Department of Teaching and Learning

English Education

Did you ever read a poem or a story and come to your English class excited to share your response, only to have your teacher shut down discussion in order to make it clear what the "correct" interpretation should be?

Similarly, when it came time to write, the teacher-directed routines continued. While you had a number of things you wanted to explore and express, the teacher only droned on, emphasizing proper form and correct grammar, ignoring your concerns and interests. There was always a right answer and most of the time was spent getting ready for some examination. We hope your experience with English has not been exclusively with such teacher-centered instruction.

Making Literacy Flourish in the Classroom

The English Education Program at NYU Steinhardt has always stood for something different. We have been committed to cultivating teachers who want to make literacy flourish in their classrooms – from I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings to The Crucible, from autobiographical pieces to essays exploring today's commercial pressures on youth. By truly making English a space where readings come alive and students investigate issues of personal and social significance, teachers extend and refine communication skills essential to academic and personal success.

As we see it, an important goal for us as English teachers is to know our students in the context of a rich and complex world of information, both literary and expository. This allows us to plan engaging lessons that include challenging material and purposeful activities. In this way, our students develop both confidence and competence, seeing their own responsibility to participate energetically in our ongoing social democracy. 

A Leader Among English Education Programs

Yet beyond preparing teachers who are dedicated to making a difference in the literate lives of their students, NYU Steinhardt's Program in English Education has historically been a leader in helping to theorize and construct dynamic, collaboratively negotiated methods of teaching and learning in literature, writing, and the language arts.

In the 1940s the program was led by Louise M. Rosenblatt, whose Literature as Exploration (1938) provided a groundbreaking perspective on the reading and teaching of literature. Literature study, of course, has always figured centrally in the English classroom, but prior to Rosenblatt's powerful ideas about the transactional process that occurs when one reads a text, English instruction was mostly characterized by a conventional search for "correct readings" – readings that, of course, were established by the teacher or some other "expert" critic.

Rosenblatt dramatically shifted our perspective on reading and thus on what English teachers might do. By demonstrating how each reader was responsible for enacting a reading response, she showed that it was the teacher's task to help evoke these personal responses that in turn, through the give and take of discussion, would evolve into more complex interpretations. This process of social reading allowed students to explore the worlds of inner and outer experience in a safe environment, one in which a variety of meanings and their consequences might be shared and questioned. In this way, the English classroom proved to be a continuing experiment, one in which democratic scripts and values were tested, practiced, and strengthened.

Another early educational leader in our program was Lou LaBrant. Her work complemented Rosenblatt's by connecting the process of student understanding and meaning-making with writing instruction. Just as reading demanded that the teacher be open and supportive of student response, so writing required authentic and creative assignments, real audiences, and a process that allowed meaning-making to evolve through social conversation and feedback.

Together, Rosenblatt and LaBrant paved the way for English teachers to take student voices seriously, so that the English curriculum might be a place where literature and other media served as a bridge to pursue students concerns, even as communicative competence and critical skills are being developed. In a negotiated curriculum and classroom an English teacher is responsible for much more than just providing students with access to the canon and some privileged view of "culture." The task equally involves validating the various experiences students bring with them to the learning situation, while encouraging a wide range of cultural contacts and transactions from adolescent literature to the latest rap lyrics.

Over the past 30 years our program has also been shaped by its close association with outstanding scholars in England and Australia, most notably, James Britton, Nancy Martin, Geoffrey Summerfield, and Douglas Barnes in Great Britain and Garth Boomer in Australia. Their research, writing and teaching contributed to refining our approaches to the English curriculum. In Language and Learning, James Britton provided a seminal theoretical frame for understanding the important role of active language use on the part of all learners, both in terms of narrative imagining and analytical inquiry. Nancy Martin helped us recognize how writing and the composing process was a crucial component of instruction across the curriculum, while Douglas Barnes continued to illustrate the inestimable value of social and critical exploratory talk in learning.

Educators such as these (including Geoffrey Summerfield, Garth Boomer, Gordon Hodgeon, Barbara Davies, John Dixon, and Denys Harding) played significant roles in the direction of our Study Abroad Program which began in 1975, and we were also pleased to welcome a number of them as visiting faculty, who spoke during our Summer Conferences at Washington Square and taught summer courses for us.

Linking the World of the Text to the Student's World

Today's faculty carry on this tradition of English teaching and learning that focuses on linking the world of the text to the world of the student.  The teaching and scholarly work of our full-time faculty members has been devoted to the proposition that a professional interest in teaching a subject can only proceed from ongoing reflection into what it means to learn that subject from a student's point of view. These faculty members include:

In tandem, these faculty work to provide a place where the English classroom can be questioned and re- visioned, where old texts join with new, and language both spoken and written is honored as the most powerful tool for realizing the occasions and opportunities of our private lives and our public democracy.

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