National Writing Project

English Journal Meets Darth Vader:
Teacher-Consultants Need Theory to Back Up Practice

By: Helen Collins Sitler
Publication: The Voice, Vol. 5, No. 4
Date: September-October 2000

Summary: Helen Collins Sitler discusses why teacher-consultants need theory to back up their successful classroom practices.


English Journal got me in trouble once—with Darth Vader. Well, not really with Darth Vader and the problem wasn't really English Journal's fault. Still, they were both involved. Here's how it happened.

As a relatively new teacher—1977–1978 was my fourth year—I was game to try just about anything that sounded good. English Journal had published an article on journal writing. Interested in this idea, I immediately instituted journal writing in my high school classroom. If English Journal recommended it, I thought, it must be a good thing to do. Today I have no recollection of how my students responded to the journal writing. I do recall, however, how the vice principal responded.

She was new to our school that year. Her grandmotherly look belied her real demeanor. Soon after school opened, the students nicknamed her Darth Vader. The nickname spoke volumes about her administrative style. Her pronouncements were law. There were no arguments, no appeals. It wasn't long before the faculty, too, was using the nickname.

My students had been writing journals for several weeks when Darth—er, the vice principal, called me into her office. Our encounter went something like this:

"Your students are writing things you're not collecting?" she quizzed. I never discovered how she knew this. We were not required to submit lesson plans or to report our classroom activities to administrators. Perhaps a parent had called.

"Yes, they're keeping journals. We start class with them every day."

"You're not correcting what they write? They might be making mistakes and you're not doing anything about that with this writing."

The tenor and purpose of this conversation was obvious: (a) I was making an apparently pointless assignment; and (b) if journal writing was to continue the vice principal would expect me to red pencil every page.

I recall mumbling something about practicing the piano. How no one stands over a child correcting every wrong note, but that with practice awareness grows and the young musician gradually corrects the wrong notes herself. The vice principal wasn't buying it. With horror I realized I could provide no other rationale for my students' journal writing. I truly did not know why I was asking my students to do this writing. In borrowing the technique from the English Journal article, I had focused on the how-to's. Why journal writing was good practice—the theoretical rationale for including journal writing in my classroom routine—never entered my conscious thought.

In fairness to the vice principal, I must say that she did not ask me to stop the journal writing. Her disapproval and obvious lack of faith in such unmonitored work was enough. It shook my faith in myself. Even more unsettling was a very unwelcome revelation. I had imported journal writing into my classroom without understanding a single thing about how it fostered growth in writing. I did not take the obvious action: to re-read the article and return to the vice principal's office to defend my practice. Her authority intimidated me. Instead, I ended the journal assignment. Not until many years later did I again ask my students to keep a journal. Today, I cannot imagine teaching without journals. And today, I can wield my own light saber, autographed by Britton, Vygotsky, Staton, Fulwiler, Anson, and my own classroom research to explain why keeping a journal is integral to my students' writing.

This summer I am, for the first time, co-teaching a writing project summer institute. As I coach my peers, the wonderful summer institute 2000 fellows, to develop their teaching demonstrations, I am reminded of my experience with the Darth Vader of my early teaching years. I see among these fellows an eagerness to teach that reminds me of the best of myself. But close to the surface, also, are their questions, just like mine at that time in my career. Suggested more than articulated, their questions include: Why do I need to add theory to this demonstration? Won't the teachers listening to me be most interested in how to apply this practice in their own classrooms? If I know this works with my students, isn't that enough? Why does the theory matter?

Darth Vader is why the theory matters. When these fellows return to their classrooms in the fall, they will carry with them the best ideas of their summer institute peers as well as new teaching perspectives. Instituting new teaching practices will challenge them, not only because the practices are new, but because they may be quite different from the approaches of colleagues in their buildings. Our teacher-consultants owe themselves and one another the best, most thorough foundations possible. Neither presenters nor the members of their audience should, as I did, import any practice without understanding why the practice promotes good writing and contributes to a child's growth. When Darth Vader in whatever form—a parent, an administrator, a student, a school board member, a standards document—challenges, our TCs must be prepared with a better explanation than piano practice. Theory will give them that explanation.

The National Writing Project develops teacher leaders. As leaders, TCs must convey the sense that knowing how is only half the picture. Knowing why substantiates what we do in our classrooms. As I hear this summer's fellows eagerly exclaiming, "I'm going to use this idea," I am delighted at the richness that has been generated. Yet inwardly, I hope that coaching has planted seeds that sink deep roots, anchoring this message: "Keep track of the theory that went with that demonstration and with your own. Re-read it. Reformulate it into your own words. Own it. Only when you can claim the theory is the practice itself truly yours."

About the Author Helen Collins Sitler is a teacher-consultant with the Southcentral Pennsylvania Writing Project at Indiana University of Pennsylvania.

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