National Writing Project

Dear Jaynie: A Meditation on Theory and Grad Talk

By: Britton Gildersleeve
Publication: The Quarterly, Vol. 26, No. 2
Date: 2004

Summary: Gildersleeve believes that teachers need theory. In this article, written as a letter to a first grade teacher, she tells why.


* Names changed for privacy, although permission to use material and situations was given by everyone included in the article.

Dear Jaynie,*

It's April, and you've come to the orientation for our six-hour graduate summer institute. You teach first grade. To your chagrin, you sit next to me, the Ph.D. As if that's not bad enough, the presenter is using Janet Emig, arguing that "writing combines all three ways of learning: doing, drawing, and saying, or, the `enactive, the iconic, and the symbolic.'"

Halfway through the two-hour presentation, you whisper to me, "I don't think I can do this."

I remember turning to you, as I have to several elementary teacher colleagues in the past, and saying, in my fiercest "teacher voice": "You know more about real teaching, about how to provide students with the tools and strategies to learn, than almost anyone in this classroom. As a college professor, I teach content. You teach learning."

Another college teacher in your institute said it even better: "You can B.S. a freshman in college; grad students do it all the time. But you can't wing it with fourth-graders; they know."

But that Saturday in April, sitting beside me in Morrill Hall, Room 202, you were terrified, and we both knew it. What happened over the summer that made it possible for you to send me a pen with a vividly colored, whimsical butterfly atop its end? It was symbolic, you wrote me happily, of your metamorphosis from "caterpillar nonwriter" to the "butterfly writer" and, most particularly (in terms of our chat here), "confident professional" teacher who now had a handle on educational theory.

What happened during a single summer to change your self-image? Because, Jaynie, you actually learned very little "theory" this summer. You came in, like teachers do each summer, already knowing much if not all of what we would study. As we sat together in my dorm room, drinking too much caffeine late into the night, you told me about your classroom, about your first- and second-graders. You were Nancy Atwell; you were Donald Graves. You were Vygotsky and Peter Elbow and even Csikszentmihalyi. You already knew about centers and writing workshop and drawing writing as second-order symbolism and process and flow. You didn't have the terminologies or the jargon, but you had the concepts. Yet somehow the evidence of your own students—how they learned and how you met their needs—was subsumed in the top-down hierarchy of state mandates, principal's letters, and the newest "best practice" workshop from the district. You came to us convinced, that April, that you knew nothing.

What I learned that summer, watching you gain confidence, watching you learn the terminologies that describe practices you'd already been using in your own classes for years, is that teachers of all grade levels need to have confidence in their abilities. Somehow, teachers need to make the switch in their own minds to teaching as profession, to teachers as professionals, to valuing their own training and expertise and experience. Your instincts, trained in practice by the daily demands of teaching, are excellent, Jaynie. You are as "professional" as any doctor or lawyer or botanist or banker. When you walk your first grade students through the scientific process, when you use potatoes to teach them hypothesis, process, and conclusion, when you read mold as if it would lead you to penicillin, you are not only Salk and Pasteur: you are James Britton and Linda Flower.

Yes, it's true you have learned your theory not from textbooks but from following your best teaching instincts, the knowledge gained by experience. But I hope you understand that the language of theory—what my graduate students call "grad talk"—can sometimes come to the rescue. Take my friend Katherine, a gifted teacher of high school writing, who told me recently that she wondered if her classes really are too easy—an accusation leveled at her by some of her school colleagues. Her students, Katherine said on a listserv to which we both subscribe, wrote in their reflections that her class was "easy" at the same time that they said they'd never worked so hard in their lives. What, she asked, was happening?

I responded with a discussion of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi's idea of "flow." "Flow," I told Katherine, "happens when we do things we enjoy, when time becomes elastic, and the work no longer seems like work, even if it is difficult." It's what happens for me when I write, for instance, or when I work out.

My friend Katherine had never heard of Csikszentmihalyi, which doesn't surprise me. He's not commonly known, and besides, theory puts off most of my teaching colleagues, even those with "advanced degrees." "It's too dry," a colleague tells me. "It doesn't have any application to what I do every day," another says. But despite her lack of familiarity with Csikszentmihalyi, Katherine knew intimately about flow. She knew when her students were in the "zone" of creativity and flow, and she had gone to great lengths to construct a learning environment that fostered the experience. All she lacked were the two relevant words: Csikszentmihalyi and flow. Armed with these words, she felt more comfortable in what she was doing.

Too often teachers think of theory as top-down management: the honchos in the ivory towers, using the newest buzzword to bludgeon teachers into a new teaching posture. Or the politicos at the Capitol, fluent in "theory-lite": they know the talk, but they haven't a clue how to walk the walk. So like the fish in the film Finding Nemo, teachers are a bit leery of the shark/theorist who insists "we can be friends." My teacher colleagues (and not only elementary and secondary teachers; university professors are not exempt from theory phobia) think of theory as outside them, as something constructed, not organic. Theory, the theory goes, is made. It doesn't grow from experience. But it doesn't have to be like that.

Well, here I am well into this talk about theory, and it only now occurs to me that it might be helpful to define what theory is, since the term can mean different things in different disciplines, and to different readers. To a scientist, a theory is a possible explanation that's still under consideration, something that needs testing before we can "prove" it. To an anthropologist, a theory is virtually unproveable: we may never know why the Anasazi abandoned their adobes, although we have several strong theories.

