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“The third edition of In the Middle is my invitation to English teachers, both veterans and novices, to understand writing, reading, and the workshop from the inside and to recognize our potential to influence our students’ literacy for a lifetime. Like the two that preceded it, this edition represents my current best set of blueprints for how I build and maintain a writing–reading workshop—the expectations, demonstrations, models, choices, resources, rules and rituals, pieces of advice, words of caution, and ways of thinking, planning, looking, and talking that make it possible for every student to read with understanding and pleasure and aspire to and produce effective, strong writing.” Atwell Signature

Sharing Workshop Expectations with Writers

With 80 percent new material, In the Middle, Third Edition, brings Nancie Atwell’s (@NancieAtwell) methods up to date. Nancie guides newcomers to a rich, satisfying practice while sharing her latest innovations and refinements with middle school and middle grades teachers who have made In the Middle their teaching touchstone (#InTheMiddle3).

Sneak Previews

What Will I Find New to the Third Edition?

In the Middle: What is the 80% new material? Those who have relied on the second edition of In the Middle, have asked us whether they really need to get the third edition. So we asked one of our crackerjack editors to read the second and third editions and report on the new content so that we could share it with you. Her report: fans of the second edition will be missing out if they don’t read the new edition.

Here is our editor’s full report:

Nancie remains true to her ideals and the workshop approach. Readers of the second edition of In the Middle will recognize the basic workshop elements and find Nancie Atwell's respect for teaching middle schoolers undimmed. Additional years of experience have yielded her new insights into students’ writing and reading and produced improvements in how best to develop middle school learners.

PART I, Workshop Essentials

  • More how-tos: e.g. dialogue to model check-ins that are brisk and brief, topics to teach in memoir, details on how to fit writing-reading workshop into 85-minute blocks or 50-minute periods, minilessons on teaching free-verse poetry
  • The Daily Poem and Icebreaking: In the "Getting Started" chapter these are now specifically named and described in depth. In the second edition, these workshop routines received limited description. Now Nancie’s Daily Poem routine and early-year Icebreaking is given much more depth.
  • More about reading workshop: Nancie gives reading workshop more importance in the third edition.
  • She has shifted her emphasis from how she developed reading workshop to the specifics of running the workshop and its benefits for students
  • Expectations for reading workshop are detailed, including using critical vocabulary, keeping a "someday" list in writing-reading handbook, and writing a letter essay every three weeks
  • Red flags of writing: The chapter "Responding to Writers and Writing" has been almost completely revised and now features twelve new "red flags" of writing culled from Nancie’s many years of reading student writing. Each red flag is named and suggestions are given for conferring with writers to head them in a better direction
  • Letter-essays: Nancie has replaced her well-known weekly letters in the "Responding to Readers and Reading" chapter with letter-essays that students write every three weeks. She shows how these letteressays, which are about books a reader has finished, reflect her evolving thinking about providing a bridge to expository writing while also easing the paper load.
  • Handover: This concept has been has been expanded beyond writing to encompass reading workshop and to prepare students to write their letter-essays.
  • Off-the-page writing: A new concept introduced in the third edition is a way of inserting time and reflection into writing.

Part II, Genre Studies

  • New emphasis and minilessons on poetry: Vastly revamped because of its increasing importance to her teaching, the "Poetry" chapter details why it is the first genre Nancie’s students write in and why it is the basis for many of the craft writing lessons. Free-verse is the "workhorse form of poetry," and there are eight minilessons that teach free-verse poetry and its conventions
  • More specificity about memoirs: Expanded with more specific and intentional teaching recommendations, "Memoir" now integrates reading and listening to memoirs as models for writing them. In the second edition, there are only lists of memoir titles. The third edition also provides more specific elements of memoir to teach: leads, sensory details, dialogue, balancing elements, time transition, conclusions, and reading as a critic
  • Micro fiction: Another major innovation is micro fiction replacing the short story in Nancie’s "Short Fiction" chapter. Much of students’ short story writing was "unmemorable and formulaic" or "heavyhanded and predictable." Short-short fiction helps concentrate the lessons of fiction and "is the genre to hand over to middle school writers of fiction."
  • New details on expository writing: "Taking Care of Business" narrows the focus to four of the types of expository writing found in the second edition, but each one is now presented with more specifics, structure, and examples in its own section
  • "Humor and Homage": A brand new chapter to the book that supports not only writing but also close reading and the writer’s craft: "Parody and homage stretch students not just as writers but as readers and critics, too. To lampoon someone else’s writing requires close reading, attention to detail and tone, and understanding of theme. It may well be the ultimate form of literary analysis."
  • New student writing samples: All new samples reflect more recent books and topics

Nancie has essentially given us a new book because her teaching continues to change, and because she seeks innovation each day. If you’ve read the previous edition, don’t miss out on her latest practices

Chapter 1: Learning How to Teach

Forty years into my life as an English teacher, I’m convinced it is one of the great careers—demanding of time and energy but meaning-filled, worthwhile, and interesting. Every morning that I step into a classroom I know I’ll be surprised—mostly in a good way—by something a student says or does as a writer or reader. I’ll experience the sense of literary communion that led me to declare a major in English all those years ago. I’ll show or tell something about writing or reading that gets put to good use by my students. And I’ll enjoy the kinds of relationships with adolescents that drew me to teaching in the first place.

