by Victoria Hulse
Library Media Specialist
Webmaster for CTCTE
The literary canon--a “sacred” phrase to English teachers. Novels that have stood the test of time such as The Great Gatsby, Of Mice and Men, Great Expectations, and let’s not forget anything by Shakespeare. Yes, as English teachers we want students to read “good” literature, but why are these the stories we’re promoting? I recently reflected on my own experiences in high school English. I was exposed to Canterbury Tales, Walden, The Scarlet Letter, and more. I enjoyed English class, but that was because of the teachers--not because of what they were actually teaching. Frankly, I didn’t read most of the assigned texts in high school.
As a young child, I was an avid reader. I have lucid memories of visiting bookstores like Waldenbooks and Barnes and Noble with my parents. The smell of the stores was intoxicating. Everyone knew how much I loved to read--so much that I can recall a birthday where I received over $200 in gift certificates to Barnes and Noble; and this excited me to no end. So if I loved reading so much, what happened in high school?
Ultimately, it comes down to this. I couldn’t relate to the literature. We often didn’t read stories about things I understood or to which I could relate. Predominantly, I read novels written by “dead white men”. I attempted to read many assigned books in high school and can recall thinking “This is sooooo boring” or “The characters in these stories are insane”. So I would refer to the Cliff Notes or skim read, and that ended up being more than enough to get excellent grades in high school English class. But this doesn’t still happen, does it?
Students are still being assigned many of the same classic texts that my own parents and I read in high school. And frankly, they are still not reading them, which implies “Nothing important is happening because student development of reading and interpretive abilities requires engaged reading” (Broz 2011, 15). English teachers obviously don’t want this to happen, so why are we resistant to change the books we assign? I’m not promoting the idea of abandoning the literary canon altogether as it is referenced frequently in the Common Core Standards. In Book Love Penny Kittle argues “We need to balance pleasure with challenge, increasing volume for all readers and setting up an environment in our classroom that manages kids as they choose books, set goals, and develop a reading habit” (8). I strongly believe that we should allow students an opportunity to choose something they would like to read. There is a world full of wonderful stories, both fiction and nonfiction, that students are not exposed to because there isn’t time. But is there? What if we abandon one assigned text a year and give students the opportunity to personalize their learning by choosing a book? Would it be so terrible if students read books of their own choosing such as The Hate U Give, Laughing at my own Nightmare or Love Hate and Other Filters? Maya Angelou is reported to have said, “Any book that helps a child form a habit of reading, to make reading one of his deep and continuing needs, is good for him.” Let’s find time in our curriculum to allow students the power to choose what they read. Perhaps our students will then truly develop a love for reading, and ultimately, become better readers.
Citations and Recommended Resources:
“Not Reading: The 800-Pound Mockingbird in the Classroom” William J. Broz
Book Love by Penny Kittle
The Top Five Reasons We Love Giving Students Choice in Reading
Connecting the Canon to Current Young Adult Literature
Follow #DisruptTexts on Twitter
The last week of September is the American Library Association’s annual Banned Books Week. It always dovetailed with the exploration my classes started on why we read. As a class we would go through the list of the 25 most challenged books and why they were banned. Students were shocked, perplexed, and just plain angry at how adults could so misunderstand one of their favorite books. “Bridge to Terabithia promotes witchcraft?? Really? That was my favorite book!” And so it would go as we went down the list. “Do these people even read the book, the whole book?” one student fumed. It was, to say the least, a great motivator to get even my most reluctant readers reading. It also was a clear illustration of the power of the written word.
The understanding that words have power seems even more important. We have seen the impact of words – in court rulings, on social platforms like Twitter and news shows, in colleges, and in the halls of government. Lately it seems as if word choices are made for the shock value or for what will evoke the most visceral reaction. That worries me a lot. Visceral reactions shut down speech and shut up people instead facilitating reasoned discussions on larger issues. Who are we as a nation? A society? As individuals? What exactly do we value? How do we ensure those values are reflected in our laws? How do we balance those values in a country of many cultural, ethnic, religious beliefs? It is the more reasoned discussion among that plurality of beliefs that is our hallmark and our strength as a country. Yet lately words are honed to a laser focus on our differences. That makes it almost impossible to find common ground. In her poem “The Human Family” Maya Angelou puts it best:
I note the obvious differences
between each sort and type,
but we are more alike, my friends,
than we are unalike.
As long as we cannot see what we have in common, that divide will continue to grow, and, I fear, to strengthen. Worse, it will tempt us further to silence those voices we do not agree with.
Which brings us back to the critical importance, of students reading a wide range of materials from a diverse range of voices. Some materials students may agree with; some they may find more challenging, maybe even uncomfortable. It is only in reading and reflecting on things that challenge and discomfort us that we grow. Note I said reflect. This does not mean to suggest there will be a change of belief, though that may happen. More important, as Kylene Beers and Robert Probst describe in Disrupting Thinking, is the reflection on what we know, how the book makes us feel, and how we reconcile that dissonance that offers our students a path to a better world. When we are willing to reflect on how a book adds to our understanding of the world around us, to question what we know and think, we allow for the space to find likeness where it may not seem to exist.
St. Augustine said, “The world is a book, and those who do not travel read only one page.” Even centuries ago he realized the danger of a limited perspective. Research shows we develop empathy when we read. By reading diverse texts, we are afforded the opportunity to put on another’s skin and experience their reality. It is another tool to ensure we do not suffer from the single story that Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie so eloquently warns us of in her TED talk “The Danger of a Single Story”.
My fervent hope for your school year is that it is filled with a wonderfully rich variety of literature. May there be the joy of discovery as well as the discomfort of examining deeply held beliefs. Below are some resources to explore this topic further.
http://www.ala.org/advocacy/bbooks Resources on top ten most challenged books by the year
http://www.ncte.org/action/anti-censorship Guidelines for choosing ELA materials, rationales for the teaching of books that have been challenged, NCTE position statements on intellectual freedom and censorship as well as the support the NCTE can offer.
Speak Loudly is a collection of some YA authors on the topic of censorship. With thanks to Wendy Glenn for submitting this on behalf of the ALAN Anti-Censorship Committee.