Sacrificing Our Sacred Cows: Rethinking the Literary Canon in Secondary English

white ceramic man head bust      person holding opened book

In my class, I refer to literature in two categories: Real Lit and Junk Lit. Real Lit means texts that you need to unpack, that have layers, that speak to the human condition. Junk Lit is mostly comprised of those free titles on the Amazon e-books list—you read them fast, but never tell anyone, and they have catchy titles like, Southern Peach Pie and a Dead Guy (yes, that is a real book that I did really read, and it was hilarious!). (Orepitan, 2019)

For decades now the English language arts has been challenging its own standards for what books make their way into the classroom. The canon has been under fire for its lack of inclusive voices (traditionally dead, white males have formed the English canon) as well as its lack of relevance to modern issues or modern reading preferences. (In what other high school subject do you intentionally read so much “outdated” material besides the occasional excerpts of primary sources?)

However, I resonate with Vikki Orepitan’s statement above. If given their way, a lot of kids would probably just settle for “Junk Lit,” right? I personally love many of the classics. And these are classics we’re talking about, known for their timelessness and universality! These have been treasured texts in English classrooms for years. Our contemporary literature can even trace their own ancestry back to these foundational stories. Maybe students won’t like them now, but they’ll appreciate them when they’re older! (We say this like we would upon lecturing our own children, but let’s be honest, is that really the philosophy  we want associated with a passionate, voracious consumption of reading? And are you catching the blatant fallacy of appealing to tradition?)

When I’m being honest, though, it’s not that my own personal reading is mired only in the classics. I do enjoy reading classics during my free time (much to the dismay of students, friends, and even my wife), but that’s not all I read. Like the rest of the world, I too am waiting for Patrick Rothfuss to finish his Kingkiller Chronicles. I’m a fan of Stephen King novels. I try to keep up with Pulitzer prize winning fiction (currently reading the 2020 winner Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead). In fact, after finishing a dense classic, I’m usually intentional about finding more light reading. And if I’m being really honest, I wasn’t absolutely in love with my reading material in high school (my love for classic literature blossomed late in college, echoing the experience of Donald R. Gallo cited below). And if I’m being really, really honest, the last semester of my senior year, I used Sparknotes as a replacement for every one of my reading assignments. (I was overwhelmed by my high school commitments as a high-achieving, college-bound, student, so when I actually ended up scoring the highest I had all year on a test for a book that I had only studied the Sparknotes for, I was addicted.) So why don’t I extend this same grace to my students? Do I really expect them to read classics in class and supplement that reading material with Junk Lit on their own time? That’s a little naive on my part. And what if other scholars and experienced teachers are actually backing the need to rethink the canon?

In his article “How Classics Create an Aliterate Society,” Donald R. Gallo defines aliteracy by stating that “We are a nation that teaches its children how to read in the early grades, then forces them during their teenage years to read literary works that most of them dislike so much that they have no desire whatsoever to continue those experiences into adulthood” (2001, p. 34). This grim indictment is followed up by pointing to a study in Voices of Readers: How We Come to Love Books which concluded that, though teacher objectives point to a desire to increase reader enthusiasm and appreciation of great works, curriculum is set up to accomplish the opposite (Gallo, 2001, p. 35). Furthermore, in Workshopping the Canon, Mary E. Styslinger indicates a 2013 NAEP report (National Assessment of Educational Progress) that notes more than 60 percent of middle and high school students scored below the proficient level in reading achievement (2017, p. 2). However, she goes on to point out that recent research has highlighted that “We have discovered that many of our students possess secret literacy lives, not always evident or valued in schools,” particularly YA literature (p. 2). For Styslinger, this information has helped her develop a workshopping approach to better connect students to reading that matters. Perry and Stallworth take up this challenge as well:

Certainly, some of the works students are asked to read should mirror their own experiences. However, the reading curriculum must also reflect our global society, and to ignore the impact of technology on today’s young adolescents would be a disservice, given that media is endemic in the way our students interact on a daily
basis. As Vacca, Vacca, and Mraz (2011) state: “It is not possible to adequately prepare students for reading and writing in the twenty-first century without integrating new literacies into the everyday life of today’s classrooms” (p. 29). (2013, p. 16)

Additionally, Beach et al. point to several studies and examples in which students are reading in new and innovative ways.