I’m confident of these outcomes because I teach English as a writing -reading workshop. Students choose the subjects they write about and the books they read. Because they decide, they engage. Because they engage, they experience the volume of sustained, committed practice that leads to growth, stamina, and excellence. Each year my students read, on average, forty books representing fourteen genres. They finish an average of twenty-one pieces of writing across thirteen genres. They win regional and national writing competitions, get published, and earn money. Most importantly, they discover what writing and reading are good for, here and now and in their literate lives to come.

The benefits for me, as the grown-up writer and reader in the workshop, are a teacher’s dream. I get to demonstrate what’s possible, teach what’s useful, establish the conditions that invite engagement, and support the hard work of literary reading and writing. The workshop impels me and compels them because here the work of "doing English" is real. Students of every ability are encouraged, hooked, and transformed. In turn, their growth as readers and writers is such a source of satisfaction to me that, for forty years, I’ve kept coming back for more.

The third edition of In the Middle is my invitation to English teachers, veterans and novices, to understand writing and reading from the inside and recognize our potential to influence our students’ literacy for a lifetime. Like the two that preceded it, this edition represents my current best set of blueprints for how I build and maintain a writing-reading workshop—the expectations, demonstrations, models, choices, resources, rules and rituals, pieces of advice, words of caution, and ways of thinking, planning, looking, and talking that make it possible for every student to read with understanding and pleasure and aspire to and produce effective writing. But In the Middle also tells the story of my teaching life.

Chapter 2: Getting Ready

Writing is a craft, and, as with any craft, doing it well takes time. Too many accounts of the practices of literary writers are available to us–Writers at Work: The Paris Review Interviews is the best-known series–for any English teacher to cling to such myths as first-draft finals, timed writing assignments, or whole-class deadlines.

Even when students do write every day, writing development is a slow growth process, more like math than any other subject in terms of learning and reviewing conventions and concepts, failing and succeeding, and practicing, practicing, practicing. This is where English teachers come in. Regular, frequent time for students to write means regular, frequent occasions for us to teach students how to write.

My students have a writing-reading workshop four days a week. Each day I teach a minilesson to the whole class about either writing or reading. Then I meet with every writer at least every other day as I circulate among students during independent writing time. After kids finish a piece of writing, they copyedit it and submit it to me for final editing. The following day I meet with these writers individually and introduce one or two conventions of standard American English that showed up as problems in their pieces. This means that in a typical school year, when my students finish twenty or more pieces of writing, I meet twenty or more times with individual writers to address, in context, the issues of usage that each needs to master.

I don’t believe English teaching can get more efficient, productive, or logical than this. Nor can English learning. Regular time for writing gives my students opportunities to think on paper, experiment with techniques of craft and process, work in new genres, struggle with writing problems, conquer them, get help in context as they need it, apply minilessons, grow as writers, and grow up, period.

And their writing gives adolescents a canvas on which to capture and consider their lives so far–a place to inhabit their childhoods again, measure themselves against who they used to be, and reflect on the changes they find. Every year I watch as seventh and eighth graders compose poems, memoirs, and essays that explore what they believe, care about, desire, regret, and remember. This reflective writing is useful to them as human beings. It is a reason for adolescents to write.

Chapter 3: Getting Started

The first week sets the tone. If students leave school at the end of it feeling ambitious and excited about themselves as writers and readers, and me as their teacher, we're halfway there.

I plan the first days in more detail than any others. A lot happens–it has to. Kids begin to know one another and come together as a corps of writers and readers. They explore the space, learn how it's organized, and glimpse what it offers them in terms of materials, resources, options, and inspirations. Many of the routines and procedures of the workshop are established during the first week, and so are my roles as teacher, writer, reader of books, responder to literature, and lover and unpacker of poems.

I begin to learn who my new kids are–about their lives outside of school and how they perceive themselves as writers and readers. I communicate the expectations and rules of the workshop. Students organize themselves put their names on folders and insert forms. And I try to give all of them a taste of the satisfactions of writing and reading so authentic that they leave for the weekend believing this class is the real deal.

On the first day of school, CTL runs a shortened schedule. I use this class to initiate a few routines, get kids talking to one another, invite them to check out the room and its resources, and distribute surveys for students to complete about their backgrounds as writers and readers. The very first routine, a poem, is the way I start every workshop.

The Daily Poem

Since my students choose and read different books, the daily poems provide our common experience as readers of literature, in addition to the short prose readings that illuminate genre studies in writing workshop. Because it is a poem, it takes about ten minutes to read and talk about it. The compactness of the genre makes it possible for kids to enjoy a shared encounter with literature–to develop critical eyes and ears, criteria, and a vocabulary for talking about literary features–without robbing them of the time and practice they need to grow as independent writers and readers.

For students who aren't yet confident responders to literature, the daily poem is their entrée to literary discussion. Each morning I introduce a poem, distribute copies, and ask the group to follow along as I read it aloud. Many of my poems and introductions are included in Naming the World: A Year of Poems and Lessons (2006) and permitted to be reproduced for classroom use. In each lesson I describe some of the critical features that students might notice in a poem, suggest an appropriate response stance, and provide a benediction–closing remarks that point kids toward what might come next for them as poets, observers of their world, and thoughtful human beings alive on the planet.

I perform each poem with as much nuance as I can bring, and I rehearse my readings. I want kids to be able to ride on my voice into the world of the poem, hear its meaning, and observe how an experienced reader makes sense of verse forms.

