Tag Archives: canon

Preserving the Canon

26 Oct

A few weeks ago, I had a conversation about blowing up the established reading canon. Matt Ryan disagreed with my guest, so I invited him to also talk. Matt is a high school English teacher from Massachusetts, as well as the host of #CanonChat on Twitter. You can follow him at @MatRyanELATeach.

Marcus: Why do you believe the existing canon is important for students today?

Matt: Why wouldn’t we want students to read the greatest books humanity has to offer? If I were to study painters of the Italian Renaissance, would I not study the works of da Vinci and Michelangelo? The same can be said about literature. When I teach American literature, I would be doing my students a disservice to not expose them to some of our most influential writers. The same writers, by the way, that our contemporary writers have all read. Additionally, classic texts teach universal truths, truths not defined by race or gender, but by human truths. They don’t reflect a particular ideology. They disrupt our own ideologies and nurture our own intellectual independence.

Marcus: What books are “canon” with the kids you work with?

Matt: I don’t teach every single one of these every year; some rotate in and out, depending on a few factors.

  • Freshmen: The Odyssey, To Kill a Mockingbird, Romeo and Juliet, A Raisin in the Sun
  • Sophomores: Chronicle of a Death Foretold, The Crucible, The Awakening, The Great Gatsby, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, The Scarlet Letter, Sula, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Fences, East of Eden
  • Juniors: Beowulf, Canterbury Tales, Macbeth, Pride and Prejudice, Lord of the Flies, Waiting for Godot
  • Seniors: Hamlet, Othello, Antigone, Oedipus Rex

It’s important to note, however, that I teach a number of newer titles that aren’t canonical. I’m not advocating that we teach only from the canon. What I typically do is pair texts together, usually an older text with a newer one.

Marcus: You reminded me – yes, we read To Kill a Mockingbird (great), The Crucible (eh), Beowulf (read later with a better translation), and Antigone (okay). From my perspective, I think that it’s often the language that throws me off. As I’ve mentioned before, I turned 180 on Homer once I found a better translation. I was able to read Sherlock Holmes as a teenager, but as I got older, I found I couldn’t read anything written before Hemingway. Nathanial Hawthorne, being a Romance / Victorian writer, uses a lot of phrasing which dates back to a time when people wanted more descriptive terminology… and now, not so much. The old joke that Dickens got paid by the word makes it difficult to wade through the verbiage to get to the story.

Matt: Language is most often the stumbling block with older texts. Knowing this, I generally approach these books differently. I’ll often start a book by reading it in class and discussing the language. Hearing me read the book is often a bridge to greater comprehension. I also share audiobooks with the students and encourage them to listen as they follow along with the text. And I assign fewer pages in a book I know is more complex.

Another stumbling block can be a lack of background knowledge. To give a specific example, when I teach Pride and Prejudice, I use the annotated edition by David M Shapard because it contextualizes a lot of elements foreign to a reader in 2020. Additionally, I work hard to make connections to their own lives. For instance, students often say that the rules that govern how people behaved in society are confusing and silly. So we talk about all the unwritten rules that govern interactions among teens, especially when there are romantic feelings involved. We’ve had some great conversations about how students “date” and promposals. Then they realize that we’re not all that different from the characters in the book.

We’ll finish our conversation with Matt tomorrow. Meanwhile, what do you think? Is Matt on the right track with his students? Or is he off base? Let us know in the comments below!

Blowing Up The Canon (Part III)

8 Oct

In today’s blog post, we finish our interview with 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: So how do you approach personalizing reading for your kids?

D: Each student in my room is provided the opportunity to bring a book from home, but rarely do they. Instead, the vast majority of students choose a book from my room where every single book has been vetted by children. Typically I bring over a stack of books to their desk and they go through them until they find one with an accessible vocabulary, and then I teach them how to make connections to the words…basically I try to teach them everything good readers do: think about themselves, wonder what happens next, think what happened earlier, wonder why things are happening, think about other books with similar stories, etc…on and on and on until they start actually reading. 

