Organization for English teachers marks 100 years


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URBANA — A national organization that supports those who teach English — to kindergartners through doctoral candidates — turns 100 this year.

The National Council of Teachers of English, which is headquartered in Urbana, has been evolving with American education since it began in 1911.

Leila Christenbury began researching and planning for the centennial celebration in 2003 and found that while the organization's founding fits with what was happening in the U.S. at that time, it's now possibly the broadest organization in the country that deals with language arts.

"Its history essentially mirrors the history of literacy education in this country," Christenbury said.

Through the years, the council has been on the cutting edge of education and the issues involved.

For example, Christenbury found it's been addressing media literacy since the 1920s, intellectual freedom in the classroom since the 1950s and, even now, teaches English teachers about technology and how to use it best in classrooms.

"It's a wonderful, diverse organization," Christenbury said. "It's weathered a lot of changes in American education and concerns from members."

When the National Council of Teachers of English was founded, people were paying attention to such things.

"Around the turn of the century, there was a huge upsurge in this country for civic and community and educational and religious and public works improvement," Christenbury said.

After the National Education Association discussed a need for an English-related organization, James Fleming Hosic emerged as one of the new organization's leaders.

He and others met in December 1911 in Chicago, where they formally founded the council.

The organization's English Journal was first published about four weeks later, Christenbury said.

"If there's a heaven and if I get there, my first request is to meet James Fleming Hosic," she said.

Millie Davis said the organization moved to town in 1953 when the organization's secretary, J.N. Hook, moved to Urbana to teach at the University of Illinois. At that time, the university supported the council "by giving the executive secretary course release time and providing bargain office space," said Davis, whose title is senior developer, affiliated groups and public outreach. "Today, while the university provides no financial support, the council retains a relationship as an affiliated group."

Christenbury agreed.

"The university has been very important to the National Council of Teachers of English," she said. "Our archives are held there. We've benefited from expertise of people who work and teach at the university."

The council also has offices in Washington, D.C., and Berkeley, Calif.

Christenbury, a former council president and its current historian, who trains English teachers as a commonwealth professor at Virginia Commonwealth University, Richmond, Va., said she joined as a young high school English teacher.

Her involvement saved her teaching career, she said, as she was "foundering in the classroom."

With the council, she found a strong intellectual connection.

"I've been in this (profession) for almost 40 years," Christenbury said. "I don't think I'd still be in it if not for the (council)."

Her work on researching the centennial broadened her appreciation and understanding of the history of education.

"It's really been an intellectual and kind of emotional vehicle for me to expand what I do with education," she said.

She spent plenty of time in the council's archives at the UI, said Erika Lindemann, who edited the council's centennial book, "Reading the Past, Writing the Future: A Century of American Literacy Education and the National Council of Teachers of English."

The book is a series of essays based on primary sources Christenbury found there.

Among the things Lindemann learned as she was editing was that the council was formed at a time when English education was just being established.

"The subject known as English wasn't even a school subject until the 1890s, and then not everywhere," she said. It existed among other languages, especially in areas with a high population of immigrants.

She's also learned how the organization has assisted in making sure that teachers are trained well in their craft.

"(The council) has been a leader, a follower, a reporter of research," Lindemann said, and it's dissented on things like "common cultural understanding" and even against the Vietnam War. It had roles for professional women earlier than other organizations did.

"It's reflected the larger culture of American education as well as speaking against that when it was necessary," Lindemann said, adding that's especially true now, as teachers fight the idea that students are a product to be molded and taught with the exact same curriculum and if they don't all emerge the same, it's the teacher's fault.

Lindemann is the council's parliamentarian and is associate dean for undergraduate studies at the University of North Carolina.

She believes education is a fundamental part of American democracy, and while the politics surrounding teachers and students are changing, the primary goal has not.

"It's my own view that we all need to assume that people have the (best interests) of children at stake," Lindemann said "How we work together in doing that, rather than against each other, will be the significant factor."

Christenbury said her goal with researching the centennial was to present fun and scholarly information about the council for its members.

She wanted to "remind people that countless generations before us have fought these battles and we're continuing to fight them," she said.


Check out the film

A film about the National Council of Teachers of English and its centennial, "Reading the Past, Writing the Future," will air at 11 p.m. Jan. 14 on Urbana Public Television.

You can also download and watch it at