Then I ask students to go back into the poem independently, read it, and mark it up. Depending on the poem, I might ask them to attend to the stanza breaks, metaphors, or verbs; to underline lines they wish they'd written, lines they don't understand yet, lines they can see, lines that surprise them, lines they think are the most important, lines that resonate, or the line where the poem changes; and, always, to mark anything they notice that a poet has done well. I annotate my copy, too. In the discussion that follows, volunteers read and talk about what they marked.

This means that I–and any students who already know some critical vocabulary–will teach less experienced critics about such features as diction, imagery, form, theme, tone, turns, figurative language, cadence, and sound patterns in the context of shared poems. But students who aren't critical readers yet can still participate in the conversation. They can point to language that struck them or lines they could see as they lean on the security of their marked-up copies to cue their comments. Anyone can have something to say about the daily poem and, eventually, everyone does. It can even get a bit competitive. Here's Josie's account of one of our discussions.

Chapter 4: Essential Lessons for Writers

When it comes to influential methods, the minilesson that kicks off each writing workshop is at least an equal partner to my conferences with individual writers. A good minilesson is practical, relevant, accessible, and far-reaching. It's a whole-group conversation about writing problems, proven solutions, and productive, new directions. As an English teacher who knew a lot about English before transforming my class into a workshop, I welcomed minilessons as an opportunity to impart my knowledge while still providing a context for kids to discover and act on their intentions. As a teacher-researcher, I'm interested in the role of whole-group instruction in the workshop and how to make it maximally productive and worthwhile, given my own and every teacher's sense of urgency. We have just 180 days to try to make a difference for a lifetime.

In the beginning, my minilessons were responsive. Each night I reflected on the developments of the day and planned a lesson to address what I'd seen students doing or not doing. But over time, patterns emerged—lessons that make a difference in September and October, in midwinter, and in the spring, in terms of students' needs, advice that helps them move their writing toward literature and conventionality, and work in genres. My minilessons became a forgiving course of study—not a scope and sequence, but a balance between worthwhile information about writing and teachable moments.

At the same time that I work to identify what's valuable to teach in minilessons, I search for vocabulary that will help students understand it. The brains of twelve- and thirteen-year-olds have frozen before my eyes when I talked at them about concepts like coherence, concrete specificity, sensory imagery, cadence, transitions, tricolons, reflection, compression, redundancy, and, the chilliest mind Popsicle of them all, theme. So I invented a lexicon, one that evokes the nuances of literary essentials for less-than-sophisticated writers: the Rule of So What?, the Rule of Write About a Pebble, Make a Movie Behind Your Eyelids, Cut to the Bone, the Rule of Thoughts and Feelings, the Power of Three, and others. As evidenced in students' writing—and their responses to the literature they read—these lessons stick.

The lexicon we build transforms what happens after the minilesson, when I meet and talk with individual writers and readers. It gives my students a prism for looking at drafts of their own writing, as well as the writing they're reading. Conversations about both become richer and more efficient. Kids and I aren't beginning at the beginning with every piece of writing because we have a shorthand language for observing features of text, requesting help, and giving advice.

This means that when I perch alongside a writer and ask, "How's it coming?" he or she might reply, "I'm not sure there's a so what? yet." "Can you make the movie here?" "I think this lead is a grabber." "I'm still writing off-the-page." "Do you think I have enough T and F?" "I'm experimenting with effective repetition." "I need to cut to the bone." "This is feeling like pebbles instead of a pebble. What can I do?" The vocabulary may be odd, but the criteria are not: these are features of literary writing that can be taught to young kids.

And they can be learned by teachers—when we begin to plan, draft, revise, polish, and edit pieces of our own writing, when we reject canned rubrics, when we read and consider the features of many kinds of crafted writing, and when we turn to writers and critics we can count on for accurate, generative insights. For me, that means Ralph Fletcher, Donald Graves, Georgia Heard, X. J. Kennedy, Ken Macrorie, Donald Murray, Mary Oliver, Ron Padgett, Kate Turabian, Robert Wallace, E. B. White, William Carlos Williams, and William Zinsser. Their advice for finding subjects and crafting clear, voiced poetry and prose have taught me techniques and criteria to draw on in my writing, responses to literature, and teaching of both.

Chapter 5: Essential Lessons for Readers

In my eyes at least, I'm an old-guard kind of English teacher. I read literature, and I love it. And while it is true that I consider many of the books and poems written in the past fifty years to be literature, I maintain standards as a classroom librarian, and my goals for my student readers are robust. I expect they will seek immersion, gain stamina, experience a range of genres and authors, respond to their reading as someone else's writing, develop literary preferences and articulate and defend them, become discerning critics, use critical vocabulary to form and express opinions, make judgments based on textual evidence, and become better, smarter people because of the poems and stories they read, love, and take into their lives.

As a teacher of reading since the early 1970s, I've witnessed a lot of methods and movements. Along the way, I learned that it's easier to waste a student's time as a reader than in any other discipline, given the revolving door of programs, approaches, critical theories, magic bullets, shortcuts, and shiny technologies that promise proficiency for everyone. I continue to offer my kids the only entrée that has ever created lifelong, literary readers: frequent, voluminous, independent experiences with books, combined with opportunities to talk and write about the choices authors make, the language they use, the effects they create, and the themes they develop. I try not to squander precious class time on information that's inaccurate, advice that's impractical, and activities that don't extend or enrich a student's experience as a habitual reader and insightful critic.

What happens in reading minilessons matters a lot. We elevate reading workshop and give it literary bona fides when we teach students how to be literary—how to identify their criteria for book selection and rejection, unpack a poem, observe and comment on the features of works of fiction, express and buttress opinions, identify forms, notice figurative language and symbolism, differentiate between reading for pleasure and reading for information, and plan for and manage their experiences as literary readers across a school year.


