“English Teaching: Prospect and Retrospect,” the final essay in James Britton’s 1982 collection of essays, Prospect and Retrospect, speaks about the future of the profession, the increasing recognition of the individual student’s needs and intentions, the centrality of humanistic education, and the role of the imagination, especially in turbulent times. He was optimistic about the eighties being the “decade of the classroom teacher,” and he brought that view to Bread Loaf/Vermont, where he taught in the 1980s.
Jimmy was head of the English Department in the University of London’s Institute of Education, a scholar, teacher, and researcher who helped shape post-war English teaching. His colleagues at Bread Loaf included Nancy Martin, James Moffett, Shirley Brice Heath, Peter Medway, Michael Armstrong, Ken Macrorie, Tony Burgess, and Peter Elbow, and—as he acknowledged always—his Bread Loaf students: together they inspired and influenced the development of the Bread Loaf Teacher Network, which encouraged the social nature of learning, connecting children and teachers as readers, writers, and thinkers. Jimmy saw the BreadNet exchanges of the mid-1980s providing a space for expressive, interactive, written dialogue—most often around literature—with adults and children part of the conversations, a principle that has sustained BLTN for two decades.
Jimmy helped define and shape the tradition of teacher research at Bread Loaf that engages BLTN teachers and their students today, evolving to include collaborative inquiries that tackle wide-ranging issues and questions. In “A Quiet Form of Research,” Reclaiming the Classroom (1987), he writes, “If research is seen primarily as a process of discovery, then the day-to-day work of a teacher comes under the term teachers as researchers. . . . [T]his requires that every lesson should be for the teacher an inquiry, some further discovery, a quiet form of research . . . and that time to reflect, draw inferences, and plan further inquiry is essential” (15).
Many BLTN teachers and students are engaged now in inquiries that range from action research into school and community issues to the analysis and interpretation of their online writing: several groups will present their work at NCTE Boston this November; others are planning local and online inquiry workshops, in the process developing critical and essential abilities as researchers and agents of change.
A superb listener, engaged and respectful, Jimmy showed us that a democratic informality could lead to “discoveries of a different order,” as we considered the teaching of language and literature as a unified experience, entirely appropriate to Bread Loaf and a guiding principle of BLTN to this day.
Works by James Britton
- Language and Learning
- Record and Recall: A Cretan Memoir
- Prospect and Retrospect
- Literature in Its Place
- Language, the Learner, and the School
- The Development of Writing Abilities 11-18
Bread Loaf Course Descriptions
Writing and Reading Stories in School (1987)
It is still usual to find learning to write and learning to read as two separate undertakings in the school curriculum: we shall consider first the general advantage of merging these two activities into one, and on that basis the special role of stories in the curriculum. Our method of study will be to try our hands at writing stories and to share readings of published work selected by members of the group. Students will be expected to open discussion of works they have undertaken to read and, in addition to the story writing, to keep a learning journal throughout the course.
Telling the Stories of Our Lives: An Approach to Writing and Learning through Autobiography (1988)
The course will take the form of (a) a reading seminar focusing upon evolving a rationale for autobiographic writing in school (members will undertake to read and report on selected texts); and (b) a writing workshop in which we explore together the practice of autobiographical writing. The writing produced in this way, supplemented by a learning journal, will constitute the written requirement of the course.