Well, you would have thought I would have written about this already. I pushed it to the side thought because I know it so well. Russell kind of through me for a loop in our practice comprehensive exam. He said that Atwell said she's not a reading teacher. I didn't remember that part, and Dr. Fox explained that maybe she was equating reading with decoding (and NCLB), and that literature was not about decoding. That made sense, and I guess I can see her saying that.
Summary: In the Middle is a foundational reading in terms of an instructional practice called Reading and Writing Workshop. Atwell was not the first person to talk or write about this, but she was the first to reach a large audience. Part of that has to be because of her easy-to-read, conversational tone. Some books share lists of strategies. Some books share stories of teaching. Atwell does a nice job of integrating the two. Atwell is well-read and she includes much of the research and reading that influenced her thinking. She includes many of her workshop handouts that can be photocopied from the book and used immediately. She outlines Reading Workshop. Reading workshop is where a teacher would have a large library in the room, and he or she would allow students to choose their own reading books. The teacher would include time in class to read. Atwell's students wrote letters to her about their reading and she would respond.
Writing workshop is similar in that students chose their own topics to write about. Atwell gave them time in class to write. She conferenced with them, and students conferenced together. Atwell includes pages of lists for both reading and writing mini-lessons. These are handy for a teacher starting off. A good place to start is the Reading and Writing Territories list. Atwell also shares in her book the modeling that she did with students. She shares many examples that she wrote and shared with students, and she includes many student examples, which are also very helpful.
This was a good book that offered suggestions for how to create a workshp environment in my classroom. I used her ideas for mini-lessons to get started on my own. I used her workshop handouts to get my own workshop started. I have a friend who likes Rief better than Atwell. She says Atwell isn't realistic because she taught seven kids in essentially a private school. I don't really agree with that. Rief's okay too, but Atwell supports herself better in the research.
I like her honesty. I like reading about what she is reading. I like her long lists of ideas for mini-lessons, her paperwork, and her research.
Here is a problem I have with her work, and it's not really her problem. Some teachers, if they are not at the right "place" in their career, can't really appreciate what she has to say. Also, I don't know if Atwell can be used to the most benefit in a methods course.
She's not as concrete as some writers (Lane or Beers). She's not strategy-driven. Her appendix is filled with handouts that help to create the environment, not work on specific "reading" problems. That lack of concreteness may be difficult for some teachers to grasp. It's a foundational reading for me personally.