In the first two weeks of school, in addition to teaching students the routines of writing workshop, I introduce the procedures for reading workshop and the reasons behind them. The first-day scavenger hunt touches on topics I'll expand on in subsequent lessons—the kinds of books I've collected in the classroom library, where each subgenre is shelved, how to sign a book out and in, how to schedule a booktalk, where and how to record books finished and abandoned, and what I expect will happen in every reading workshop for every reader. The sooner I cover the basics and get the majority of readers settled and engaged, the better I can focus on any kids who are adrift or struggling.

Chapter 6: Responding to Writers and Writing

In the September survey about students' attitudes and backgrounds as writers, among my questions is, "What kind of responses from others helps you improve your writing?" Every year their answers demonstrate how aspiring, intentional, and brave young writers can be:

  • comments that push my writing
  • when a teacher or friend tells me what's good and what I can do to improve it
  • when someone tells me what isn't clear yet, if the language is weak in places, or if they can't see it yet
  • when someone tells me what they don't understand or need more of
  • constructive criticism—it doesn't hurt, and it does show you the ways you can improve as a writer and make your writing stronger
  • specific responses
  • criticism that's specific
  • specific comments
  • specific suggestions
  • advice that's specific

Student writers aren't looking for praise, bland neutrality, or adherence to rubrics. They want explicit guidance from a teacher who knows that writers write to be read, and to trust that the advice will be useful.

My essential stance as a responder to writing is that of a veteran reader. I've been reading for more than fifty years, including tens of thousands of pieces written by students. This background informs my every response. Teachers anxious about talking with kids about drafts of writing might count the number of years they've been reading and draw confidence from their own long experience with words on the page.

As readers, we've noticed features of poems, stories, and expository pieces that work, and that don't. In conferences I teach writers what I've gleaned as a reader about such literary features as leads and conclusions, titles, tone, reflection, logic, information, purpose, theme, imagery, clarity, diction, sensory verbs, verb tense, concrete specifics, organization, transitions, paragraphing, colons, dashes, you name it. Writing teachers don't need formulas or rubrics of response. We begin with our strengths as literary readers.

My conversations with writers are the highlight of my teaching day. This wasn't always the case. At the start I was so caught up in the orthodoxies of conference etiquette that my meetings with students were filled with tension. I could feel myself watching and listening over my own shoulder. I was so consumed with saying the right thing or not saying the wrong one. But when I began to focus on conferences as an opportunity for handover—for drawing on my history as a reader, remembering my own failures and successes as a writer, observing what a student had done, listening to the writer's intentions, and offering relevant advice—I realized the satisfaction of teaching in these conversations.

Chapter 7: Responding to Readers and Reading

In the 1980s, when I was teaching at Boothbay Elementary School, I was intrigued by research conducted by Jana Staton (1980) that described dialogues that Leslee Reed, a sixth-grade teacher, exchanged with her students—letters about students' lives written back and forth in bound journals. My interest was piqued because I knew that my students had more to say about their reading than time allowed for in my workshop check-ins and because I'd learned by then what a rich mode for thinking writing could be. I wondered where written-down conversations about books might lead my students as readers and critics.

I gave each of my seventy-five kids a notebook with a personalized letter inside that invited them to write to me about their reading. I hoped that written dialogues would help them reflect on books more deeply, specifically, and analytically. Thirty years later, I am still corresponding with students about their reading—and still experimenting with the method, in search of the most productive and manageable version.

I recognize that, inspired by the first two editions of In the Middle, other teachers initiated literary correspondence, too, and at a cost. The paper load that results from written exchanges with every student every week is exhausting. At some point, out of exhaustion, I cut my paper load in half by asking kids to alternate the audience for their letters: three exchanges back and forth with me, then three back and forth with one classmate of their choosing.

This adaptation made my teaching life more manageable. More importantly, it created regular occasions for peers to become members of Meeks' "company of friends who encourage and sustain" one another as readers. But it didn't resolve another issue with the weekly letters: sometimes my students didn't have much to say about a book. They might have just started it, or they may have become so engrossed in a story that it was frustrating and unproductive to detach from the zone and try to consider an author's choices so far.

The best letters were written after students had finished a book. Their responses were longer and more engaged, referred with more specificity to the text and the author's choices, delved more into theme, and, in general, functioned more as literary—albeit still informal—criticism.

I went back to the drawing board. Literary correspondence in my reading workshop today takes the form of letter-essays that students write to me or a classmate every three weeks about a title they have finished reading. Although still conversational in tone, letter-essays have proved more demanding, more forgiving, and more valuable to my students than weekly correspondence.

Students' letter-essays fill at least three pages of a marble notebook. By looking back, choosing the one book of the past three weeks that they wish to criticize, and considering it at length, students engage as critics. Because writing about their thinking makes anyone think better, my students are more insightful than ever about literature—about recognizing authors' techniques and purposes. And because their high school and college English teachers will ask them to write critical responses in which they develop arguments based on textual evidence, the letter-essays provide a stronger bridge into what comes next for middle schoolers as students of literature.

Chapter 8: Valuing and Evaluating

At the end of each trimester, my K-8 colleagues and I stop teaching for a week and invite our students to pause, reflect on the work of the previous twelve weeks, and make plans for the trimester to come. Every class in every subject becomes an evaluation workshop, as children examine collections of their work, complete self-assessment questionnaires, make photocopies of selected evidence, and assemble the contents of portfolios. These are three-ring binders with plastic sleeves inside that display the self-assessment questionnaires, photographs that teachers have taken of kids at work, captioned copies of record-keeping forms, and captioned samples of writing, responses to reading, spelling, mathematics, history, science, and art.

