Theory into Practice: A Teacher-Ethnographer’s Notebook

Brief Description: This assignment invites pre-service teachers to observe language events occurring in the world around them in light of the sociolinguistic theories they are learning in class in order to reflect on the implications of these conceptual frameworks for their own classroom pedagogies. While it was originally designed for graduate-level courses, it can just as productively be used in any undergraduate teacher education program or professional development workshop setting for in-service teachers, as well.

Contributed by Connie Kendall Theado, University of Cincinnati
Phone: 513.556.1427



Contributor's Introduction: This is a quarter-long writing project which works to bring together the theory and practice of culturally and linguistically responsive pedagogies through sustained observation and reflection.  The project is grounded in the premise that any “best practice” relies on both Theory and Practice, and that, in order to be effective as teachers, we need to more consistently “think” the two together.  The “Teacher-Ethnographer’s Notebook” thus invites pre-service teachers to observe language events occurring in the world around them in light of the sociolinguistic theories they are learning in class in order to reflect on the implications of these conceptual frameworks for their own classroom pedagogies.  The writing project was originally designed for graduate students enrolled in a Postsecondary Literacy Instruction teacher education certificate program at the University of Cincinnati (Ohio).  The goal of this graduate certificate is to prepare students to teach developmental readers and writers in a variety of adult educational settings (e.g., two- and four-year campuses, technical and community colleges, adult and community literacy initiatives, and so forth). However, the “Teacher-Ethnographer’s Notebook” assignment can just as productively be used in any undergraduate teacher education program or professional development workshop setting for in-service teachers, as well.   


Theory into Practice: A Teacher-Ethnographer’s Notebook

Focus text:  Kramsch, C. (1998). Language and culture.  New York: Oxford University Press.


“Context is more than a matter of reference and of understanding what things are about,

practically speaking.  Context is also what gives our utterances their deeper meaning.

Consider the following utterance: ‘It’s been a long time since we’ve visited your mother.’

This sentence, when uttered at the coffee table after dinner in a married couple’s living room

has a totally different pragmatic meaning than the same sentence uttered by a husband

to his wife while they are standing in front of the hippopotamus enclosure at the local zoo.”


Jacob Mey, Pragmatics: An introduction, p. 40


The quarter-long writing project for this course is “A Teacher-Ethnographer’s Notebook,” a way to bring together the sociolinguistic theories and concepts we’ve been reading and talking about into the everyday practice of our work as postsecondary literacy teachers.  Generally speaking, I’d say the most common complaint about capital-T Theory is that it is far too often at a remove from capital-P Practice.  In other words, Theory is “too abstract.”  And of course, this conceptualization of the word “theory” makes sense:  in everyday usage, “to abstract” means “to think apart” or “to consider an idea theoretically and without thinking of a specific example.”  But to leave it at that, that is to uphold a kind of conceptual split between Theory and Practice, seems to me a most unproductive move, perhaps especially for those of us who work with a diverse range of literacy learners in a variety of classroom and other educational and research settings.  Instead, what we quickly figure out as literacy teacher-researchers is that bridging the gap that too-often opens between Theory and Practice is, in fact, the linchpin of our daily work.

I like the word “linchpin” to describe the relationship between Theory and Practice in the everyday work of teaching.  In the vernacular of engineers, a linchpin is “a pin placed crosswise through an axle to prevent a wheel from flying off.”  How wonderfully metaphorical is that?  Theory as the “pin placed crosswise” through Practice that keeps us from “flying off” our axles.  The key, I suspect, to keeping this pin in place (and by extension, us on our axles) rests in our ability to resist the notion that Theory is too abstract to inform Practice and that, in the reverse, Practice is too particularized to inform Theory.  What’s more true, I’d argue, is that we need both Theory and Practice, but that we need to more consistently “think” the two together.  In other words, we need to conceive our ideas (read: our theories) about literacy and language learning within their various contexts of meaning (read: our practices) … and vice versa.

