Blowing Up The Canon (Part I)

6 Oct

In today’s blog post, we interview Daphne, who runs a non-profit dedicated to helping students with reading difficulties. She is the author of Read or Die: A Story of Survival, Hope and How a Life Was Saved One Book at a Time. You can contact her on Twitter at @confusedconfessions.

M: Since you’re part of the #writingcommunity on Twitter, it’s obvious you like writing, but what’s your day job?

D: My day job is teaching reading and trying to change how reading is taught but using choice/independent reading and doing away with the canon in the classroom. I just can’t stop, because kids deserve so much better.

M: What’s wrong the established canon in public schools?

D: Over time, I’ve come to realize the extreme influence colonization has had in the education system and I now spends every ounce of energy fighting that system for the sake of all children. 

M: I’m sure every school district is different, but when I was in school (and mind you this was 25-35 years ago), I believe the books I was forced to read were:

– Middle School: The Day No Pigs Would Die, The Giver by Lois Lowry, My Darling My Hamburger, The Chocolate War by Robert Cormier. (Oddly enough, because I had a reading teacher who thought I walked on water, I got to read harder books, so I never read these.)

– Freshman HS: The Pearl by John Steinbeck, The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne (Absolutely hated both of these.)

– Sophomore HS: The Odyssey by Homer (hated at the time, read as an adult with the Fagles translation? Couldn’t put it down), Julius Caesar by Shakespeare (great!)

– Junior HS: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain (liked, but hated analysis of it)

– Senior HS: Romeo and Juliet by Shakepeare (good).

– College: 1984 by George Orwell (cried both times I’ve read it, must read), Norton Anthology of English Lit (loved the poetry).

D: The canon of your childhood has not changed. I call these teachers ‘canon clutchers’ because they hold so tightly to those same books. My favorite part is they hover perpetually at a level of status quo where they can’t even understand the irony of assigning Fahrenheit 451 or Animal Farm. They think they are enlightening children when in fact they are perpetuating the same ideals those books were written to fight. 

M: Since my son (8th grade) is reading Fahrenheit 451 right now, this is a good one. Just so I get your point, since the book is about censorship, limiting your students to an older text denies them the opportunity to open up students’ mind to more modern voices?

D: Correct. If the teacher chooses which book the child must read then they are choosing for the child to NOT read every other book on the planet. The irony is endless for this point. They are controlling what a child is supposed to read AND THEN they tell them how to read, what parts are important and what the themes are. Imagine if the smart kid pointed out the irony…the teacher would run home crying. In fact, your son could possibly see that irony and wouldn’t that be fun if he pointed it out? HAHAHA! Also, on that subject, while those teachers dole out one book per quarter, my students can read as many as they want and they all read far more than they thought they could. The minimum is four a year, but I’ve had one kid read 35 (previously all non-readers), and the average is 12 per year.

We’ll continue this interview tomorrow. However, what was the canon you had to read as a kid? Did you actually read it or did you skim it? Let me know in the comments below!

2 Responses to “Blowing Up The Canon (Part I)”

  1. joliesattic October 6, 2020 at 10:21 am #

    Oh goodness! They are still assigning those? With the exception of the ones you got in junior high, I had those two 15 years earlier. I always thought the exact same thing, about the questions and highlights they focus on. Woe the kid that thinks outside their box.

  2. SirNolen October 6, 2020 at 8:59 pm #

    We were assigned “A Separate Peace” in Sophmore HS and I actually read it – and hated it. It’s about wealthy elite kids attending a private all-boys school in New England in the 1940s. In other words, the people in my class had absolutely nothing in common with the characters in the book. “Catcher in the Rye” was almost as bad for similar reasons. I guess teachers assume ANY book about teenagers will appeal to other teenagers, regardless of the enormous differences…?

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