Our goal in using portfolios is for students to analyze their processes, products, growth, and challenges. The self-assessment questionnaires give them a prism to examine their evidence, reflect on it, and set goals for their work. Teachers pose the questions that kids consider and list what the portfolios should include, sometimes with student input.

Only after students have finished self-assessing do teachers step in as evaluators. The goals that appear on a child's progress report are coauthored: a combination of the objectives the student named in the self-assessment and others the teacher believes the child needs to tackle. Teachers also create a document that summarizes the minilessons, discussions, activities, projects, and readings of the trimester. I ask my students to highlight this trimester summary to indicate what was most useful or meaningful to them, so their parents can enjoy the benefit of the child's governing gaze when reviewing it. Both documents become part of a student's permanent record.

At CTL, students lead the evaluation conference. A child opens his or her portfolio and talks parents and teacher through its contents. Then the teacher delivers and discusses the progress report and sets formal goals for the subsequent trimester. The conference closes with the teacher asking, "Do you have any questions or observations, for me or your child?" Afterward, parents take the portfolios home to peruse and show to grandparents. We ask that they be returned to school within two weeks. The DVD included with my book Systems (2014) shows two parent-teacher-student evaluation conferences, along with examples of K-8 self-assessment questionnaires and teacher reports.

Because the end of the school year is so frantic, we don't schedule evaluation conferences in June. Instead, students compile their third-trimester portfolios, and they and their teachers coauthor a report that provides a portrait of the child as a learner at the completion of the school year. It consists of summative self-assessments in writing, reading, and mathematics, accompanied by teachers' final observations of a child's strengths and the goals he or she needs to work toward the following September.

If I were teaching in a school where portfolios were impracticable, I'd still develop and assign self-assessment questionnaires—the process is that enlightening and productive for kids, teachers, and parents. Before sending it home, I'd attach a copy of the student's best writing and response to literature, so parents could glean a basis for their child's reflections and goals.

CTL's assessment scheme provides a detailed picture of a student's abilities, activities, and progress. It reflects what happens day-to-day in our classes. It involves parents in a meaningful—often delightful—way. The information it conveys to mothers, fathers, and the next year's teacher is specific and useful. It is individualized and goal-oriented, and the goals are based on the observations of a professional teacher, in collaboration with an engaged learner. It holds students accountable. And it begins with their judgments about what they know, can do, have done, and need to do next. I can't imagine a more worthwhile use of my time, or that of my students, when it comes to evaluating their progress as writers and readers and nurturing their growth.

Chapter 9: Poetry

For years, I launched writing workshop with memoirs. I figured it was the genre most accessible to students because narrative was a familiar mode and it focused on personal experience. I suspect teachers who followed my advice back then may have observed the same results I did.

Most of the memoirs were okay but not great. Instead of viewing personal stories as an opportunity to reflect on formative experiences and shape them as literature, students with limited writing experience had to use the genre as a vehicle for learning big, essential lessons about process and craft. The memoirs involved a tremendous amount of work, on my part and theirs, as kids experimented with the processes of writers in the context of multiple drafts of extended pieces of prose. I fretted because few students scratched the potential of personal narratives to illuminate their lives and reveal what was significant. They were more than ready to move on to the next genre study, free-verse poetry, and the pleasures to be found in its versatility, compactness of form, and tight focus on diction and meaning.

One summer, as I sketched my plans for September, it occurred to me that if students began with free verse, they might be able to learn and apply the initial, important lessons about process and craft and produce more satisfying, more significant, and just plain more writing sooner. Since I started each workshop with a poem, my kids were familiar with the genre from the first day of school. I decided to see what happened if we put poetry first, as the foundation of a year of writing workshop. Poetry changed everything.

My students showed me that no genre can match it in teaching about the craft of writing. Every lesson that matters, every essential feature of literature, can be highlighted easily and accessibly in free-verse poems: the need for a writer to find subjects he or she cares about, the importance of first-person voice and reflection, the value of tangible nouns and sensory verbs and adjectives, how to revise and polish and edit, what titles do, why readers want inviting leads and resonant conclusions, how punctuation gives voice to writing, and why and how writers develop and support a theme.

What's more, because of the compactness of poetry, every student finished two or three pieces of writing by the end of September. Kids applied the lessons they learned from the writing of one poem to the writing of the next. There was immediate improvement—a strong incentive to like writing and want to continue. And many of the poems were wonderful—themed, specific, and full of energy and imagery. Through reading a poem a day and writing poems of their own, my students learned how writers of every genre observe, select, shape ideas, identify feelings, and discover what matters and what is true—and it was still only September. The memoirs, reviews, short fiction, essays, and original research that followed were better than ever before—voiced, deeper, more eloquent, and more meaningful to writers and their readers.

A free-verse genre study is a foundation for a year of motivated writing. It gives focus and resonance to students' ideas and experiences. It makes them see, listen, think, feel, and remember. It changes their perspectives. Wallace Stevens writes that the poet's role "is to help people live their lives" (1951). Their poetry, more than any other genre, helps my adolescent students live their lives

Chapter 10: Memoirs

A teacher friend and I were discussing memoir as a school genre. She told me she's required to teach her fifth graders a four-step formula for writing a personal narrative: develop the main character (the first-person narrator), describe the setting, introduce the narrator's problem, and explain how it was solved. If only real life were that tidy.

