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Literary Theory’s Potential in Secondary ELA Classrooms

This post is by NCTE member Cody Miller. 

Cody Miller

An English professor I had as an undergraduate gave the best justification for understanding and using literary theory I’ve ever heard: “Theory explains how and why things work.”

Like many English majors before me, I spent hours learning and applying theories from feminist to post-colonial, from Marxist to New Historicism. Literary theory is the bread and butter for English majors. Unfortunately, literary theory has not become a fundamental part of secondary English language arts education in the United States, despite its rich potential for helping students develop perspective-taking capacities. I think that should change, and I am not alone.

Deborah Appleman’s Critical Encounters in High School English is a seminal text in guiding secondary students to apply theory to texts both in the classroom and in their lives at-large. Appleman, a professor at Carleton College in Minnesota, has spent a significant part of her career dedicated to helping English teachers craft theory-focused curriculum in secondary classrooms. I read her book during a doctoral seminar, and immediately incorporated her work into my English Honors I curriculum. The results from my students’ work and thinking have been more than impressive!

A culminating project at the end of my de-tracked English Honors I course is to select a literary theory and apply it to a text we read throughout the year. The project requires students to reassess their original interpretation of a text, whether it be a whole-class read like Romeo and Juliet or Persepolis or a literature-circle pick like Tell Me Again How a Crush Should Feel or Mexican Whiteboy.

I believe the prominence of feminist popular cultural artifacts like Beyonce’s music and the television shows Parks and Recreations and Orange is the New Black cause feminist theory to remain the most popular theory for my students. Regardless of text or theory, students learn to be explicit about their theoretical orientation in their analysis. Frequently, students reassess their original interpretation of a text. For instance, one student came to see the belligerent behavior of Rowdy, from The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, as an extreme manifestation of masculinity. Last year, students noted how femininity was punished in Lord of the Flies, whether it be through the absence of women or the tragic fate of Simon.

After rereading their text, students then take their theory and look at a news event through that lens. The ideological messages implicitly embedded throughout all forms of media become clearer when students have literary theory as their guide. Students come to see how dominant narratives of race and gender are constructed in film and television. Conversations about the role language plays in reporting on male and female political candidates enter the classroom. Messages relating to class and value in music become central to how students listen to their favorite artists. Students come to see connections between how we read literature and how we read the world around us. In other words, students fulfill Paulo Freire’s desire for being able to read the word and the world.

We know that knowledge is not objective; what is consider “right” and “common sense” are often manifestation of dominant cultural values and norms. Using literary theory with fiction and nonfiction alike helps students articulate and confront their own belief system in analyzing the world around them. When literary theory is taught to students as a framework for understanding the broader sociocultural realities students experience, then theory is not a form of academic esoteria. Rather, literary theory becomes a vehicle for students to adopt and implement new perspectives on a similar topic.

Deborah Appleman makes this point persuasively in her book. Thanks to her work, I’ve been able to make it central to my literature instruction. I would like more English teachers to adopt theoretical perspectives in their instruction because I’ve come to see that literary theory helps students understand that texts and life are complex and nuanced, and there is rarely one right answer.

Cody Miller teaches ninth-grade English Language Arts at P.K. Yonge Developmental Research School, the University of Florida’s affiliated K12 laboratory school. He can be reached at cmiller@pky.ufl.edu or on Twitter @CodyMillerPKY.