Nancie Atwell, ’74: Reading, Writing and Raising Your Voice

By: Laurie A. Kaiser

A bout with rheumatic fever as a 10-year-old turned Nancie Atwell, ’74, into a lifelong reader. During her six-month convalescence in her Clarence home, she devoured Landmark biographies and Beverly Cleary books. But it was Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden that she connected with most.

“Because it featured a bedridden boy and a brave girl, I was consoled and captivated. I read it four times that winter,” said Atwell. “It was the beginning of a passion for books.”

A passion for books sowed the seeds for Atwell’s career success—which includes winning a $1 million international teaching award in 2015.

The first girl in her family to attend college, Atwell graduated from Buffalo State with a bachelor’s degree in English and soon discovered she liked connecting students with books. She taught middle school in Tonawanda, New York, before moving to Boothbay Harbor, Maine, in 1975 with her husband, Toby McLeod, to take a job at the local school.

In 1987, she published her groundbreaking book In the Middle: Writing, Reading, and Learning with Adolescents (Heinemann), which describes her signature method, the writing-reading workshop. After her daughter was born, she became a consultant and traveled the country talking to teachers. But she missed working with kids.

In 1990, she founded the Center for Teaching and Learning (CTL), a low-tuition, nonprofit demonstration school in Edgecomb, Maine. CTL steeps students in literature, writing, and critical thinking, beginning in kindergarten. It also reverses the paradigm of assigning books and writing topics.

“When students decide what they’ll read and what they’ll write about, they become authentic readers and writers,” Atwell explained. “They understand what literacy is good for.”

Through the years, CTL has worked with thousands of teachers from across the country. It has also produced high school valedictorians, Ivy League students, and successful professionals. That was reward enough for Atwell.

But in 2014, a former student nominated Atwell for the Varkey Foundation’s inaugural Global Teacher Prize, which billionaire Sunny Varkey created to bring prestige to an often undervalued profession. To complete her application, Atwell wrote six essays about such topics as her innovative methods, contributions to the teaching profession, and commitment to helping her students become global citizens. Named one of 10 finalists from a pool of thousands, she flew to Dubai in March 2015 for a ceremony to announce the winner.

“I thought I had no chance,” Atwell said. “The other teachers were extraordinary.”

But win she did. She donated the entire $1 million prize to CTL, which had operated in the red for years. Thanks to the award, the school will be solvent for at least a decade.

 “What I’ve loved most about teaching is the autonomy—the ability to be creative and responsive, to observe and experiment,” she said of her 40 years in the classroom. “I’m distressed about the Common Core, with its standardized methods and tests. Teachers are being viewed as mere technicians instead of reflective practitioners.”

She hopes that in the future, more American classrooms will resemble those at CTL—where students are encouraged to read for pleasure, write about what matters, and raise their voices in the wider world.