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 (In what other high school subject do you intentionally read so much “outdated” material besides the occasional excerpts of primary sources?)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.

 

 

 

Stay Curious

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Photo by Fabian Grohs on Unsplash

“How do you fight cynicism? Stay curious.”

This is my third year teaching at a school in the Kansas City area. Each of the past two years we have begun back-to-school teacher training with a sermon from a local pastor, a message reminding us of our duty to mold the children and young men and women in our charge.

This year my attention was particularly piqued by an idea from the sermon. The pastor asked us, “How do you fight cynicism?”

“Stay curious,” he followed up.

As teachers it is easy to become cynical towards human nature, but this isn’t just a teacher issue; people in general become cynical to human nature, even our own! And these critical attitudes are often amplified in a Christian context.

“His dad is a deacon!”

“She sings on the worship team!”

“I saw her acting so righteous last summer at Christian camp!”

“I’m supposed to be a Christian!”

We find it difficult to see past the moment, and one “bad apple” becomes a bushel until we feel impelled to echo Paul’s words in Romans 3:10: “None is righteous, no, not one” (ESV).

However, this group of teachers gathered to be encouraged for the upcoming year, and we were challenged to fight cynicism by staying curious. Curious about what?

We must remain curious about the potential for good in each and every human being we encounter.

“For we are [God’s] workmanship,” Paul writes to the church at Ephesus (ESV, Ephesians 2:10). Another translation says we are His “masterpiece” (NLT). In fact, the apostle Paul was an ardent advocate of grace. Why was he able to stay curious? Because he saw the great odds God overcame in saving him, a religious extremist with hands stained by the blood of his mission to persecute the early followers of the Way. “I was the worst sinner!” he declares to his protege (1 Timothy 1:15). “If God can save me, I want to stay curious about what He will do in all the lives of other ‘lost causes.'”

One of my favorite bands is Anberlin whom I’ve had the incredible opportunity to see live a few times, and I’m reminded of the song with which they’d finish all their performances: “*Fin.”

We’re not questioning God.
Just those he chose to carry on His cross.
We’re no better, you’ll see.
Just all of us, the lost causes.

Aren’t we all to you just lost causes?
Are we all to you lost?
Lost causes
So all we are to you,
Is all we are, is all we are
All we are is all we are

I’ve always been drawn to the faith and lyrical depth and authenticity (and power of Stephen Christian’s voice) present in Anberlin’s work, and “Fin*” is an anthemic reminder of our own lostness but also a subtle nod to God’s grace. If you listen closely to the tone and context, you too might hear the unhinging of that all-too-familiar phrase “lost causes.” Here “lost causes” is not a moniker of our worthlessness but rather our immense value that is identified by Him amidst our wandering. We are causes who are lost, but we are causes nevertheless. There is One who still sees us and pursues us.

I hope to stay curious this year. I hope by God that I abandon no lost cause because who am I, chief of sinners, to turn my back on anyone?

What you don’t hear on the album version of “Fin*” but what is sung at the end of their live shows is the final refrain of ultimate Christian hope:

“We’ll live forever, forever, FOREVER!”

 

El Salvador: Birthdays

This past weekend was my birthday. I’m really close with my family, so it’s not always easy to be away from them during celebrations. However, living abroad has the unique advantage of celebrating in new ways.

First, my school department took me to El Zócalo, one of my favorite Mexican restaurants in El Salvador. I was donned with a sweet sombrero and cape as the waiters sang and brought me flan.

Second, three of my classes on Friday threw me a little party: cake, ice cream, soda, balloons, silly string, even a picture of me on the dry-erase board.

And I got a cake from my school department!

Also, I learned about a fun little tradition: “Mordida! Mordida! Mordida!” How it works is… well, if you don’t know, I’ll just let you experience that one for yourself.

Lastly, my other family came to my house Friday night, and we enjoyed homemade tacos, fun, and games.

All in all it was a wonderful birthday. So many people sang for me, brought me food, cooked me food, gave me gifts, and warmly wished me a “Feliz Cumpleaños.” Gracias a todos! Wonderful country. Wonderful people.

Read This: The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen

[Here is a piece of advice if you want to be better read and don’t know where to start: besides the “canonized” classics (Western AND non-Western), try reading Pulitzer Prize winning fiction or Nobel Prize authors. When I’m looking for new, contemporary fiction and I’m not sure what to read, I’ve recently been going to the most recent Pulitzer Prize winning novel that I have not read.] 

