Millstone Depth: @NancieAtwell on Writing and Tech @brasst

My first year of teaching, Nanci Atwell’s In the Middle served as my manual for writing and reading workshop. I diligently taught all the mini-lessons she suggested or mentioned in the book, branching out to seize on the work of writer-teachers like Kirby & Liner Inside Out, Toby Fulwiler, Donald Graves, Kenneth Koch, and many others. 

Image Source: Millstone, http://goo.gl/F0zSbP


I recently had the opportunity to read The Role of Technology in Nanci Atwell’s classroom, and found much I agree with, but also some points I disagreed with.

Points I agreed with:

  • Only when children handwrote was there activity in the areas of the brain that are activated when adults engage in real reading and writing.
  • Students who struggle with processing disabilities and small-motor challenges do have ideas, diction, and imagery. Freed from the frustrations of letter formation and conventional spelling, they can express themselves with the best of them.
  • I require that my students type their final drafts—to achieve instant publication and also to get ready for high school, where handwritten work is no longer accepted by many teachers. 

In my own experience, I tend to take short notes on paper, and create semantic webs to organize my ideas. However, when it comes time to write with a word processor–something I’ve done since I was 13 years old–that is when my writing takes off. 

We no longer just read articles,” writes Cheryl Oakes, “we live them.” Wrestling with reality in their writing, our students–whether they are the victims of a hurricane or negligence–can find a way of organizing the seeming chaos, the powerlessness of being a child. 

In my writing workshop, fifth grade students wrote about how they captured rattlesnakes, poverty, their friendships, and more. The power of students writing is that it enables them to fight back. Instead of passive receivers, doormats for adult goals and initiatives, children can write their way out of hopelessness and despair. They can find their voice in a world that increasingly shouts them out via various media. As a teacher who modeled writing for his students, as well as writes, I found that the juxtaposition of life experiences, current events, and emotion in writing could result in novel inventions. When writing touches the core of who we are, then that’s when it’s powerful to others, regardless of what we’re writing about. Every time I sit down to write, I have to dig deeper to find that core of passion. Read More

I’ve watched my daughter grow up to be a published writer. She started writing by hand, only using a word processor to “publish her final piece.” For her, technology came after and paper was her primary mode of interacting with words and ideas. It took time for her to adapt to using technology and that involved working with a variety of technology. The real shift came when she got her own netbook, which she took everywhere, and graduating to a laptop and tablet. Both allowed her the freedom to move around and write wherever. I have no doubt that Chromebooks provide this anytime, anywhere feeling of being able to write.

My son, who came along several years later, grew up writing on some kind of technology or another. He can write on his iPhone, iPad Mini, or his Chromebook. . .he’s experimented with every device out there, finally finding a companion in his Chromebook. 

For him, there is little writing by hand, that arduous, labor-intensive process of yesteryear. The difference between my daughter and my son is that the latter composes with technology, while my daughter composes on paper. The difference is profound. While they have different interests, both are writers.

Feedback from Tami Brass (@brasst) on Nanci’s article


Some of the points Nanci Atwell makes, quoted below, demonstrate a fundamental misapprehension of technology to transform the writing process. When children enter “the zone,” they are able to let their ideas tumble from mind to digital paper all the faster, their ideas made changeable and as fluid as the thoughts that birthed them.

  • I do think classrooms in grades four or five and up should have computers, so kids can experience and experiment with word processing, but I have concerns about them in the younger grades. In fact, I think the trend of iPads in the primary classroom is a mistake.
  • I also request that no one rely on the computer when attempting substantive revision. My students can’t get a sense of the coherence of a text when they view it a-part- at-a-time on a screen. 
  • Kids handwrite their changes and then return to the computer and type them in. 
  • As readers, many of my students have explored e-books. There’s a Kindle in the classroom they can try, and kids receive them as gifts or experiment with their parents’. Most revert to paper books.

While a part of me agrees that too much technology in young children’s hands can be a problem, I disagree completely with the idea that students can get a sense of coherence of a text when they view it on screen. As a visual learner, it is because I can see the totality of a page that I enjoy writing on a mobile device with a keyboard. 

As an avid ebook reader, the problem is simply a failure to build stamina. When you have a physical book in your hand, yes, you can flip to the cover to let the imagery capture the mind’s eye. But the true value of the ebook is the cascade of words that wash you away into imagination, a story well-told. I have to “push back” on Nanci’s experience. Children in schools lack access to ebooks for their devices…every ebook has to be approved and purchased. With a print book, you simply have to pick it up and stuff it in your backpack.

The problem with ebooks, and even with writing with technology, is less that they are about geography of a text and more that our children have so little access to technology 24/7 that they become familiar with that which is most abundant–our old, tired modes of sharing ideas and information via paper.

What a shame that those approaches hold us back, what misfortune we have tied around our children’s necks that drags them into a past we are comfortable with.

“As long as I write and read, pay attention to who my kids are, and keep in touch with each writer’s needs and intention, there’s a good chance,” shares Nanci Atwell, “that I can avoid the worst of the orthodoxies–the maxims that prevent me from teach my students what they need to know. I can be less caught up in adhering to a program or curriculum and more concerned with responding to my kids, leading them, and helping them grow.” Source: In the Middle

Let’s avoid those maxims that prevent us from blending technology into writing workshop. Instead of adhering to Ms. Atwell’s approach to not using technology to help students grow, let’s do our best model new ways for our children.

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Everything posted on Miguel Guhlin’s blogs/wikis are his personal opinion and do not necessarily represent the views of his employer(s) or its clients. Read Full Disclosure

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