Sunday, February 12, 2017

Should a Literary Canon Be Taught?

When I was young (hard to believe, but I was, once), there was this program at my school called Junior Great Books.  While it seems that nowadays the company that organizes this program does include modern books, at the time the idea was that there was Classics with a capital C, and that reading, thinking about, and discussing these books was key to becoming an intelligent and thoughtful person.

There is still a train of thought that dismisses popular fiction as not worth teaching.  Fine for entertainment, but with no educational value.  Others agree that the canon needs to be widened, but not if it means students will lose access to Shakespeare, Dickens, Hawthorne, Dunne, Plato, and, God help us all, Lord of the Flies, Walden, The Stranger, Billy Budd, and Ethan Frome, the banes of my high school existence.

It's no secret that I'm a big believer in choice when it comes to reading.  There are those that love the books I just listed, just as I loved the required reading of Death of a Salesman, Macbeth, The Scarlet Letter, The Chosen, and I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.  I am not advocating for denying students access to classics.  But I will state unequivocally that a student who hates reading will not benefit from mere "exposure" to the so-called great books.  First comes the love of reading.  THEN comes the will to tackle challenging texts. 

Our language arts department has been consciously increasing our teaching of both "diverse" and "relatable" literature--meaning that we have been looking for books by Latino authors and books about the immigrant experience, since our school is 55% Latino, mostly first and second generation immigrants from Mexico.  The response from our students has been amazing, with higher engagement and more profound discussions.  Given the current political environment, we've also been quietly pleased with what this shift in curriculum is doing for our white students, many of whom are economically disadvantaged and from families without advanced education levels, a group that is often easy prey for xenophobic propaganda.  Reading books like The Circuit, La Linea, and Buried Onions breaks down the "us vs. them" mentality, and also gives non-white students an opportunity to be the experts in the classroom, the ones who already have the background knowledge to "get it."  If literature can be either a mirror to reflect our own experience or a window into the experience of others, by changing up the canon, we are flipping who is looking into mirrors for better understanding of where they are coming from, and who is getting a windowed view into lives they hadn't considered before.

We still read The Outsiders and The Giver, modern but canonical middle grade classics.  And for all my love of independent, free choice reading, I still see a role for the whole-class novel.  It does equip students to take on a book they might not brave on their own, and can often lead to follow-up reading.  "Do you have a copy of The Outsiders?" asks a student who's older brother is reading it in class. "I heard you have the sequels to The Circuit" says a student I don't even know, popping her head into my classroom after her language arts class.  "Are there other books like The Giver?" asks a kid who's book club just finished it.  "I kind of liked it" he continues with a faint tone of surprise.  "What else did Gary D. Schmidt write?" they all clamor after we finish Orbiting Jupiter

 But I find that the more freedom I give in my classroom, the more students I see reading.  Last week one 8th grader brought in a library copy of Judy Blume's Forever (now there's a classic!) and now all her friends want to read it too.  This book that was snuck-read when I was her age, far from adult eyes, was being passed around my room all week.  Sure, they were giggling about the sexy bits, but we also ended up talking about the ending, that your first big romance probably WON'T last "forever," which is all the more reason to play it smart, take it slow, etc.  So I trotted off to the used book store today and picked up a classroom copy of it, as well as Tiger Eyes, Then Again Maybe I Won't, and even Are You There God?  It's Me, Margaret.

I draw the line, however, at Flowers in the Attic.  There's smut, and then there's sick.

Okay, before I get too far off topic, I'll put my question to you.

 Is there such thing as "canon" or "great books" that should be taught to all students?  If so, should modern classics gradually replace the older ones, or do we need to hang onto a few familiar titles that are part of our cultural literacy?  Or should students just be encouraged to read widely?  Or should individual teachers share their own favorites with their classes, whether it's The Color Purple, The Tell-Tale Heart, or The Knife of Never Letting Go?  Is it more important to teach students to wrestle with challenging texts and big questions, or to love to read?  (The ideal is both, of course, but if one had to choose...)

17 comments:

  1. This is a subject I have a lot of thoughts about but I will try to be brief. First, teach a love of books and reading. Let kids read what they want, how they want, without all the insistence on logs and analysis and connections and only reading books in an approved level. If you let kids wander in a library almost every one of them will find something they want to read. Let them read it. Once they love to read, or at least like to read, then you can go on to read great books of whatever era. I do think many classics are killed for kids because they are taught when the kids are not at a life stage to appreciate them. I do think if you teach the love of reading to begin with then everything else falls into place. But if the kids have already decided they don't like books you are not going to woo them with Dickens.

