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
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