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...)