But in the aggregate, "theory" tends to mean the principles or methods of a discipline, in contrast to its practice: the skeleton of bones invisible beneath the flesh we touch and see. It's a good metaphor for the necessity of theory. The bones of theory support and make functional the body of practice. And like the bones that make it possible for us to walk and run and dance, even if we can't name them one by one, theories ground and support our practice even if we don't speak "grad talk."

So is that vocabulary important? I think, Jaynie, that you and Katherine are the best answers to that question. What I see Katherine doing on the listserv—reaching out to colleagues she knows and trusts for affirmation of her own practice—is what I saw happening that summer, on a larger scale, to you. And the specific names and theorists and vocabularies are part of that process of professional growth. Knowing that Peter Elbow has several books on the value of the personal narrative and that his philosophy of writing actually has a name—expressivism—is a kind of entry into a larger professional conversation. Being able to turn to a colleague and defend your student evaluations as exemplary of Csikszentmihalyi's flow is validating. Whether the colleague accepts, listens to, or continues to dismiss you is less significant than connecting yourself, in your own mind, to a professional community with similar interests, philosophies, and objectives.

Teachers teach far too often in isolation. Even the best of schools is divided into rooms, into discipline wings, into small pockets of solitary practice. Within their individual pockets, solitary teachers reinvent process writing, grammar in context, the distinction between orality and literacy. Theory is a way out of the isolation of the individual, and into the community of the profession. Not only does it connect one teacher to another through their shared practices, it can also provide the individual teacher a predictive framework.

Here's how this played out for one teacher. Each summer I invite a colleague who teaches English language learners (ELL) to present at our writing project site's summer institute. This summer this colleague gave his standard presentation on the differences between basic communication skills and analytical academic writing. You could see the lightbulb go off behind one of our teacher's eyes. "So, if I have five or six ELL students this fall, I can't really tell how well they'll do just from the way they talk?" she asked. "That's right," the guest speaker nodded. "You pick up the interpersonal skills in about six months. It takes three to four years to become fluent in the analysis required of a school environment."

The young woman came to me later that day, excited at what this new knowledge meant for her fall semester. Each year she has at least five or six ELL students. Now, she says, she understands their issues better, and she can plan a semester of sequencing that will help them master the skills they need in school. "I thought if they could speak English, they should get the material," she said. "But now I realize it's not that simple, is it?"

I thought back to the four semesters it took me to discover these two ELL concepts on my own, of the 120 or so students I might have served more effectively, more imaginatively, if I'd known then the theory I ultimately invented on my own. The predictive value of theory can't be overestimated: theory provides us a window into other classrooms, other minds and hearts and ways of knowing.

The best theorists are teachers themselves. Think of a teaching hospital: the doctors who teach doctors were (or remain) practicing physicians. Entering interns and residents are not yet teachers—they need to learn the work before they can think metacognitively about it. Theory is metacognitive: it's thinking about the practice we're engaged in doing. Its terminology is the vocabulary of our profession at its most reflective.

Much of what makes a professional community, like any community, is its discourse. You can call it jargon, but nomenclature—the precise name for each piece of the puzzle—is the warp and woof of professional conversation. And Jaynie, it's not really more difficult than what you do in the teacher's lounge daily. When teachers get together and talk about individualized education programs (IEPs), protocols, and mandates, they already share one kind of professional vocabulary, and that community of teachers is, by definition, a discourse community. As a writer who entered education through the side door, I remember feeling totally at sea when I heard the term IEP. I could discuss deconstruction and postmodernism with the best of `em, but teacher talk defeated me. A few informative sessions with a generous colleague "educated" me. Theory isn't any more difficult than learning how to do IEPs, and it's every bit as useful. It's just metacognitive professional discourse: thinking about the ways in which we talk about our practice, this messy, frustrating, rewarding profession of teaching.

The difference between the discourse of the teachers' lounge and the discourse of the university classroom, to return to the analogy of the teaching hospital, is moving to the next level. Theory requires us to think about the "whys" of our practice, in the same way that the teaching physician has to be able to break down both the "how" and the "why" of medicine for the intern and resident, both of whom share the basic language of medicine. Teachers who reflect on their practice are already theorists: they are theorists of their own classrooms. And teachers who don't think they need theory don't refute theory's usefulness: there's no need to go through the hungry years of reinventing the wheel if you can plug into someone else's hard-won experience. Katherine might have avoided years of uneasy conversation about her student evaluations if she'd known about Csikszentmihalyi. In addition, his work might have made her efforts to create more flow in her classroom even more effective. Had she read his research and looked at his theory, she might have been able to implement years earlier the strategies she came to on her own. I could have spent two years doing the same thing had I encountered ELL theory before having to reinvent it through observing four semesters of students.

Ultimately, theory is more practical than most of us think. Those of us looking for justification of our own practice can find it, while those of us seeking ideas to try can be accommodated as well. Theory provides a window into different practices, why our colleagues do things so differently. Anyone who has ever wondered "why" about a student, a paper, or a piece of work handed in on Friday and thought about all weekend, is a theorist at heart. Theory shouldn't be reserved for university classrooms or theses or dissertations. You and Katherine and I all need it, Jaynie. In fact, we deserve it. We deserve to be able to enter the rich professional conversation of our work. And we deserve to be taken seriously.

Csikszentmihalyi, M. 1993. Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. New York: Harper Perennial.

Emig, J. 1997 "Writing as a Mode of Learning." Cross-Talk in Comp Theory. Ed. Victor Villaneuva, Jr. Urbana, IL: National Council of Teachers of English. 7-15.

About the Author Britton Gildersleeve teaches at Oklahoma State University, where she also directs the Oklahoma State University Writing Project. The best theorists she knows are elementary teachers.

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