    And I hated Ethan Frome with a burning hatred.

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    1. Love that--"If the kids have already decided they don't like books you are not going to woo them with Dickens." And I think I gave Ethan Frome one star on Goodreads, some twenty years after I read it, just because it made me so mad.

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  2. Classics need to,be read from day one to understand the language. Relevant lot can get depressing and overwhelming. A good mix is great--fiction and non-fiction. I think kids need positive, affirming books, too. My kids are abused\abandoned by their birth mother. Each has had a book assigned trigger PTSD. Happily the school was great about letting them read something else.

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    1. Some interesting points, Lisa. I did read classics from an early age, such as Alice in Wonderland or Little Women, so it was a pretty easy transition into Dickens and Austen. My kids have a background rather like yours, and they definitely are more averse to tear-jerkers and certain types of storylines. I need to keep that in mind in the classroom as well, where I don't always know what life experiences my students are bringing to our reading.

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  3. I've been wondering about this myself with my homeschool co-op class that I'm teaching next year. I've been trying to decide what books we'll read and I've been struggling with whether or not to choose all Classics or to go with some more contemporary reads. I also feel a bit more limited because some of the parents in our co-op are pretty conservative so I have to consider content (and I actually feel like I might have more leeway with classics than contemps for some reason). Great food for thought here!

    Nicole @ Feed Your Fiction Addiction

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    1. That's a bit like when I put together a list for a homeschooling friend's middle grade son; I had to take their sensibilities into consideration as well as kid interest and reading level. Always so much to balance, right?

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  4. I got all giddy excited at the mention of TKoNLG and lost track of my thoughts haha. Okay so, I have been an avid reader since.... well since I first knew how. And yet one of my LEAST favorite subjects in high school was English. Because I wanted to read what I wanted to read, not whatever some random person deemed "worthy".

    On one hand, like you said, I see the purpose for a class-wide discussion about a book, it does make sense. And of course someone has to pick the books. And I hope things have changed since I was in school, but it was always the SAME ridiculous books. And I don't mean the same exact book of course, but more the same TYPE of book. Old, written by some long-dead white guy, could barely understand the words because I didn't care enough to REALLY read it, you get the idea. I think I could have been more open to it if there was ANY difference. But it was like- "are we reading a book that is several hundred years old today, or one that is only a couple hundred years old?" There was ONE book in high school I read that didn't predate my grandparents (no joke) and that was A Separate Peace, which ironically (or maybe not), was the only one I liked.

    And if I had to choose, every single time I would choose instilling the love to read. That lasts a lifetime, the challenging texts only a few weeks, at best. Love this post, so thought provoking!

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    1. Oh my gosh, I love "that [love of reading] lasts a lifetime, the challenging texts only a few weeks, at best." I guess I was lucky to get a handful of works from the 1950-80s when I was in high school in the 80s. Arthur Miller, Alice Walker, Chaim Potok, and of course S. E. Hinton were part of what we read. (And I adored Separate Peace and actually went on to seek out other works by the author.)

      If TKoNLG were shorter, I'd be teaching the heck out of that. That and Unwind.

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  5. I love your vision for teaching! I agree that a love of reading must come first. If kids don't love to read, they will never appreciate the classics. I am a huge fan of the class read aloud - discussions can draw in even the most unwilling students some times, helping to broaden their reading interests as well as their discussion skills. There are so many books out there today that are so relevant to our society, and I love that you are trying to bring that to your students!

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    1. Yes, I agree that the read-aloud has a really important place. Most of my students can comprehend at a much higher level than they can read independently, so it's a chance to really dig into something a little more sophisticated.

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  6. I totally agree that the love of reading has to come first. If someone had tried to make me read a classic when I was a kid, I would have resisted reading it. I had to build up my confidence with “easier” books before I was willing to try older classics. I think it is important to teach classics, though. They helped shape our culture and influenced modern literature. But, kids probably won’t learn much from classics unless they have a love of reading first. They have to be willing to put in the effort to understand the book.

    Aj @ Read All The Things!

