Category Archives: English Teacher

Preparation for the Teacher of English Composition (1930)

LaBrant, L. (1930, February). Preparation for the teacher of English composition. Bulletin of the Kansas Association of Teachers of English, 15(3), 4-6.

Based on a meeting by the Kansas Association of Teachers of English to discuss teacher preparation of English teachers, LaBrant discusses the need for English teachers to have extensive language training and an awareness that English is a changing language.

Quoting LaBrant:

The teacher must be intelligent concerning language growth before he can know how and when to correct even such errors. He must remember always that he is teaching a changing language at the growing end. …[T]hat to teach even the simplest matter in language training calls for an understanding of the structures and trends in language. (p. 6)


The Place of English in General Education (1940)

LaBrant, L. (1940, May). The place of English in general education. The English Journal, 29(5), 356-365.

Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/805387

LaBrant argues for the foundational and central place of the teaching of English in general education: “Language is a most important factor in general education because it is a vital, intimate way of behaving” (p. 364). Throughout, she calls for a child-centered, honest, and healthy approach to language.

Quoting LaBrant:

Again, language is a device for giving and receiving emotional responses—a function we in school often forget or limit to love for trees and flowers or to occasional bursts of patriotism. (p. 357)

But I am saying, for I believe it intensely, that present-day living and understanding of it comes first, and that usually we have taken a wasteful course by beginning with the past and its lessons. (p. 361)

Mental hygiene calls for a wholesome use of language. Schools do much to set up the opposite attitude. By the very nature of the school, its experiences become a standard of sort. Language used in school is characterized as “good” in contrast to language which cannot be used in school. By our taboo on sex words, on literature which deals frankly with life-experiences, and on discussion of love and romance, we set up inhibitions and false values. Only by discussing frankly and unemotionally vital matters can we develop individuals who use language adequately and without embarrassment….Our people use [language] timidly, haltingly. They fear to speak directly, call frankness vulgarity, fear to discuss love, beauty, the poetry of life. They ban honest words and prefer circumlocutions. The language teacher, the teacher of English, carries a goodly share of responsibility for the mental hygiene of young people. (p. 362)

As training for independent thinking and clear self-expression, how appropriate is it to ask children to punctuate bad sentences some textbook-maker has written, or to write endless papers on topics chosen by a teacher or committee? (pp. 363-364)

Language is a most important factor in general education because it is a vital, intimate way of behaving. It is not a textbook, a set of rules, or a list of books. (p. 364)


New Bottles for New Wine (1952)

LaBrant, L. (1952, September). New bottles for new wine. The English Journal, 41(7), 341-347.

Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/808950

In one of her most recognized articles for English Journal, LaBrant examines the need for the teaching of English to change along with changes in society. The discussion explores the many ways in which language changes, highlighting the traditional practices in the English classroom as insufficient for those changes.

Quoting LaBrant:

It would be strange, indeed, if the chief medium for human communication did not change as the society which uses it changes; and yet one can find in schools of the United States classes in English which are practically identical to English classes of a half-century ago. It is time to examine this material, so universally taught in our country, to see whether we are teaching the language that is or the language that once existed. A physicist who presented the physics of 1900 would lose his job immediately. A teacher of language is under equal obligation to understand the current status of his material. (p. 341)

Do our students know that our language is changing, that it is the product of all the people, each trying to tell what is in his mind? Do they understand their own share in its making and re-creation? Recently a teacher asked me: “But isn’t it our role to defend the language, to maintain standards?” It is certainly our role to insist that a high standard of thoughtfulness, responsibility, honesty, and clarity be maintained. But I doubt that it is our role, responsibility, or right to insist that the forms of the language of tomorrow be the same as the forms of the language of yesterday….Let us, ourselves, understand the forces which develop language and help our students to understand them. Let us show students that vocabulary, meanings, and structures are changed by man as he moves through time. (p. 342)

And yet, only last week, one of my colleagues, talking to an electrician who came to his house, a young man who had seen service in both Europe and the Pacific islands, was met by the statement: “Oh, so you teach English. I’m afraid I can’t talk to you.” What in the name of all the facts we pretend to know about language has made us, teachers of English, the kind of persons who can’t be talked to? How infinitely more skilled was the young electrician who had talked to Frenchmen and Germans, to islanders and Chinese, and had faith he could talk to almost anyone—except a teacher of English! Can we wake up in time to maintain communication with those we supposedly are to teach? (p. 343)