For my students, there is no resolution to some of their memoirs. At the end of "The Key," Morganne still can't bring herself to visit her great-grandmother's grave—she hasn't "solved" her "problem." But the memoir was useful to her. It helped her create a record of essential memories, give shape to them, express inchoate feelings, and even grow up a little. Plus it's a beautiful piece of writing. The Scholastic Art and Writing competition awarded Morganne a Gold Key and an American Voices Medal on the strength of it.

To help students understand what can happen in authentic works of memoir, I marinate them in strong examples of the genre. In early October, I begin to read aloud short memoirs I love during the ten minutes between the end of writing workshop and the beginning of independent reading time; kids will also read good ones for homework. As writers, students are still working on poems. But as critics, they begin to turn their attention to memoirs.

Many of the memoirs we read together, like those I included in this chapter, are written by students. I also rely on the "Lives" feature that appears on the last page of each Sunday's New York Times Magazine: about once a month a memoir published here will be appropriate for and useful to middle schoolers. And I love Cynthia Rylant's But I'll Be Back Again (1993), which collects memories of her childhood and adolescence. Each chapter is a read-aloud, and each concludes with an explicit statement of its theme, of what Rylant learned, gained, or understood from a time in her life and the people who were a part of it.

I find other memoirs on the op-ed pages of the Boston Globe and New York Times. I read aloud chapters from books by David Sedaris, Anna Quindlen, and Dave Barry, as well as excerpts from such book-length memoirs as The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls, Rocket Boys by Homer Hickam Jr., Breaking Night by Liz Murray, and Black Boy by Richard Wright. I share college application essays written by former students, which confirm my theory that successful ones are nothing other than CTL memoirs written to a word count. And I ask students to read and discuss memoirs I write about my childhood, adolescence, and experiences as a mother, teacher, and activist.

Chapter 11: Short Fiction

Leigh Peake, one of my editors at Heinemann, gave my kids and me a copy of Micro Fiction: An Anthology of Really Short Stories edited by Jerome Stern (1996). In his introduction, Stern defines micro fiction as a story of three hundred words or fewer. He also points out that it's not a new genre: jokes, Aesop's fables, and the parables of the Old and New Testaments are all short short stories.

Leigh said, "I thought your kids might want to try their hands at this." I skimmed the book and said, "Thanks, but I don't think so." My first objection, as a literary purist, was that micro fiction wasn't a real genre. In addition, I didn't think seventh and eighth graders could write it—could compress, omit, imply, and surprise. Micro fiction is as much poetry as it is prose.

Well, exactly. And if my students are anything, they are poets. I mulled this over. First I had to overcome my prejudices as an old-guard English teacher about what constitutes a genre. Jokes, fables, and parables are, in fact, ancient micro fiction. Some of Chekhov's stories are only a page long, while Kafka wrote stories of a single paragraph. I'd become a fan of the short short stories of Lydia Davis, which push the boundaries of prose, and Dave Eggers, whose micro fiction Toby and I read online in the Guardian newspaper.

So I sat down with the Sterns anthology, really read it this time, and dog-eared stories I thought kids would like and could unpack: "Eclipsed" by Robert Shuster, "Carpathia" by Jesse Lee Kercheval, "Flu" by Stuart Dybek, and "We Eat Our Peas for the Souls in Purgatory" by Annette McPeters. I made copies of Eggers' "How the Water Feels to the Fishes" and "Thoughtful That Way," which he published in his collection How the Water Feels to the Fishes (2007). And then I introduced the new genre to my students by asking them to read micro fiction, note in the back pages of their handbooks the features they observed, discuss them in small groups, and then come back together to help me create a master list of attributes of effective short short stories.

Figure 11.3 reproduces the criteria my students developed the third year I taught micro fiction as a genre study. An insightful, thorough description of how and why short short stories work, the list is informed by their readings of successful micro fiction by professionals, as well as CTL alums.

  • The lead jumps right into the action, as a poem does.
  • Instead of a traditional short story structure (lead, introduction of main character and setting, rising action, climax, falling action, resolution), there's just rising action and a climax.
  • It explores one scene or situation; it can be summarized in a sentence.
  • It has a particular setting.
  • Imagery brings the scene to life.
  • Every word is essential: so compressed, it's as much a poem as a narrative.
  • There's little dialogue or much: it depends on the writer's intentions for the story.
  • There are lots of thoughts and feelings or few: again, it depends on the writer's intentions.
  • The diction—choice of words—is sensory and precise, as in a poem.
  • The reader has to slow down, as with a poem.
  • It maintains a balance between implying and specifying: there's just enough information.
  • The story turns: there's some kind of surprise or reversal.
  • The end line is crucial: a twist, a realization, a change.
  • The conclusion has to be unpacked: it implies rather than states.
  • It implies a so what? or theme.
  • It demands a strong title with a layered meaning.
  • The paragraphs are friendly.
  • The length limit is 300 words, and every one counts.

Figure 11.3 Features of Effective Micro Fiction

I'm reluctant to make blanket statements about kids—what they all love to write or read—because they're no more uniform in their tastes than any group of adult writers or readers. But they do enjoy writing short short stories. I think this is the genre to hand over to middle school writers of fiction.