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[Don’t worry, no spoilers here! ]

Viet Thanh Nguyen is the 2016 Pulitzer Prize winning novelist of The Sympathizer. Though born in Vietnam, at four years old his family fled to the United States after the fall of Saigon in 1975. Nguyen now is an Associate Professor of English at the University of Southern California.

“‘No one is righteous, no, not one…'”

This verse, Romans 3:11, might be an appropriate summary for The Sympathizer and an especially poignant reminder for the American idealist.

Over three-quarters of the book takes place as a confession from the main character (unnamed throughout), a Vietnamese political prisoner, to his communist commandant. He is a mole, a communist spy that has spent years as a captain for the southern republic of Vietnam. After the fall of Saigon, he escapes as a refugee to America. There he continues to act as an informant and operative for the communist party before he returns to Vietnam with a small reconnaissance party only to be captured by his communist comrades and forced to write and re-write a satisfactory confession over the course of a year. The book concludes with a self-revealing climax about the character, the reality of war, and human nature.

In his novel, Nguyen writes the main character as a living embodiment of contrasts and duality. He is a bi-racial bastard, the secret love child of his Vietnamese mother and his father, a French priest. He is in southern Vietnam as a mole, a sympathizer for the communist north. He is a strange amalgamation of East and West: he studied in America, speaks perfect English, understands the culture, and almost feels at home there as a refugee. He is a mole with a conscience, constantly struggling with his role in the revolution. He truly sympathizes with both sides of everything: both sides of the revolution in Vietnam and in some ways both sides of the world (East and West). His struggle is not a negation of identity (in contrast to a faceless character towards the end of the book) but rather a doubling of it. Thus, in perfect story form, Nguyen himself explores the duality of the Vietnamese American, perhaps best captured in the book’s opening lines.

“I am a spy, a sleeper, a spook, a man of two faces. Perhaps not surprisingly, I am also a man of two minds. I am not some misunderstood mutant from a comic book or a horror movie, although some have treated me as such. I am simply able to see any issue from both sides. Sometimes I flatter myself that this is a talent, and although it is admittedly one of a minor nature, it is perhaps also the sole talent I possess…. But in the month when this confession begins, my way of seeing the world still seemed more of a virtue than a danger, which is how some dangers first appear.”

Additionally, Nguyen explores the abuse of power from all angles: the Americans, the southern Vietnamese, and the northern Vietnamese. No one is innocent, as the character realizes.

Finally, uniquely, Nguyen isn’t really directing his novel towards white Americans. In a Q & A with Paul Tran, Nguyen implies his desire to “directly [confront] the history of the American war in Vietnam from the Vietnamese American point of view.” However, it’s not a novel to describe the Vietnamese to whites.

“I did not want to write this book as a way of explaining the humanity of Vietnamese. Toni Morrison says in Beloved that to have to explain yourself to white people distorts you because you start form a position of assuming your inhumanity or lack of humanity in other people’s eyes. Rather than writing a book that tries to affirm humanity, which is typically the position that minority writers are put into, the book starts from the assumption that we are human, and then goes on to prove that we’re also inhuman at the same time.”

So there you have it. I recommend the book. It’s thought-provoking and challenges our assumptions. And it is written from a unique and powerful voice. Enjoy!

That’s Not Old English! (how to act like a total tool…and enjoy doing it!)

You know the person…the type of person who tries to act so sophisticated, like they know everything. They’re the people who say “That’s sooo bourgeois.” You know, like this…

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And yet, all of us secretly enjoy when we’re the overly smart ones. When we can stop someone and say, “Actually, you’re wrong…” with our noses in the air (okay, let’s not put our noses in the air). So, if you’ve always desired this kind of moment, here’s a great piece of trivia to flaunt in someone’s face.

SHAKESPEARE IS NOT OLD ENGLISH. And if Shakespeare is not Old English, then Dickens and Austen most certainly don’t fit in that category. I have heard many times how somebody was turned off because they didn’t realize the book was written in Old English (actually, I saw this on a book blog recently…gasp!). So if you hear someone say that, prick your ears up because they’re probably wrong.

The most important piece of Old English literature is Beowulf, our oldest manuscript being from around 1000 CE (the story itself probably far older). Old English is basically unreadable to English speakers today.

Not only is Old English unrecognizable, even Middle English (e.g. The Canterbury Tales written in the late 14th century) is extremely difficult for most modern readers.

Shakespeare was actually writing in early modern English while authors such as Jane Austen and Charles Dickens were writing in late modern English.

