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Maine Teacher Finalist for $1 Million Prize

EDGECOMB, Maine - For more than two decades, teachers from around the country have been coming to a small town on the Maine coast to transform their work with students back home. In Edgecomb, teachers intern for a week, under the guidance of Nancie Atwell and her small team of educators at the Center for Teaching and Learning.

Atwell founded the non-profit demonstration school to share her own research-based methods for connecting with kids and getting them invested in reading. writing, math and science. Atwell's innovative work was honored recently, when she was named as one of 50 finalists for the new, $1 million Global Teacher Prize.

The Varkey Foundation, the organization sponsoring the award, is calling it the Nobel Prize of education. A former student nominated Nancie Atwell late last year. Accepting that nomination required Atwell to sit down and do something she's been doing for more than 25 years:  write about her work with teachers and students.

"And I had to write, maybe, five or six essays in response to particular questions they set," Atwell says. "And I love their criteria because they talk about innovation, bringing other teachers into the profession."

And building relationships with students, says Atwell, that are deep and leave a lasting impact on their lives. "There's nothing based on how well your kids score on a standardized test, in terms of the criteria for this prize," she says.

As public schools prepare to give new, online assessment tests, based on the Common Core standards, Atwell and her school offer a different model of what teaching and learning can look like.

The school has six teachers and a student body of roughly 80 kids in grades K-8. The Center for Teaching and Learning is private, but gets state funding to enroll kids from nearby towns, like Alna, that don't have their own public schools.

"We were so cash poor in the first years of the school that we couldn't equip two classrooms," Atwell says. "We were K-3 and we had K-1 and a 2-3. We ended up having a room for math and science and a room for writing and reading. And halfway through the day, all the teachers and kids flipped, exchanged classrooms. And the model worked so well we've kept it."

Atwell takes me to the school's reading room, where Glen Powers' fifth and sixth graders enjoy an unusual amount of freedom. Each student is reading a different book.

"Kids choosing their own books is the most controversial thing we do," Atwell says. "It's so hard for so many to people to get their minds around - that that would be okay and kids would make good choices. Rather than having a group of kids who are force fed maybe six books that they read together, in a year, Glen's kids are reading 50-60 books in a year, on average."

Kids are asked to ponder a different question each day about the book. Atwell looks on, as the teacher moves around the room, checking in on each student.

"Who wouldn't want to sit down with this guy, everyday, and talk - who's just absolutely attentive, and he's taking notes on his laptop:  Who are you as a reader? What are you doing? What are you thinking? Where have you been? What are you going to do next?"

The freedom and experimentation that Atwell encourages has also helped teachers make breakthroughs, as they try to find the best way to reach students.

"I really didn't think that 5 year olds would enjoy poetry," says Helene Coffin. Coffin came to the Center 10 years ago from a school in West Bath. Coffin had had a lot of success with early readers, but wanted to get her kids reading even sooner. Atwell suggested she try poetry.

"And the first year that I tried it, it didn't work very well. And I couldn't understand it," Coffin says. "And I'm a reflective teacher and I kept thinking, 'Why isn't this working? I KNOW! Because I need to choose poems that related to their experiences!' And when I did that, PHEW!"

Roughly 700 teachers have come to Edgecomb since the school opened in 1990 to observe and learn themselves. Meredith Galloway spent this week at the school. Galloway teaches sixth-grade language arts at a public school in Ohio.

"I work with a fabulous group of people," Galloway says, "and I just hope to, kind of, change things and bring it to the families that I work with, and the kids that I work with, most importantly, 'cause it's about time."

Nancie Atwell will find out soon whether she's among the 10 finalists for the Global Teacher Prize. If she wins, Atwell says she'll pour the $1 million in prize money back into the Center for Teaching and Learning. The school, she says, needs a new roof and its boilers are shot.