deteriorate during extreme or prolonged exercise, have also occurred. The 1976 Iditarod winner, Jerry Riley, was accused of striking his dog with a snow hook (a large, sharp and heavy metal claw). In 1996, one of Rick Swenson’s dogs died while he mushed his team through waist-deep water and ice. The Iditarod Trail Committee banned both mushers from the race but later reinstated them. In many states these incidents would be considered animal cruelty. Swenson is now on the Iditarod Board of Directors.

    In the 2001 Iditarod, a sick dog was sent to a prison to be cared for by inmates and received no veterinary care. He was chained up in the cold and died. Another dog died by suffocating on his own vomit.

    No one knows how many dogs die in training or after the race each year.

    On average, 53 percent of the dogs who start the race do not make it across the finish line. According to a report published in the American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine, of those who do cross, 81 percent have lung damage. A report published in the Journal of Veterinary Internal Medicine said that 61 percent of the dogs who finish the Iditarod have ulcers versus zero percent pre-race.

    Tom Classen, retired Air Force colonel and Alaskan resident for over 40 years, tells us that the dogs are beaten into submission:

    “They’ve had the hell beaten out of them.” “You don’t just whisper into their ears, ‘OK, stand there until I tell you to run like the devil.’ They understand one thing: a beating. These dogs are beaten into submission the same way elephants are trained for a circus. The mushers will deny it. And you know what? They are all lying.” -USA Today, March 3, 2000 in Jon Saraceno’s column

    Beatings and whippings are common. Jim Welch says in his book Speed Mushing Manual, “I heard one highly respected [sled dog] driver once state that “‘Alaskans like the kind of dog they can beat on.'” “Nagging a dog team is cruel and ineffective…A training device such as a whip is not cruel at all but is effective.” “It is a common training device in use among dog mushers…A whip is a very humane training tool.”

    During the 2007 Iditarod, eyewitnesses reported that musher Ramy Brooks kicked, punched and beat his dogs with a ski pole and a chain. Brooks admitted to hitting his dogs with a wooden trail marker when they refused to run. The Iditarod Trail Committee suspended Brooks for two years, but only for the actions he admitted. By ignoring eyewitness accounts, the Iditarod encouraged animal abuse. When mushers know that eyewitness accounts will be disregarded, they are more likely to hurt their dogs and lie about it later.

    Mushers believe in “culling” or killing unwanted dogs, including puppies. Many dogs who are permanently disabled in the Iditarod, or who are unwanted for any reason, are killed with a shot to the head, dragged or clubbed to death. “On-going cruelty is the law of many dog lots. Dogs are clubbed with baseball bats and if they don’t pull are dragged to death in harnesses…..” wrote Alaskan Mike Cranford in an article for Alaska’s Bush Blade Newspaper (March, 2000).

    Jon Saraceno wrote in his March 3, 2000 column in USA Today, “He [Colonel Tom Classen] confirmed dog beatings and far worse. Like starving dogs to maintain their most advantageous racing weight. Skinning them to make mittens. Or dragging them to their death.”

    The Iditarod, with its history of abuse, could not be legally held in many states, because doing so would violate animal cruelty laws.

    Iditarod administrators promote the race as a commemoration of sled dogs saving the children of Nome by bringing diphtheria serum from Anchorage in 1925. However, the co-founder of the Iditarod, Dorothy Page, said the race was not established to honor the sled drivers and dogs who carried the serum. In fact, 600 miles of this serum delivery was done by train and the other half was done by dogs running in relays, with no dog running over 100 miles. This isn’t anything like the Iditarod.

    The race has led to the proliferation of horrific dog kennels in which the dogs are treated very cruelly. Many kennels have over 100 dogs and some have as many as 200. It is standard for the dogs to spend their entire lives outside tethered to metal chains that can be as short as four feet long. In 1997 the United States Department of Agriculture determined that the tethering of dogs was inhumane and not in the animals’ best interests. The chaining of dogs as a primary means of enclosure is prohibited in all cases where federal law applies. A dog who is permanently tethered is forced to urinate and defecate where he sleeps, which conflicts with his natural instinct to eliminate away from his living area.

    Iditarod dogs are prisoners of abuse.

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