The teacher’s role is changed. When I finished college my teachers thought I was “prepared to teach English.” I had studied the standard English classics prescribed for the secondary school, could recite the Mercy speech and “What is so rare as a day in June” without error; I knew Latin grammar and could distinguish the various genitives and identify the Greek accusative. Whether I should teach in the elementary school or the secondary did not matter. I was prepared. I could go into the classroom and hand back to children what had been handed to me. Those who rejected it, who did not care or understand, could drop out…. (p. 345)

Here is something much more than a choice between he and him, between I and me; here is a choice between man and brute, between civilization and savagery….Can we measure up to our task? Is it possible to teach our changing population a changing language and still give to them something they can use, something they can cherish—standards, if you will? Have we not found it all but impossible to teach the items we have stressed before: the comma in series, apostrophes, distinctions between better and best, the order in which George Eliot introduces characters in Silas Marner, the Mercy speech? Are we not overburdened as it is? I think a partial answer lies in eliminating the useless. (p. 346)

Let us admit that in thousands of schoolrooms our teaching of punctuation has concerned sentences no child ever made, errors which adults and publishing houses provided, books which we have spent hours trying to “motivate,” and corrections of so-called “errors” which are approved forms everywhere except in our classrooms. We have wasted hours on diagramming dull sentences when what a sentence calls for is not to be drawn but to be understood. Who understands “Thou shalt not steal” the better for having written not on a slanting line under shalt steal? Our first step is clearing away busy work, meaningless matters, and getting at the problems of speaking about something worth saying and writing with sincerity and zest. Reading is not to be “something I had”; it should be “something I do.” (pp. 346-347)

For years we have talked about “every teacher a teacher of English.” Perhaps one reason the idea has remained mere talk is that other teachers have seen “English” as the mere mechanical details of writing, the correction of common errors in diction, a pedantic concern for usage of a somewhat outmoded order, and the reading of a list of books whose selection would be hard to justify….Twenty centuries ago a teacher whose words were to change the history of the world spoke in a parable: “And no man putteth new wine into old bottles; else the new wine will burst the bottles and be spilled, and the bottles shall perish.” It is time to examine the patched and worn bottles into which we have put this magnificent, live wine of language. If our pupils miss its glory, if they use it carelessly as a form, a manner of dress; if they cease to guard it as a means for honest exploration of truth, the tragedy of atomic warfare may be slight. (p. 347)


We Teach English (1951)

LaBrant, L. (1951). We teach English. New York, NY: Harcourt, Brace and Company.

NOTE: Most of LaBrant’s published works were included in professional and research journals. She tended to avoid traditional textbooks as a writer and as a teacher, but she also primarily worked as a practitioner instead of a researcher, thus few extended works.

Below is a review (May, 1951) of We Teach English from The High School Journal, 34(5), 154-155.

Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/40367787

We Teach English. By Lou LaBrant. New York: Harcourt Brace and Company, 1951. viii-342 pp. $2.75.

Once in a decade or so, a really important professional book is likely to appear. For English teachers, Lou LaBrant’s We Teach English is that book. It will be helpful in educating prospective teachers, but its major appeal should be to experienced teachers. It might be called a philosophical book, although it rests on the solid foundation of a lifetime of experience. LaBrant’s approach to language is scholarly and she ably includes the semantic approaches to the functional teaching of language.

Oral English and its counterpart, listening, so sadly and inexplicably lacking in many present English programs, receive adequate consideration here. The interpretation of literature receives the least emphasis of any aspect of the English curriculum but the stimulation of reading and the place of reading in meeting personal needs is well treated.

In short, this is no “how to teach” book. Rather, it is a book which will cause the reader to re-examine the bases of his teaching methods and the content of his courses. It should assist him to develop English courses suited to the needs of present day high school students. As such, this book belongs in the hands of every English teacher. And, thanks to the publisher’s reasonable price of $2.75, we can afford it.