So there you go! Go sound smart with your friends…

And when you have a chance, check out this awesome interactive resource put out by the BBC (HERE).

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“Anne Frank Today is a Syrian Girl”

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Anne Frank side-by-side with Rouwaida Hanoun, a Syrian 5-year-old wounded last week. (Getty Images)

I love how literature stirs the imagination, takes us to Fairy Land, Camelot, Narnia, Middle Earth, and beyond. And based on my own worldview, I don’t see these motifs as escapism but actually congruous with my own beliefs in a way (another discussion). Nevertheless, literature is also supposed to keep us right where we are  open our eyes to the harsh realities around us that we miss. For a long time I have been moved by WWII literature though I have yet to read Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl.

A NY Times op-ed piece published yesterday by Nicholas Kristof entitled “Anne Frank Today is a Syrian Girl” is a poignant reminder that “History rhymes.” There is a world crisis  happening right now, but too often I’m stuck in the past reading about how horrific life once was. Kristof cites some of the fears for aiding or sheltering refugees, national security being chief among them. He attempts to abet those fears, but I think some of us need to rise above even that and understand that risk should not prevent aid.

Some day there will be new literature with the Syrian Refugee Crisis as its setting. Will I be able to say that I was part of the solution or part of the apathy?  Right now, regrettably, I’d have to say the latter.

HERE is a link with a list of organizations you can support. Let’s do something. Myself included. Oh, and if you haven’t already, check out this powerful video at the bottom.

[Teacher’s note: I thought this post might be especially helpful as a tie-in to current events when teaching material such as the Holocaust or Anne Frank, Elie Wiesel, etc.] 

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Resources (Literature and Beyond)

Okay, so this is my first full week teaching…exhausting. But exhilarating as well! I’m blessed to teach what I love. And when you teach what you love, you LOVE finding great resources. I’m very fond of various teaching methods, especially visuals and those that increase interaction. Thus, I wanted to share (unashamedly hoping some of my students find this post) one of the neat tools I’ve come across: infographics from Course Hero. HERE is their Pinterest board, and HEREis their teaching resource website. We’re beginning to study Chaucer next week in my British Lit. class, so maybe someone will stumble upon this infographic before seeing it in class.

The Top and Bottom of My Wish List

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My reading list is BIG… REAL BIG. And it’s always growing. At times I make the mistake of going out and buying a book as a way of adding it to my list even if I’m not ready at that exact moment to read it. Bad idea. Because by the time I get around to reading the book, something else has been added to my list, and it’s jumped to the top. I have lists in my head, lists on my computer, lists in the form of purchased books on my shelf. However, probably the most thorough and consistent list I have kept is on Amazon. Thanks Amazon…because I don’t always buy those books from your website; it’s just a handy way to catalog the books I’d like to read. So I thought it’d be fun to revisit my reading wish list and see how it’s evolved (or how it hasn’t). Thus, I will share my five oldest added books and my five most recently added books, none of which I have already read. Some of them represent areas that I already know a lot about and want to know more; others represent areas both of ignorance and fascination.

Oldest… (all added in 2010)

Newest… (all added in 2016)

 

So that does it! This has been an interesting experiment. Does anyone else want to share some of their list? Or add to mine with a good recommendation?

“What is Literature for?”

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HERE is a wonderful video put together by The School of Life group. As in everything, we should not assume that our learners have answered the question: “Yes, but why is this important?” As a literature student and teacher, I know why I love my subject. But do my students? We need to help make that connection for them. If we really believe it’s important, let’s not assume.

In class we will be examining the importance of literature, but I do not have time (this year) to incorporate this video into my lesson plan. I wanted to post it, though, for any of my students or other teachers who might enjoy its content. Weighing in at just under 5 minutes, it’s a great tool to ignite this discussion: “What is literature for?”

 

Learning to Love to Read

The Libreria Acqua Alta in Venice:

*This is the first post. If you aren’t familiar with the purpose of the blog, please check out the page “Mr. Caleb” to learn more.

Like nearly everything in life, reading is a discipline. It takes time and practice to develop good reading skills. But for many people I know, there’s also that book (or series of books) that really made them fall in love with reading. For me, it was The Chronicles of Narnia. There’s something powerful about tapping into our imagination… something that I hope happens this year in our classes. Personally, I think a room full of books is magical and inspiring in and of itself. So click here to read Buzzfeed’s “The 30 Best Places To Be If You Love Books.”