“I’m here because I won an award,” Nancie Atwell says. “I won an award because I’m the best teacher in the world. Also the universe. And the galaxy. Should I keep going?”
Her pupils laugh. And then they turn to admire the golden Global Teacher Prize placed carefully on a desk by the whiteboard.
Ms Atwell, who teaches 11- to 13-year-olds at the Center for Teaching and Learning in rural Maine, was selected as the 2015 Global Teacher Prize winner from 50 finalists – including two British teachers. Her reward was $1 million and the chance to teach at a number of schools around the world.
So, today, she is delivering a lesson to Year 8 at Capital City Academy in West London. She has pushed back the chairs and tables in her classroom, and her pupils now sit in a circle on the floor. Among them is Nick Gibb, England’s schools minister (although he does not sit on the floor).
“At first I was scared, because she was, like, a famous person,” says 12-year-old Sherin Chaliyath of her new teacher. “But the way she’s teaching makes me less scared.”
Speaking softly, walking around the circle of sitting pupils, Ms Atwell hands out copies of poems written by her pupils in Maine. “You’re welcome,” she says, addressing pupils by name every time they thank her.
“Some teachers have a more stricter approach,” says 12-year-old Bernard Thomas, reading through his handout. “But then some teachers come with a lighter approach, but have a more effective result. They put all their effort into that lesson and showing that, yeah, I can be the best student that I can be.”
Both poems on the handout are entitled I Believe. Ms Atwell asks pupils to choose one of them and consider what it tells them about its author.
They conclude that the girl who wrote the first poem is a fan of the outdoors, although she also likes nail polish and Disney princesses. “Does she ever say, ‘I’m a brave girl who likes adventure, but also likes girly things?’” Ms Atwell says. “No. She lets us infer it from her poem.”
Along the way, they also discuss technicalities of poetry. “OK, boys and girls,” Ms Atwell says. “Here’s a $100 word. It’s ‘caesura’.” And also: “I bet your teacher will love it if you use this word: ‘enjambed’.”
On the whole, however, Ms Atwell is not a fan of technical terminology. She is unequivocally damning of the English national curriculum’s list of grammatical phrases that pupils must be taught.
“Naming clauses and phrases is pointless, unless you’re on a linguistic course,” she tells TES. “If kids are identifying adverbial phrases and clauses, that’s no use to them when it comes to identifying that the overuse of adverbs is a problem in good writing.
“Reading, writing and speaking are authentic acts, and children need to experience the same pleasure in meaning that engaged adults do in those tasks. Why do kids get a different version?”
Eventually, she asks pupils to write their own I Believe poems, listing their character-defining likes and loves. “If somebody doesn’t have chocolate on this page, you’d better see me after class,” she says.
Sherin begins to write down her ideas. “We don’t usually write our feelings down,” she says. “I never used to talk in class, but now I feel more confident expressing my feelings.”
Simon Darcy, Capital City’s head of English, recognises the value of this. “I think, in the curriculum they’re used to discussing other people’s ideas – great writers like Dickens and Blake,” he says. “The curriculum puts a lot of focus on how effectively a writer has used literary techniques. Here, they were looking at the ideas first of all. It’s quite refreshing for me.”
The children begin writing down their poetry ideas. So, too, does Mr Gibb. The minister then shows Ms Atwell his poem. “It was very good, and quite revealing,” she says, although she refuses to disclose any more. “It was truly a verbal snapshot of who he is, apart from the office.”
She pauses. “It surprised me. Very often, in my experience, people who are in administrative positions in education can hold themselves apart from what they see as the pedestrian world of the masses.”
And then she returns to her pupils.