In addition to always making me laugh, Jacob Mey’s quotation at the top of this page never fails to remind me of the necessity of context for understanding the meanings and uses of our words. The same relationship holds true between our theories and practices as literacy educators:  what a particular sociolinguistic theory or concept might mean is always best understood when viewed in a particular context. The work we’ll engage in this writing project in an attempt to do just this – to better understand the meaning of the theories/concepts about how language theoretically works in the world by observing these theories/concepts actually at work in the world around us, that is in the everyday language practices of everyday people.

The Teacher-Ethnographer’s Notebook Assignment in More Detail

As indicated by the title of this writing project, our work is two-fold: (1) to become more curious and watchful observers of how language “works” in society, and (2) to become more culturally and linguistically responsive teachers in the postsecondary literacy classroom.

Here are the particulars of the assignment:



Here are a couple of definitions that will be useful for your composing process:


Perhaps a brief example would be helpful?  Here’s one:

Suppose I decided to investigate Paul Grice’s “Cooperative Principle” in more detail, to see if I could find everyday examples of people cooperating through language by adhering to the four maxims Grice theorizes.  Obviously, I’d have to begin by knowing what I’m looking and/or listening for, so my first task would be to consult Kramsch’s text.  Here’s her take on Grice’s Principle:

“People can generally assume that in conversations in which, for example, the exchange of information is primary, speakers will not say more than is necessary for the purpose of the exchange and will say all that is necessary to convey the information required.  They generally expect that what their interlocutor says is relevant to the topic at hand; that her message will be clear and understandable; and under normal circumstances she will not state something she doesn’t believe to be true.  The expectation of speakers and hearers in informational exchanges are in part shaped by these four maxims of the cooperative principle in conversation” (p. 31, emphasis added to highlight the maxims).

Once I understand Grice’s Cooperative Principle, I can begin looking/listening for it in action.  Fast-forward to last quarter as I was walking out of the bagel shop on Clifton Avenue just down the hill from UC’s main campus.  Here’s the quick conversation I overheard:

                        Speaker A:   Hey, excuse me.  What time is it?

                        Speaker B:   The bus just went by.

So, what did I just witness relative to Grice’s Cooperative Principle?  Did Speaker B violate one of the maxims, specifically the one that suggests people can “generally expect that what their interlocutor says is relevant to the topic at hand”?  Or was Speaker B cooperating as she should with Speaker A?  What does the context of the situation have to do with the meaning of the exchange?  In my “thick” description of the language event, I would have told you that the street outside of this bagel shop just happens to be a major bus stop for the area, and that students use it all the time to make the long trek up Clifton hill.  I might have also told you that it was snowing hard and traffic was moving really slowly, and that it was, in fact, 8:50am Monday morning, and that lots of UC classes begin at 9:00am on any given Monday.  How do these additional, observable “facts” matter to the scene, to the meaning(s) the speakers are making and to the meaning(s) I’m making of their conversation?  This is the sort of “stuff,” the sort of thinking and describing and speculating in light of the sociolinguistic theory or concept under investigation that I’ll be looking for in your thick descriptions of the language events you’ll observe.  Keep in mind Geertz’s directive:  thick descriptions explain not just the behavior or language event but its context as well, such that the behavior/language event becomes meaningful to an outsider.

After I’ve recorded my notes and had a chance to consider them, I could then begin working on the second component of my entry: a reflection about the pedagogical implications of the socio-linguistic theory/concept for my classroom in light of what I’ve learned through my observation of the two speakers on the street. How might my theoretical understanding of Grice’s Principle plus my observation of the maxim “at work” in the world matter to my teaching practices?  For example:  How might this new knowledge matter to the ways in which I “read” student participation during a classroom discussion of a particularly controversial text or idea?; How might it matter to  the way I conduct a writing conference with a student or interpret his/her responses to me during that conference?;  How might it matter to the way I conceive “power” operating in my classroom?; How might it make me a more culturally and linguistically responsive teacher with a diverse group of learners?;  What other information or understandings might I now recognize I need to strengthen my pedagogical practices?; and so forth.  These are the kinds of reflections, the kinds of self-questionings and self-answerings that I’ll be looking for in the second part of your Notebook entries.

Tips, Advice, and Other Requirements for your “Teacher-Ethnographer’s Notebook”: