What’s the Point? Theory, History, and Middle School Language Arts

Huff puff America 2000! Huff puff Goals 2000! Huff puff NCLB! Huff puff Race to the Top! 

I used to run through basic education history facts whenever I went out jogging. Timelines, names, and key concepts fought to implant themselves inside my brain as I heaved myself along the idyllic running path outside my home. Like the cartographers in Jorge Louis Borges’ “On Exactitude in Science,” I sought to construct a map that could store and represent everything I knew about education and theory. If I could only keep my facts straight, I figured, everything else would turn out fine.

I’ve traditionally devoted the summer months to catching up on my theory and history reading. Before this summer started, I lined up what I assumed to be the first chunk of books to plow through. As you can see, I was planning to go hard on history with some theory thrown in for good measure.


Before I cracked open Lawrence Cremin’s The Transformation of the School, I decided to live a little and read Intention: Critical Creativity in the Classroom. The new book was making waves across my various social media feeds, and I wanted to see what all of the fuss was about. The book is split into two halves: the theory behind the lessons and then the lessons themselves. For the first time, I found myself skipping through the theory to get to “the good stuff.” This isn’t me. I’m normally the jerk in the back of the room who insists on parsing out the “why” before launching into the “what” and “how,” a tendency of mine that can wear thin on colleagues.

The self-contained nature of the book’s lessons seemed a perfect fit for Google Keep, an Evernote-esque organization program that lets you store, label, categorize, etc. My memory is atrocious, and I’ve always wanted to see what would happen if I devoted a big chunk of time to organizing everything I know about teaching. So I spent an afternoon taking pictures of the book and categorizing each lesson with various tags. I was so pleased with the end result that I spent the next few days doing the same thing with a few of my favorite teaching books. Before I knew it, I had created over twenty-five different labels and gone through six books. My Google Keep homepage is quickly becoming Borges’ map.


Now I’m at a crossroads. How do I proceed knowing time is finite and I have much to do? Many of the theory and history books I’ve enjoyed don’t fit well into a Google Keep type interface. Even if they did, would it be worth it to reduce them to snippets? The first book I completed this summer, The Young Composers: Composition’s Beginnings in Nineteenth-Century Schools, is wonderful. But is it useful? How do my students and colleagues benefit from my ability to extemporize on the development of school-age composition instruction from rote learning in the early 1800s to experiential writing topics in the early 1900s? The same question also stands for theory. I spent last summer attempting to teach myself the main theories of composition pedagogy. Do my students really gain anything from a teacher who can speak on the interesting symbiosis between the process movement and the expressionist movement?

In a sense, these questions employ a mechanistic and functionalist view of teacher knowledge: the only things worth doing are those that lead to immediate, sequential, and tangible outcomes for students. On one level I recognize that separating theory and practice enforces a false dichotomy. Theory doesn’t necessarily lead to practice; theory is enacted through practice. For instance, I value social justice. So I implement democratic classroom structures that require students to work collaboratively and explore ‘real world’ questions through literacy, my content area. This feeds back into my personal pedagogy as I reflect on my practice and work with students. The recursion of praxis.

Finally, questions about the relationship between theory and practice have implications for knowledge work and what it means to be a teacher. Last winter, Katie Kraushaar and I collaborated on an article for publication in Voices from the Middle, NCTE’s middle grades journal. We attempted to show why teachers of writing should themselves be writers. Part of the revision process for our article meant researching the question of why teachers of writing tend not to be writers themselves. I learned that this same debate raged during the 1990s in the pages of English Journal. And here I was discovering the topic for the first time twenty years later. I experienced the gulf between what goes down in professional journals and academic conferences and what happens in middle school language arts classrooms.

There is probably no satisfactory answer to the question of “why should I spend time reading theory and history?” Any answer I can come up with bends and refracts as soon as I submit it to a critical gaze. For now, I’ll continue plugging away on Google Keep, reducing books to shards of lessons for safe keeping. Resting safe with the knowledge that regardless of how many theorists I forget or the number of concepts that slip from my grasp in the intervening months, I’ll at least have an awesome collection of lessons come September.





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