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‘World’s best teacher’ does not believe in tests and quizzes

April 29, 2015 at 6:15 PM EDT
For 25 years, Nancie Atwell has run a small, independent K-8 school in Maine, where the goal is not just teaching young students, but also teachers. At the Center for Teaching and Learning, the school day is driven by a simple motto: let kids have choices. Now Atwell's work and philosophy have earned her education's highest honor, the Global Teacher Prize. The NewsHour's April Brown reports.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Next: a profile of a teacher whose approach has caught international attention.

President Obama today recognized some of the country’s best educators at a White House ceremony honoring the teacher of the year.

Shanna Peeples, who teaches high school English teacher in Amarillo, Texas, received the top prize. Last month in Dubai, a teacher from Maine took home the first ever Global Teacher Prize and $1 million. Nancie Atwell is using her time in the spotlight to continue her life’s work.

The NewsHour’s April Brown reports for our American Graduate series, a public media initiative funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

APRIL BROWN: For roughly 40 years, Nancie Atwell has thought of herself first and foremost as a teacher. But recently in Dubai, she got a major title bump.

MAN: The Global Teacher Prize goes to Nancie Atwell.


APRIL BROWN: Today, many are calling her the world’s best teacher, after winning what’s been dubbed education’s Nobel Prize. Along with that honor, she was awarded $1 million from the Varkey Foundation, a nonprofit that aims to improve educational outcomes for underprivileged children across the globe.

NANCIE ATWELL, Global Teacher Prize Winner: I was delighted, shocked, you know, gobsmacked, and so proud to represent my profession.

The goal is excellence, always.

APRIL BROWN: Atwell was among 10 finalists competing against nominees from countries including Afghanistan, India, Haiti, and Kenya.

NANCIE ATWELL: This is going to work if you can play it out slowly.

APRIL BROWN: She won in large part because of the small independent K-8 school she started in 1990 in Edgecomb, Maine, with the goal of teaching more than just students.

NANCIE ATWELL: I started to plan a school where I could teach kids and teach teachers at the same time. And that’s the genesis for the Center for Teaching and Learning. It’s a demonstration school and it exists for those two audiences, local kids and then teachers from around the country, and even now around the world.

And you’re from Wyoming as well. So, welcome. We hope you have a great week.

APRIL BROWN: Those teachers complete four-day internships at the Center for Teaching and Learning, finding out how Atwell’s teaching philosophy works in the classroom.

Here, the entire school day is driven by a simple motto: Let kids have choices, whether it’s the book they want to read, or where they want to read it.

NANCIE ATWELL: Anybody’s achievement is driven by interest. You know, adult, child, boy, girl, it doesn’t matter.

APRIL BROWN: As they would in public schools, Atwell’s 75 students follow a curriculum in every subject. But within the traditional framework, her kids choose what topic they want to explore in history, or what they want to research in science class.

Atwell believes this gets them to invest in what they are learning.

NANCIE ATWELL: And not just invest arbitrarily, but invest in the way a literary critic does, a writer does, a mathematician does, a historian does, a scientist does, out of real curiosity, real passion, a real sense of motivation.

MAN: There’s a flat character. Forester said they really fit a specific kind of role.

APRIL BROWN: Atwell also doesn’t believe in tests and quizzes. Teachers assess their students’ progress daily, as English teacher Glenn Powers did in this discussion on flat vs. round characters, which ended up crossing many literary genres.

STUDENT: In the beginning of the trilogy, he’s a flat character, and, by the end, he changes how he thinks and by how he feels about other people.

NANCIE ATWELL: When we evaluate our students, it’s on the basis of portfolios of their work, and students self-assess as part of the portfolio process. They answer question on every discipline about what they have been thinking, doing, learning. It’s a question not of being accountable to the state, but of being accountable to our students’ parents.

These are the first and second graders who have just come back from swimming.

APRIL BROWN: The way students are evaluated isn’t the only unusual feature of this school. The environment is too. Atwell designed it to encourage interaction and collaboration.

NANCIE ATWELL: It’s just so friendly to open a door and be, you know, in another space. And teaching can be lonely. We have tried to build this building so that people would feel connected.

MAN: There are at least 20 titles.

APRIL BROWN: Jennifer Wilson is a teacher from Charlottesville, Virginia, who came to Atwell’s school to see what methods here could be used in her own English classroom.

Wilson says she is convinced many of the principles would translate well, but she isn’t ready to adopt the model wholesale.

JENNIFER WILSON, English Teacher, Field School of Charlottesville: I love the freedom of the writing workshop, where some kids are working on a poem and some kids are working on micro-fiction. But I might need to make it a little bit more structured and a little bit more linear, in terms of, this is what is due on this day and this is what is due on this day, because it seems things could kind of get lost in the shuffle.

APRIL BROWN: For Atwell, that’s perfectly fine. The internships are meant to get teachers thinking more about their craft and how best to reach their own students, no matter what kind of system they work in.

NANCIE ATWELL: The idea was to start the school so that other teachers wouldn’t have to start schools of their own, and especially and essentially public school teachers.

Our mission here is to experiment for the good of everybody’s children, and then pass those methods along.

APRIL BROWN: Most of the kids attending Atwell’s school live nearby, and 80 percent don’t pay the full $8,000-a-year tuition, because it’s calculated on a sliding scale based on parental income.

NANCIE ATWELL: We keep the tuition low on purpose, because we want to attract regular kids. So the kids that you see in our classes, their parents are farmers, fishermen, lobstermen, small business owners, the whole range of professions that people work in the mid-coast of Maine.

APRIL BROWN: For many of her students, there is no question why Atwell is being called the world’s best teacher.

NICCO BARTONE: She was able to teach people who then could teach other people. And so she kind of — she grew a web of teaching, and it’s just — it’s spread. And so I think that’s why she was up for it.

SYDNEY SULLIVAN: She can engage everyone and make one topic that would be really hard to relate to just something amazing to every kid in the class.

APRIL BROWN: This popular teacher says she’s already made plans to maximize her newfound fame.

NANCIE ATWELL: I would like to speak up for the brilliance of teachers, for the privilege of being a member of this profession, and for the need for it to transform again, so that it’s viewed as an intellectual opportunity, because, right now, it’s not.

APRIL BROWN: Atwell plans to invest the million dollars she won back into her school. Some of the money will fund scholarships and much of the rest will go toward keeping the Center for Teaching and Learning open for years to come.

For the PBS NewsHour, I’m April Brown in Edgecomb, Maine.

PBS NewsHour education coverage is part of American Graduate: Let’s Make it Happen, a public media initiative made possible by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.