It starts with the variety of tales they get to spin. So far the fictional subgenres they've produced include action-adventure, contemporary realism with a twist, dystopian fiction, espionage, fantasy, historical fiction, homage, horror, humor, magic realism, metafiction, murder mystery, parody, psychological mystery, romance, science fiction, stream of consciousness, supernatural, and thriller.

Micro fiction invites genre play—and plain old play. It invites kids to ask "What if?" and to imagine answers that take myriad forms. As Henry James observed, "The house of fiction has . . . not one window, but a million" (1934). Micro fiction moved my kids out of the studio apartments I'd leased to them and into mansions of their own.

Chapter 12: Taking Care of Business

Problems are my bread and butter as a writer. In books and articles I identify problems of teaching, describe solutions, interpret results, and reach conclusions. I explain. I argue. I try to persuade. The big-tent name for writing that addresses problems is exposition. Most of my day-to-day writing is expository prose. It's my niche, and I'm not alone.

So far, one CTL alum has become a full-time writer of fiction. Among the others, an overwhelming number craft exposition every day. On the job they write reviews, press releases, advertising copy, blogs, lectures, submissions to academic journals, legal briefs, closing arguments, petitions, grant proposals, research reports, position papers, websites, ship's logs, lesson plans, curricula, progress reports, data analyses, business plans, recipes and menus, and articles and books about the environment. Their skills as writers are prized. I remember reading that the higher someone's salary, the more writing he or she does on the job. I believe it. Employers, clients, customers, and readers in general value writers who use precise language, present clear information, engage our interest, and help us untangle the problems of everyday living.

As an English teacher, I struggled with how to introduce exposition in genuine ways. It's easy and obvious to ask kids to write poems, narratives, and criticism—literary genres belong in an English class. It's harder to push out of the classroom into the world of problems and pull it back into the writing workshop in ways that feel purposeful and authentic—that bypass the bogus genres of reports and five-paragraph essays. And since my kids already know so much as writers about process, diction, specifics, tone, theme, leads and conclusions, titles, even paragraphing, I have to figure out how to build on this knowledge, so their expository prose will be as clear, coherent, enjoyable, and voiced as their poems, memoirs, short fiction, and letter-essays.

Letter-essays are a strong bridge into exposition in my workshop; from them, I launch a genre study of reviews. I tackle essays in the context of problems my students identify in their lives and the world. And I teach firsthand research and reportage in the form of advocacy journalism and profiles. Each of these is an authentic expository genre, each is similar enough to a genre I write that I can hand over lessons about it to my kids, and each can find a real audience.

Something happens with every piece of exposition my students produce. It goes public on CTL's book blog,, or other websites. Or it's published in Teen Ink magazine, a local newspaper, the school's newsletter or literary journal, a class magazine, or as part of a contest. It reaches an intended audience, and it gives readers something to think about.

I don't teach expository prose to prepare students for the essays on standardized tests. The version of exposition called for by these prompts is so odd and specific it's a genre unto itself and should be taught and practiced, in the week or two before the test, using the test maker's sample prompts and under test-taking conditions. It's not necessary to devote a school year to test prep. But teachers do need to familiarize students with the format and demands of the writing task—to help them tease out and name the features of the writing samples provided by the test maker, create a protocol for writing one that includes writing off-the-page, produce a couple under timed conditions, and analyze their results against the list of genre features they created.

I teach exposition so students will learn how to make writing work for them in the world—advocate for causes they believe in, seek answers to questions that baffle them, shed light, weigh in, and clear the way. To paraphrase Murray, problems make great subjects, especially for young writers. Expository genres teach them how to articulate ideas, gather evidence, send both out into the world, and try to have an influence there.

Chapter 13: Humor and Homage

As a teacher of middle school English, I learned to embrace language play, parody, and homage and bring this part of the underground curriculum into the workshop. It’s important for kids to know that writers have been messing around with the work of other writers since—at least—the ancient Greeks. And it’s essential for teachers to recognize that parody and homage stretch students not just as writers, but as readers and critics, too. To lampoon someone else’s writing requires close reading, attention to detail and tone, and understanding of theme. It may well be the ultimate form of literary analysis.

Unlike the other genres we study, the models of humor writing I present to students have to be relevant to their experience and up-to-date. They should be able to get the joke with minimal teacher explication. So I comb the sections of local bookstores devoted to humor and entertainment in search of writing that’s clever, will make my kids laugh, and is clean enough for the classroom. I subscribe to The New Yorker, where "Shouts and Murmurs" is often a source of humorous inspiration; throughout the year I clip columns I think will work and file them in my binder of prose genres. The New Yorker is where I first encountered Simon Rich and David Sedaris. I also check out the online version of The Onion for their outrageous take on current events and trends. But I especially save funny work by students to share with future classes. Parodies by other kids are the surest-fire sources of inspiration.

To kick off a genre study of parody, I provide a definition for kids to record in their handbooks: "A parody is an imitation of a poem, story, song, or some other piece of writing in which the style is the same but the content and theme are ridiculously different." I read aloud a few of my favorites from the examples I’ve collected—Kenneth Koch’s parodies of William Carlos Williams, included in Knock at a Star by X. J. Kennedy; Joan Murray’s "Brush and Floss: To a Young Child," a ridiculous imitation of Gerard Manley Hopkins, sprung rhythm and all; Loren Goodman’s "Traveling Through the Dark (2008)," which repeats William Stafford’s poem word for word until a nihilistic twist of the end line; and "To a Stranger Born in Some Distant Country Hundreds of Years from Now" by Billy Collins, in which he skewers the dog poems of—and the pomposity of a remark made by—Mary Oliver.