Meanwhile, researchers in the field of literacy (e.g., Jocson, 2013; Vasuevan, 2006/2007) have documented the diversity of adolescents’ literate practices, from slam poetry (Fisher, 2007), to engagement with comics and graphica (Low, 2012; Simon, 2012), young adult novels (Hayn & Kaplan, 2012), or digital storytelling (Hull & Katz, 2006). As young adult author Sherman Alexie (2011) notes, teenagers continue to engage with ideas and texts “because they believe, despite the callow protestations of certain adults, that books–especially the dark, and dangerous ones–will save them.” (Beach et al., 2016)

Thus, research clearly indicates that students are reading; they simply aren’t very interested in reading the material offered in class, and they continue to be in need of growing in their overall reading achievement. In her article at Edutopia, journalist and author Holly Korbey mentions an APA study which indicates an alarming trend in pleasure reading among high school seniors: a decrease from 60% in the late ’70s to 16% in 2016 (2018). She goes on to mention this growing concern among educators:

On social media, teachers are adamant about the risks of an uncritical devotion to the classics. Some teachers have argued that these concerns are especially pertinent for children of color, who are less likely to be represented in traditionally selected texts. Though U.S. classrooms are rapidly diversifying—in just a few years, half of American students will be students of color—the English literature canon, many argue, has remained mostly unchanged and mostly white. (hyperlink in the original)

Korbey goes on to highlight the trend towards student choice in reading as a means to stimulate interest. Thus, to summarize the research in this post, the following should be considered in future ELA curriculum design:

  1. Reading material should incorporate digital and other innovative modes that reflect the type of reading that students are doing in the 21st century.
  2. Reading material should encourage pleasure reading outside of the classroom.
  3. Reading material should reflect student choice to varying degrees.
  4. Reading material should champion underrepresented voices.

In addition to these curriculum suggestions, other methods and strategies will continue to come to the forefront as research continues. (Check out this recent article about the importance of phonics!) However, it should be clear that no strategy, no push for improvement can really take flight without proper motivation from the reader. As an added bonus, teachers can secretly celebrate to know that scholarly research is backing up what they’ve been afraid to voice all along because it sounds so, well, unscientific: We want reading to be FUN! (I bet every English teacher has a litany of books they’d really like to integrate into the curriculum.)

Some educators have referred to the current state of literacy in the United States as a crisis though others have disputed that label. Nevertheless, the conversation and battle over the formation of the English canon continues to rage. Personally, I wonder at the disservice I do my students by not joining the fray, by not examining my curriculum and asking the hard questions about how to best prepare my students for the future and–as is the passion of every ELA teacher–how to create life-long, passionate readers. What is the cost for not sacrificing my sacred cows? Sacrificing my students instead?

 

References

Beach, R., Appleman, D., Fecho, B.,  & Simon, R. (2016). Teaching Literature to Adolescents. Taylor & Francis.

Gallo, D. (2001). How Classics Create an Aliterate Society. The English Journal, 90(3), 33-39. https://doi.org/10.2307/821305

Korby, H. (2019). The Reading Wars: Choice vs. Canon. Edutopia. https://www.edutopia.org/article/reading-wars-choice-vs-canon

Lenters, K. (2006). Resistance, struggle, and the adolescent reader. Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, 50(2), 136-146. https://doi.org/10.1598/JAAL.50.2.6

Orepitan, V. (2019). NCTE Reads: Reflections from a New Member. National Council of Teachers of English. https://ncte.org/blog/2019/07/ncte-reads-reflection-new-member/

Perry, T. & Stallworth, B. J. (2013). 21st-Century Students Demand a Balanced, More Inclusive Canon. Voices from the Middle, 21(1), 15-18. https://secure.ncte.org/library/NCTEFiles/Resources/Journals/VM/0211-sep2013/VM0211Century.pdf

Styslinger, M. E. (2017). Workshopping the Canon. National Council of Teachers of English.

 

 

 

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