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  7. Teaching canonical and classic books makes sense if you think of literary studies as a field instead of viewing books as only a way to encourage literacy. While I certainly agree that genre fiction, etc. are worthy of being read (and increasingly colleges are offering courses that reflect this) and that students should be able to pursue their own interests since it generally makes them more motivated, I also think there is a case for teaching students the works that are generally regarded as influential. I wouldn't teach art history by telling students they could just bring in whatever artwork they wanted because they would be lacking an understanding of the field, its influences, major names, and development. In the same way, I wouldn't teach literary studies by telling students that they didn't need to know Shakespeare and could come in with their choice of the latest YA every day.

    I think that schools tend to see English as teaching reading and writing, but literacy and rhet/comp are distinct from literary studies. But there's also a case for exploring other segments of literary studies and not only the "dead white men." Certainly there are influential authors who are diverse.

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    1. Interesting points. My particular situation is that I teach middle schoolers who read 2-5 grades below grade level, so yes, I am more focused on increasing literacy than teaching literary studies. That being said, I certainly benefitted from a more formal and rigorous study of literature.

      I always remember that one quarter in high school, due to scheduling restraints, I had to take "regular" English rather than "advanced" English. The advanced class was reading Macbeth, and the regular class was...studying comma rules. As juniors in high school. Even at the time, I thought this was ridiculous. This was a very white, suburban high school where college matriculation was the norm. The regular class was in no way meant to be a remedial class, so why were they being denied Shakespeare?

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    2. Yes, it's certainly different teaching middle schoolers than, say, high school students or college students. Yet somehow I still see individuals arguing that there should be no required reading in school--at all. I find that odd since I view literary studies as a discipline students should be aware of, but also odd because it's difficult for a teacher never to teach the same content to the class! At some point you will probably have to require a book so the students can read it together and discuss it as a class, right? Asking them to write book reports or explain the book to the class doesn't help their peers engage with the book or discuss it together (unless the book report inspires them to read it, too). I think we need to consider practicality in teaching, too (as I am sure you know well!). It's also more difficult to respond to what a student writes about a book if you haven't read it, which might be the case if students are constantly reading 30 different books.

      I do find it odd that a junior class would study grammar over literature. Those seem like different courses to me. Knowing how a comma works doesn't actually work as a stepping stone to Shakespeare!

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  8. As an English major, I agree with Krysta and often see "literature" as a field of study, which means that, yes, it is worth studying Virgil. Shakespeare, Joyce, etc. because they are culturally important and important for understanding other books that they influenced. The "English" class in middle/high school is so often conflated with "reading comprehension" or "writing skills" that it doesn't occur to many students that the material itself could actually matter and that the goal actually is, to some extent, to teach Milton or Austen or Steinbeck or whatever, and not just to love reading in general or teach writing in general. I often hear (college) students complaining that their high school English teachers didn't teach them grammar or how to write a resume or how to write a lab report when, personally, I wouldn't consider that an English literature teacher's job. "Writing" as a skill deserves to be taught across the curriculum.

    That said, I do think there's a place for including different types of literature in the curriculum. I think fantasy, for instance, is often overlooked, and I think there is a place for teaching contemporary literature. Of course we all also want students to love reading and find the types of books they love. But there's a practicality to requiring everyone read and discuss the same book, as well. I also think that required reading is great for challenging students. A lot of people would never, for instance, read Shakespeare on their own. I interestingly hear a lot of complaints about this too--"We had to read Shakespeare in high school, and it wasn't fair because it was too hard!" When really the point is that the teacher is teaching it and guiding you through it BECAUSE it's hard. It's never going to become easy if you don't take that first step of struggling through it.

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  9. Interesting discussion! Hmm...that's so difficult I think. I agree with you that a love of reading would have to come first in order to appreciate or even care about the more difficult-to-read classics. So then maybe it would be a better idea to teach more modern books to start with and then, later, teach the classics? Or maybe only teach the classics in university if/when the student chooses a literature class? I don't know lol. I wonder if more high school students would enjoy English class if more modern books were on the curriculum. I, myself, am not a fan of the classics and, therefore, was not a fan of English in high school. Now, though, I have found a great love for reading. But I still don't enjoy the classics.

    --Sam @ Sharing Inspired Kreations

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  10. This is a very great discussion! One I have no idea how to answer because like you said, the answer would be both but if I had to choose... I would have to go with the classics, as much as I would love to install the love of reading into people, I just think the classics are the way to go. Ugh, I'm cheating, I just choose both. I honestly think that is the best way to go.

    Carrie @ The Butterfly Reader

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