On the edge: English language arts teachers revising a profession, 1966--2006

Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Cultural Foundations of Education


Gerald Grant


English, Language arts, Teachers, Profession

Subject Categories

Applied Linguistics | Social and Philosophical Foundations of Education | Teacher Education and Professional Development


In the summer of 1966, American, British and Canadian educators met at Dartmouth College for the Anglo-American Seminar on the teaching of English. Their goal was to define English as a school subject and to outline the ways it might be best taught. For many educators then and since, the conference has come to symbolize a Copernican shift from English as something one learns about to a sense of something one does . An old model of teaching centered on the transmission of skills (composition) and knowledge (literature) gave way to a "growth model" focusing on the experiences of students and how these are shaped by their uses of language (Harris, 1991).

In the context of the lives and work of teachers beginning to teach in the decade following the Dartmouth Seminar, the present study aimed to better understand how English teachers characterized as "progressive" by either themselves, colleagues, or administrators, have learned, changed, and survived over long careers and how they have reinvented their notions of what teaching and learning are in English Language Arts classrooms.

This research explores how eleven practicing elementary and secondary English Language Arts teachers frame, enact, interpret, and understand their work as English teachers within a changing paradigm marked by significant struggle and contestation over notions of literacy practice. These teachers share notions of what "English" is that both challenge traditional and normalizing pedagogics and that have undergone significant revision over long careers. Characterized as "on the edge" of significant shifts in the wider discourse of English Language Arts philosophy and practice, they have negotiated, suffered and/or ignored challenges to their practice. They have sought out professional development opportunities that have proven to be transformative and taken up formal or informal membership in communities that have supported their quest to "make it better" for themselves and their students.

This study locates shifts in middle and high school teachers' reading and writing pedagogics marked by writing process; reader response; and, to some extent, post-Dartmouth developments in critical theory; an expanded canon emphasizing more multicultural and/or literature written for a young adult audience; and new communications technologies within a more student-centered classroom. While the study concludes that these teachers represent a cohort of practitioners who have redrawn the "map of English" in classrooms over the last forty years, the findings are qualified by the ascendancy in recent years of a conservative agenda that schools return to more time-honored content and more traditional methods.


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