Then I turn the kids loose in small groups to brainstorm and record answers to two questions: "What are kinds of writing and pieces of writing you know well enough to mess around with? Who are writers whose work you know well enough to poke fun at it?" Afterward, I turn on the overhead projector and create a master list of their ideas.

Figure 13.1 shows the list one of my classes generated with input from me along the way. It draws on diverse sources: our daily poems and the poets we study, the weekly newsletter and other school publication, teachers’ styles of speaking and writing, songs we sing at our whole-school morning meetings, current events, our history textbook, children’s literature, the classroom walls, and writing by the students themselves. The common features are familiarity and brevity. Kids know these texts, and each is manageable to take on as a project in writing workshop.

  • “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Black- bird” Wallace Stevens
  • “Nothing Gold Can Stay” Robert Frost
  • CTL Newsletter:
    • Kudos
    • We're Grateful
    • Dates to Remember
    • A teacher's Highlights of the Week
    • Ancient Japanese haikus
  • A Shakespearean sonnet, speech, or scene
  • "The Red Wheelbarrow" or "This Is Just to Say" William Carlos Williams
  • "Hope Is the Thing with Feathers" Emily Dickinson
  • Another Emily Dickinson poem
  • "59th Street Bridge Song" Paul Simon
  • Joy Hakim’s books about U.S. history
  • CTL Bill of Rights
  • CTL dance rules
  • "We Real Cool" Gwendolyn Brooks
  • Nancie’s instructions for a spelling study
  • Nancie’s "Get Over It, Already" minilessons
  • "What Not to Bring to School" from the CTL Parent Handbook
  • Guidelines for Behavior in Gr. 7–8
  • The House Was Quiet and the World Was Calm" Wallace Stevens
  • "Digging for China" Richard Wilbur
  • CTL job list
  • CTL sledding rules
  • Rules for one of Pam’s arcane games in P.E.
  • A book review from the CTL blog
  • A manufacturer’s or drug company’s warning
  • Poems from our last poetry reading
  • Nancie’s minilesson about adverbs
  • "Inspirational" quotes for a classroom’s walls
  • Hamlet’s "To Be" soliloquy
  • "As freedom is a breakfastfood" E. E. Cummings
  • "anyone lived in a pretty how town" E. E. Cummings
  • A River of Words/celebration of nature poem
  • When not to send your ill child to school from the CTL Parent Handbook
  • One of Walt Whitman’s catalogue poems
  • CTL’s dress code from the Parent Handbook
  • A Pablo Neruda ode/anti-ode
  • "This Pretty Planet" Tom Chapin
  • "The Summer Day" Mary Oliver
  • Ted DeMille’s "School on the Hill" song about CTL
  • One of Oliver’s m-a-n-y poems about dogs
  • "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening"
  • Robert Frost
  • "who are you little i" E. E. Cummings
  • Ted’s "Seven Nights to Read" song
  • "There’s a Hole in the Bucket" song
  • Humanities Room presidents timeline,
  • with new "accomplishments" for each president à la John Hodgman
  • "Down by the Bay" Raffi
  • A president’s State of the Union address
  • A fairy tale
  • A well-known children’s book
  • A well-known novel or story as retold by Dr. Seuss
  • CTL lunchtime questions
  • A poem by a peer
  • Potential scripts:
    • Morning meeting
    • Nancie’s writing workshop
    • Katie on a tear in math class
  • A 7–8 lunchtime conversation, a.k.a., welcome to Non-Sequiturville
  • A business letter à la Ted L. Nancy
  • A wrecked version of a piece of your own or someone else’s writing

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Praise for In the Middle, Third Edition

  • “Nancie Atwell is a master teacher, reader, writer, and educational innovator. In this comprehensive volume, she draws on a lifetime of classroom experience implementing her signature writing–reading workshops. Fittingly, the volume conveys the broad overview, the fascinating details, and the indispensable middle.”
  • —Howard Gardner, Harvard Graduate School of Education, author of Truth, Beauty, and Goodness Reframed

  • “Nancie has written a professional book that will grip your heart like poetry does, will cause you to turn pages with anticipation as if you’re reading a novel, and will offer up endlessly practical advice from the sagest mentor you can dream up. Whether you teach kindergarteners or twelfth graders, open your classroom door to Nancy’s ideas and you’ll create something magical: a place where you really know your students, where you challenge the status quo, where instruction begins from student strengths and interests, and where students in the classroom do what real readers and writers do in the world. The rewards (for teacher and students alike) are well worth the work.”
  • — Jennifer Serravallo, author of The Literacy Teacher’s Playbook

  • In the Middle is the greatest book on literacy teaching ever written in this country. It is our epic, our Odyssey. In this third edition Nancie Atwell offers us the culmination of her four decades of working with adolescents—the most richly detailed account of a teaching practice we are ever likely to get. This edition retains the bedrock principles of the earlier editions—the emphasis on student choice, the importance of being an “insider” as a reader and writer, and on the power of voluminous practice. But we can see her evolution as well: the new stress on “handover” where there is explicit teacher modeling. We can see how poetry has moved to the center of her practice, along with innovative ways of approaching fiction writing. As readers, we live on intimate terms with her; we hear the introduction to her lessons, her conversation with students. She takes us through her most minute decision making, showing us what intentional teaching looks like. It’s a gift, a grand summing up, to which we can only say, Thank you, Nancie Atwell.”
  • — Thomas Newkirk, author of Minds Made for Stories

User Testimonials

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