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Critical Encounters in Secondary English: Teaching Literary Theory to Adolescents

reviewed by Mary Sawyer & Julie Gorlewski - July 12, 2015

coverTitle: Critical Encounters in Secondary English: Teaching Literary Theory to Adolescents
Author(s): Deborah Appleman
Publisher: Teachers College Press, New York
ISBN: 0807756237, Pages: 272, Year: 2014
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Deborah Appleman, in Critical Encounters in Secondary English: Teaching Literary Theory to Adolescents, affirms English teaching as critical pedagogy. Invoking bell hooks, she argues that our goal is for students “to become…’enlightened witnesses,’ critically vigilant about the world we live in” (p. xiv). While many educators would agree with this aim, Appleman’s book is unique, in that it provides practical examples of how teachers can engage learners in applying literary theory to relevant texts in ways that connect to their lives. Through literary lenses that challenge and involve readers, she shares strategies for partnering with students to “read the world and the word” (p. xiv).


Appleman’s text reinforces two significant aspects of secondary English education: (a) teaching is a political act, and (b) all practice is grounded in theory. These assumptions are central to her book, which includes both profound theoretical considerations and practical applications. In this era of accountability-based reform wherein teaching is increasingly reduced to technocratic tasks, they offer an essential foundation from which teachers can re-claim the purpose of and passion for their craft.


Critical Encounters contains Ten Chapters. Chapters One, Two, and Ten present the reasons for teaching literary theory to secondary students, drawing from classroom vignettes to illustrate the value gained when students “become theoried and skilled readers with a variety of interpretive strategies and theoretical approaches” (p. 15). Chapters Three through Eight explore different approaches, including: reader response, social class/Marxism, gender, postcolonialism, new historicism (new to this edition), and deconstruction. Each chapter describes a theoretical approach in jargon-free language, introducing its central writers and debates. Appleman then shares examples from urban, suburban, and rural classrooms to illustrate how to teach the theory, describing field-tested lessons and referring to the 37 activity sheets in the appendix. These activity sheets comprise about one-third of the book and reflect Appleman’s central purpose: this book is designed to be enacted by teachers with their students.

Every Chapter ends with a list of eight through ten nonfiction pieces well-suited for teaching that particular lens, providing a useful response to Mosle’s contention that “[w]hat schools really need isn’t more nonfiction but better nonfiction” (p. xiii). Appleman’s selections (which are occasionally difficult to locate online) include texts that stretch the margins of a traditional secondary English curriculum. For example, to explore New Historicism, Appleman includes Frederick Douglass’s “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?” (1852) and Sara Rimer’s “Gatsby’s Green Light Beckons a New Set of Strivers” (2008)1 among several others. The Chapter on the social class/Marxist lens includes Robert Reich’s, “Why the Rich are Getting Richer and the Poor are Getting Poorer” (2010) and Mike Rose’s ”I Just Wanna Be Average” (1990). Chapter Nine squarely addresses the common misconception that literary theory is too difficult for “average” students, and is most appropriately taught in honors or AP classes. Appleman draws from her own work and that of Lisa Eckert (2006), Luis Moll (Gonzalez, Moll, & Amanti, 2005), and Allen Carey-Webb (2001) to argue that “kids on the margins seem to be savvier about theory . . .  [because] . . .  they’ve been reading patterns of privilege and inequity their whole lives” (p. 128).


The field of English education has for many years called for literary theory to be a coherent feature of secondary classrooms, but many teachers still treat it as a curricular “extra.” Despite Graff’s (2008) exhortation to “teach the conflicts” and “[help] students enter the culture of ideas and arguments” (p. xv-xviii), many candidates studying to be English teachers, like their predecessors, perceive literary theory as irrelevant to (most of) their future students. Indeed, many colleges explicitly teach theory only as a separate course, keeping the conflicts effectively hidden even from their own graduates. The idea that theory is not an appropriate focus for all students reflects deficit thinking and underestimates the abilities of adolescents as well as the importance of literary theory.

