- We Are English:Looking for Practical Relevance in Practitioners’ Relevance
Having spent most of my career in middle school English classrooms, it may be no surprise that a young adult novel, Sharon Creech's Walk Two Moons (1995), kept meandering into my reading of The Relevance of English: Teaching That Matters in Students' Lives. Partway through this Newberry Medal winner, the narrator Sal considers the idea of relevance. "I did not think cheerleading tryouts would matter, but I was not so sure about yelling at your mother. I was certain, however, that if your mother left, it would be something that mattered in the whole long course of your lifetime" (106). Sal sorts out what matters and to what degree things matter. At numerous points in my teaching career, this particular novel has sparked middle school students to inquire into things that matter, such as safer places and preventing teenage pregnancy. After naming what mattered to them, they studied these things in order to apply their learning and take action on these concerns (Greene 1978; Stock 1995).
The process of application is one of the ways I understand relevance, a process I see as similar to what Bakhtin (1984: 346) describes as an internally persuasive word: "The internally persuasive word is half-ours and half someone else's. Its creativity and productiveness consist precisely in the fact that such a word awakens new and independent words, that it organizes masses of our words from within, and does not remain in an isolated or static position." Knowing this reviewer's internally persuasive words concerning relevance seems, well, relevant—if one wants to better understand the book being reviewed. For me, relevant English teaching involves applying learning to the material concerns of individuals and communities.
Like Sal, Robert Yagelski, Scott Leonard, and their collaborators bravely grapple with "what matters." Happily, a number of the articles respond to my reading for insight into applying and taking action. Patricia Shelley Fox, Margaret J. Finders, James Sosnoski, Paula Mathieu, and Kathleen Blake Yancey speak usefully to a version of Sal's question, "In the whole long course of our profession, what really matters?"
"Enacting Cultures: The Practice of Comparative Cultural Study," by Paula Mathieu and James J. Sosnoski, suggests a particular and applicable [End Page 488] move for a variety of classrooms. The teaching principle that they highlight is comparison. Mathieu and Sosnoski narrate the process of conducting comparative research with university students in a way that leads to application. They usefully translate the theoretical formulations of the Birmingham School into particular classroom practices. "Our goal remains allied with cultural studies' aims to help students see themselves as cultural critics as well as active producers of culture," they write (341). Their focus on production through comparison was relevant and suggestive for my own work in literacy and social action.
Walk Two Moons refers to the idea that we must walk in another person's shoes before we can really understand him or her. This is how Sal starts to figure out the things that matter. As director of the Lake Michigan Writing Project, I regularly see teachers walking others into their classrooms through the genres of anecdote and workshop presentation (Stock 2001). The National Writing Project prioritizes these embodied methods as "teachers teach other teachers" about things that matter for their classrooms (Lieberman and Wood 2003). Sympathetic understanding (Elshtain 2002)—present in Writing Project Summer Institutes and teacher researcher groups—leads me to read texts on relevance for their translatability to other classroom contexts. Translation is another part of my understanding of relevance.
"Women in Mind: The Culture of First-Year English and the Nontraditional Returning Woman Student" is one of the stronger essays in this collection because of this ability to translate to other contexts. Fox pays close attention to her students' narratives and discovers "ways of seeing and naming women's lives that allow them to make sense, to lay claim and to move forward" (202). In particular, she helps me to pay closer...