Dorothy McCuskey


The Rights and Responsibilities of the Teacher of English (1961)

LaBrant, L. (1961). The rights and responsibilities of the teacher of English. English Journal, 50(6), 379–383, 391.

Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/810824

Originally a keynote address at the annual NCTE convention in 1960, this essay looks, as LaBrant explains, at “a considerable movement in this country to curtail certain freedom—rights—of the classroom teacher” (p. 379). LaBrant notes that English teachers tend to work in settings that require of them and their students certain requirements, such as prescribed reading lists. However, LaBrant rejects a mechanical view of teaching. She offers ample examples of the unpredictable nature of teaching and the shifting needs of students. Her central point asserts: “The exercise of freedom is itself one means by which we become good teachers” (p. 383).

Quoting LaBrant:

Every teacher of English exercises some rights, no matter how dictatorial the system under which he works; and every teacher carries out some responsibilities. But today we have a considerable movement in this country to curtail certain freedom—rights—of the classroom teacher, and those rights are the matter of this discussion. (p. 379)

Teaching, unlike the making of a car, is primarily a thought process. A man may work on an assembly line, turning a special kind of bolt day after day, and succeed as a bolt-turner. (For the moment we will forget the man and what happens to his personal life.) Having the bolts tightly turned may be all the car-in-the-making needs. But the teacher is something quite different from the man who turns a bolt, because the student is not like a car. Teaching is a matter of changing the mind of the student, of using that magic by which the thinking of one so bears on the thinking of another that new understanding and new mental activity begin. Obviously, the degree to which this is reduced to a mechanical procedure affects the results….

What I am trying to say here is that the teacher who is not thinking, testing, experimenting, and exploring the world of thought with which he deals and the very materials with which he works, that teacher is a robot himself. But we cannot expect a teacher to continue the attempt to find better means or to invent new approaches unless he knows he will have freedom to use his results. Without this freedom we must expect either a static teacher or a frustrated one. I have seen both: the dull, hopeless, discouraged teacher, and the angry, blocked, unhappy individual. (p. 380)

Careful reading often leads to such digressions and it is a part of sound education to learn that this is so—to learn that reading is not a cover-to-cover trek with no outside demands but that only the trivial writer fails to require more than the reader brought to Chapter One. (p. 381)

Repeatedly when capable teachers ask for freedom, someone points out that we have many lazy teachers, stupid teachers unable to think and choose, ignorant teachers; in short, bad teachers who need control. We do have some, but we encourage others to be bad. Even the weak teacher does better when he has to face his own decisions, and when he supports that decision. The best way to induce teachers to think and act is to put them into situations where some thinking is essential. This less competent teacher will put more effort into the work he has himself undertaken than he will into something handed out to him. Moreover, he can, if he proves helpless, be given direction. The right to select does not force everyone to use all of his freedom, but it en-courages him to use his mind. The nature of human beings precludes for either teacher or class a totally static course. The exercise of freedom is it-self one means by which we become good teachers. (p. 383)

One reason so many of us do not have our rights is that we have not earned them. The teacher who is free to decide when and how to teach language structure has an obligation to master his grammar, to analyze the problems of writing, and to study their relations to structure….But his right to choose comes only when he has read and considered methods other than his own. He has no right to choose methods or materials which research has proved ineffective….There is little point in asking for a right without preparation for its use. (p. 390)

Throughout our country today we have great pressure to improve our schools. By far too much of that pressure tends toward a uniformity, a conformity, a lock-step which precludes the very excellence we claim to desire. Many are talking as though teachers with sufficient training would become good teachers. There is little consideration of the teacher as a catalyst, a changing, growing personality. Only a teacher who thinks about his work can think in class; only a thinking teacher can stimulate as they should be stimulated the minds with which he works. Freedom of any sort is a precious thing; but freedom to be our best, in the sense of our highest, is not only our right but our moral responsibility. “They”—the public, the administrators, the critics—have no right to take freedom from us, the teachers; but freedom is not something one wins and then possesses; freedom is something we rewin every day, as much a quality of ourselves as it is a concession from others. Speaking and writing and exploring the books of the world are prime fields for freedom. (pp. 390-391)