I have this question I ask people, “What is your most important book?” It’s such a great question because people have the most beautiful and surprising answers, but I never meet a child who can answer this question. Unless a child comes from a house of enlightened readers (rare, rare, rare) or they are taught with a method in school involving real choice/independent reading they don’t have a most important book, and they all deserve one.

M: Hard question to answer, since I love so many books, but let me throw out a weird one – The Man Who Never Missed by Steve Perry. It’s a short sci-fi novel – hit me at around 14 years old, so when I was most impressionable – but it really changed how I like to see universes, write action, and drive the story well. He’s a cult following level author but I love Perry’s writing style.

D: Awesome important book answer! I haven’t heard of him, but I’m going to look him up. 

M: What about you? What’s your most important book?

D: The most important book for me is also a hard question, but I became who I am as a reading teacher because of reading the Book Thief. By the time I read it I had been teaching for seventeen years and writing for 8…There’s a scene where a girl lives BECAUSE of a book and you realize the author has been saying, “Books Save Lives,” the entire book and you then realize he dedicated a significant amount of time and effort to say books save lives and here I was, sitting in a room of kids that I should be teaching as if BOOKS SAVE LIVES so that’s when it happened. I changed everything I was doing and dedicated my career to repeating over and over again, books save lives and that’s how I teach, like every book matters and the more I can get inside a child, the better. Hence, my book and screenplay because I can’t say it enough. 

M: Thank you, Daphne – I have a feeling that we’re going to have more of these conversations from now on.

Did you enjoy this interview? What is your most important book? (Not your favorite, your most important.) Let me know in the comments below!

Blowing Up The Canon (Part II)

7 Oct

In today’s blog post, we continue our interview with 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: But what’s wrong with having the whole class just read one book so they discuss it and break it down?

D: With the canon there are multiple problems that I could rant about all day so I’ll try to limit myself. First of all, I can’t even get everyone in my friend group or household to agree on a book. It’s impossible to get 30 random children who will/can read a 300 page book they care nothing about so they either are clever and use SparkNotes and engage the teacher in conversation as if they’ve read or they don’t read it and they fail. I have yet to meet anyone who read their assigned books in school and the number of readers is declining, not increasing. In addition, the book is assigned, the themes are decided by the teacher (who probably used SparkNotes to decide what the themes are), and all the questions have preconceived answers.

M: Interesting point – so simply ASSIGNING the book makes it very difficult for students to care about reading it in the first place. Using my son as an example, he has dyslexia, which has the effect that unless he’s REALLY into a book series (Harry Potter, Keepers of the Lost Cities), he doesn’t like to read. It’s physically difficult. They assigned the Hunger Games as a book, and knowing the violence would upset him, we got the teacher to accept an alternative (Ready Player One). However, he STILL didn’t finish it… he barely started it. Because he had no internal drive to want to do it.

D: It’s imperative that he feel empowered which is the opposite of what happened when he gave up on Ready Player One (which is the position teachers put their students in ALL OF THE TIME by assigning books, it’s maddening). Teaching him to use resources and allowing him to use resources to pass English is something that will carry him forever AND you might be able to still have a reader in your house. Teachers constantly destroy the love of reading and they don’t even know it.

I don’t want the canon replaced, I want the entire concept of ‘assigned’ books and ‘assigned’ reading levels to be destroyed. In fact, the way you were taught by the teacher who thought you ‘walked on water’ is exactly how every single child in America should be taught. I don’t have many kids like you were, but they all have that potential if they were just allowed to have their reading journey hand curated by a teacher who thought highly of them and wanted what is best for them.

M: So if a kid came to you and wanted to know what book he/she should read, what would you recommend?

D: My class could not function without The Absolutely True Diary of a Part Time Indian by Sherman Alexie, The Hate You Give by Angie Thomas, Tyrell by Coe Booth, Drive By by Lynne Ewing, Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo and the Bluford High Series.

Have you heard / like these books? What books would you recommend to kids? Let me know in the comments below!

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!

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