Ignoring the lenses through which we read deadens the act of interpretation. Instead of seeing the animating force of interpretation, students see reading as decoding the meaning of a static text. Understanding and applying literary lenses allows learners to appreciate reading as an interpretive act that is influenced by one’s perspectives. Literary theory presents a prism through which readers, texts, and social milieu can explicitly intersect, revealing kaleidoscopic, multi-dimensional possibilities that stand in stark contrast to multiple choice options as measures of knowledge.


While this text provides an extraordinary collection of ideas for teachers to engage in critical pedagogies with a range of texts, classroom teachers may wish to extend their (and their students’) perspectives by considering contemporary work on queer theory (see sj Miller, 2015) and youth lenses (see Sarigianides, Lewis, & Petrone, 2015). These perspectives seek to expand and re-shape social binaries, as well as to empower youth to resist identity constructions that are forced upon them. In addition, Appleman’s book might be enhanced by a more fully developed consideration of how the applications of literary theories are assessed in practice. That is, how is student learning evaluated in classrooms, and what dispositions are cultivated in these contexts? This is a complex and challenging aspect of the field, and her contribution to the topic would be valuable.

The title “critical encounters” provides an important glimpse into the author’s ability to marry theory and practice. She notes that “Critical encounters with literature, with the world, and with each other” enable teachers and learners to “re-evaluate what counts as knowing in literature classrooms. Contemporary literary theory helps students re-shape their knowledge of texts, of themselves, and of the worlds in which —both reside” (p. 143). English teachers must prepare students to live in, to critique, and to construct a world that does not yet exist, a world we must imagine together. To begin to read the world, we must be able to identify our own perspectives, to name our theories. As Appleman concludes, “The critical encounters encouraged by the approaches in this book will help us name our theories and consider multiple perspectives as we find our place in the texts we read and the lives we lead” (p. 149). Our youth deserve no less.




Carey-Webb, A. (2001). Literature and lives: A response-based, cultural studies approach to teaching English. Urbana, IL: National Council of Teachers of English.

Douglass, F. (1852). What to the Slave is the Fourth of July? Retrieved from https://brainmass.com/file/1385559/Douglass_July_4_1852.pdf


Eckert, L. S. (2006). How does it mean? Engaging reluctant readers through literary theory. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.


Gonzalez, N., Moll, L. C., & Amanti, C. (Eds.). (2005). Funds of knowledge. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.


Graff, G. (2008). Professing literature: An institutional history. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.


Miller, s. (2015). “A queer literacy framework promoting (a)gender and (a)sexuality self-determination and justice.” English Journal, 104(5), 37–44.


Mosle, S. (2012, November 22). What should children read. The New York Times. Available at http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/11/22/what-should-children-read/

Reich, Robert B. (2010). Why the Rich are Getting Richer and the Poor, Poorer. In Lee A. Jacobus (Ed.), A world of ideas: Essential readings for college writers (8th ed., pp. 422-435). New York, NY: Bedford/St. Martin's.

Rimer, S. (2008, February 17). Gatsby’s green light beckons a new set of strivers. The New York Times.  Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2008/02/17/education/17gatsby.html

Rose, M. (1990). I just wanna be average. In R. Cullen, G. Colombo, & B. Lisle (Eds.). Rereading America: Cultural contexts for critical thinking and writing (1995, 3rd ed., pp. 161–172). New York, NY:  Bedford/St. Martins.

Sarigianides, S. T., Lewis, M. A., & Petrone, R. (2015). How re-thinking adolescence helps re-imagine the teaching of English. English Journal, 104(3), 13–18.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: July 12, 2015
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 18024, Date Accessed: 5/28/2022 6:26:12 PM

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About the Author
  • Mary Sawyer
    State University of New York at New Paltz
    E-mail Author
    MARY SAWYER is Associate Professor at the State University of New York at New Paltz where she coordinates the English Education program and co-directs the Hudson Valley Writing Project. Her recent work has focused on the edTPA examination and its impact on the student teaching experience.
  • Julie Gorlewski
    State University of New York at New Paltz
    E-mail Author
    JULIE GORLEWSKI is Assistant Professor in Secondary Education at the State University of New York at New Paltz. Her research interests revolve around teacher dispositions, standards and assessment, and teaching writing for social justice. Julie is currently coeditor of the National Council of Teachers of English publication English Journal.
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