National Writing Project

Book Review: Retracing the Journey: Teaching and Learning in an American High School

By: Jane Frick
Date: May 17, 2011

Summary: Prairie Lands Writing Project director Jane Frick finds Leila Christenbury's tribulations in a high school classroom instructive as she herself works with beginning teachers.


As a secondary English methods teacher for more than twenty years, I was eager to read Leila Christenbury's account of teaching eleventh grade American literature at a large suburban high school in the Southeast.

Christenbury is a professor and chair of the Department of Teaching and Learning at Virginia Commonwealth University, the former president of the National Council of Teachers of English, a former English Journal editor, and the author of the renowned Making the Journey: Being and Becoming a Teacher of English Language Arts .

In Retracing the Journey: Teaching and Learning in an American High School , Christenbury describes how she sets out to "walk the talk"—to put into practice the theory and strategies she employs with her graduate students about to enter secondary English classrooms. Wildly optimistic at the outset about her return to high school teaching, Christenbury ultimately realizes that the school's culture and values work against her goal of creating "sustained intellectual engagement" with the students. In order for them to develop as authentic, independent learners, she concludes, the structure of U.S. high schools must change.

Getting Ready to Engage Learners

Christenbury begins by describing the meticulous planning she undertakes to ensure a successful teaching experience. During the fall term, she collaborates with two of her former graduate students—Terry and Kasey, now a teacher and a department chair, respectively—in a high school with 2,500 students, where she will be teaching a block class of twenty-two juniors during the spring semester.

The students in this honors cohort in media literacy take all of their core classes together. Christenbury notes that they are a chatty group, incapable of listening to each other or the teacher for a sustained period of time, and that they have formed cliques.

Undaunted, she develops a syllabus around a "coming to America" theme, focusing on 19th- and 20th-century immigrant writing. Students must complete a research project, vocabulary work, and test-preparation exercises, but Christenbury will provide them with choices in writing and reading assignments and projects. Students will have considerable input on structuring the class by developing their own study and discussion questions, which Christenbury will use on tests. She expects that the power of the works to be studied will help the students become engaged learners.

As the spring semester begins, students respond enthusiastically on a survey about their expectations for the course and the role of their teacher. They write that they are eager to learn how to write at the college level. While they "want to be challenged," they also want their teacher to be "open-minded, laid-back, and fun."

Despite challenging circumstances—the class meets in a cramped trailer with uneven heating and cooling—Christenbury describes the initial sessions as positive. The students love the journal-writing activities, and they like sharing their writings. They readily communicate with her outside of class via email.

Class discussion is nearly impossible because most of the students have not read the assignments.

A Rude Awakening

But on the day the first draft of the first paper is due, a third of the students don't come to class while others show up without their papers. The students, with their parents' complicity, know how to work the system: school policy allows those with excused absences six days to make up their work. This setback causes havoc with Christenbury's schedule and the group work.

Not long thereafter, during a shortened school day, Christenbury realizes that class discussions are nearly impossible because most of the students have not read the assignments. At this point, she withdraws the article she had committed to write about returning to a secondary English classroom and decides to focus instead on why the "critically engaged classroom" is not happening.

Research Paper Poses Obstacles

The required research paper—next on the agenda—proves to be a major hurdle. Christenbury designs the project to offer students an opportunity to engage with a subject they are truly interested in as well as to use sources from many nonacademic areas. Students can choose from a list of topics and, over the course of eight weeks, must check off steps before moving to the next task: topic, sources, source notes, teacher conference, draft one to revision group, draft two to revision group, draft three to teacher, and final draft. (A copy of the assignment and scoring criteria appears in the appendix of the book.)

Students balk as they move through the sequence, submitting drafts late and making inconsequential changes in drafts as a result of their group work. One junior challenges Christenbury's assessment of her first draft, claiming that deducting points for not citing any sources is unfair.

Ultimately, the class slogs through the project, and the two days when students present the results of their research prove to be the highlight of the semester.

Trying to Create Meaning

While students do actively participate in some projects—such as creating movie trailers based on short stories—they seem especially attentive during sessions that focus on test-taking strategies for the upcoming state exam. (The principal tells Christenbury in their initial meeting that the only thing she must do is prepare the students to score well on the exam.)

And, despite their initial complaints, they ultimately enjoy and write effective responses to the adolescent novel assigned at the end of the semester. (Students felt that no hard work should be given after the state test.)

Still, Christenbury observes that the majority of her students view the class merely as a series of tasks to be completed to earn a grade or prepare for college. Meaningful class discussions rarely happen. Only once—during a dialogue about gender roles in Death of a Salesman — do the students engage in the kind of authentic interchange she hoped to create.

Christenbury also laments that, for approximately half of her students, she is never able to personally engage with them or see them excited and challenged by the subject matter. They rush past her as she waits to greet them at the door before class. "I worked as hard on this course as I have ever worked, and when the response from the students was virtually flat, it seemed a cruel joke," she writes.

What Is to Be Done?

Christenbury acknowledges that the high school's attendance and make-up policies, emphasis on testing, and completing assignments as preparation for college are detrimental to authentic learning. She concludes her book by reviewing the history of U.S. high schools and current reform models including:

  • implementing the Coalition of Essential Schools
  • eliminating the last year of high school
  • adding International Baccalaureate, Advanced Placement, and/or dual-enrollment courses
  • replacing large comprehensive schools with small ones
  • eliminating the negative impacts of high-stakes testing
  • addressing the dropout rate.

Retracing the Journey has provided me with a better understanding of and empathy for my graduate students' secondary English practicum experiences, especially those who tell me that their students won't complete reading assignments outside of class or just want to know what's going to be on the test or that their supervising teacher won't allow them to employ group work or literature circles.

It is a must-read for those of us preparing students to teach English and a call to action to become involved locally and nationally in restructuring the American high school.

About the Author Jane Frick directs the Prairie Lands Writing Project at Missouri Western State University in St. Joseph. She is also a co-director of the Missouri Writing Projects Network and serves on the NWP State and Regional Networks Leadership Team.

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