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The literary canon is good for you.

So is broccoli.

Anyone who has tried to cajole a floret of broccoli into the mouth of a picky toddler can imagine a similar experience in trying to cajole a (male?) 10th grader to read a chapter of Brave New World on his own. “Read about John the Savage; understanding his alienation is  good for you!” a teacher pleads with conviction in an attempt to fatten students with enough prose, poetry, and drama for a lifetime in the perceived literary wasteland of adulthood.

“Eat your canon!” …literally.

Perhaps English teachers see the canon as a means to provide students with a common language in order to understand cultural comparisons to a “Scrooge”, a “Frankenstein” , or a “Mr. D’Arcy.” English teachers know the value in having students recognize the characterization of the human spirit as seen in the camaraderie in the relentless hunt for the white whale, in traveling west on Route 66 in a 1949 Hudson, or in the imagining the filth of the trenches in Paul Baumer’s no-mans land. English teachers firmly believe that students should know how the characters of Huck Finn, Hester Prynne and Gatsby reflect the tumultuous history of our nation, a nation students will inherit.

But perhaps English teachers need to go on a diet. While there are arguments to stuffing students full of great literature before sending them out into the real world, there is also an argument for allowing students the opportunity to bring their choices to the conversations about literature. The recent survey results from Grant Wiggins , co-author of Understand by Design, of 7300 high school students  indicates that English Language Arts is near the bottom in the ranking of “favorite” classes. Many students complaints were directed at the literary canon:

  • The books chosen have no true connection to my life.
  • I do not like to read the books given
  • Because the books do not interest me and I feel like we never learn anything applicable to the real world
  •  do like reading. I don’t like reading books that I am not interested in and we have to read books and stories that I don’t like.

The literary canon is not fixed nor limited to yellowing copies of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (admittedly, my least favorite) or Drieser’s An American Tragedy. The canon is a living body of writing, continuously  replenished with contemporary stories with unforgettable characters: Lt. Jimmy Cross (The Things They Carried), Sethe (Beloved), Abaline Clark (The Help), and Hazel (Watership Down). Moreover, what spoke to one generation, may not speak to another. A body of great literature is on the increase, and some English teachers need to open the door even wider in order to include student choice. The banquet of traditional literary offerings must be limited as a matter of practicality; we simply cannot teach everything.

One way to combat the complaints about “books I don’t like” while including more texts is to offer satellite texts which are linked thematically to a whole class read. Perhaps a survey of student interest in themes or genre could determine the course of study, for example, a unit on monsters in literature could include a wide range of materials from picture books to JK Rowling’s characterization of  Voldemort to  the more complicated stories of Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde or Gardner’s Grendel.

English teachers should not feel the overwhelming responsibility for the selection of all class materials when so much literature is available today in so many different formats. Students should begin to take responsibility for contributing (appropriate) materials for their own interests or to share with others. Even a simple addition of a weekly SSR period to include student selections would counter the arguments that all books read in high school are boring. With ownership in selection, students could be more invested.

Back in 1999, several teachers and I attended a Broadway performance of Death of a Salesman with Brian Dennehy.  During the intermission a man, obviously moved by the production, stood several seats away sloppily wiping his eyes with a handkerchief. “I know this play,” he was repeating to himself trying to grasp at some memory that was buried long ago, “how do I know this play?”

Of course he knew the play, we scoffed!  We envisioned the high school English teacher who years ago had probably forced him to read a part of the drama in class. Maybe the man read the part of Biff or Bernard as the teacher would have had difficulties in providing access to a performance, live or taped. The man may have done well on the final test; he may have relieved when the teacher unit was over. The problems of Willie Loman probably were “boring” or seem distant and trivial to the man, a teenager in high school back in the 1960s.

Years later in the plush seating of the mezzanine on a Friday night performance, the language of Miller’s drama, long ago buried in the man’s brain, suddenly rushed  into the his consciousness. His visceral reaction to the production was enhanced by this recollection, but most likely, the man was finally at the age where Willie’s dilemma made sense to him. By the end of the play, the man was sobbing quietly, a testament to Miller’s ability to produce a catharsis.

This incident reinforced my belief that the literary canon is a lifelong experience, not one stop at the “all-you-should-eat”  high school buffet  and that maybe English teachers should stop panicking that students will never be exposed to great literature in their lives after high school. Quite frankly, the man would have sobbed with or without us.

Most teachers of English recognize the importance of the literary canon as record of experience handed from one generation to the next. But we need to be judicious and select those works that will engage students while meeting our criteria of preparing students for the real world. And in this digital age of multiple media platforms, we also need to let the students share what matters to them. This could be a frightening proposal for some of us as there is risk and uncertainty as to how implementing choice and moving away from the canon could be perceived by stakeholders. For others, however, student selection could be a natural part of the progression in education today. Our standards should be our belief in the stories we teach, our passion for their message, our knowledge of these texts.

In including the students in their education, how will the increase of student choice  be accessed? Along with student selection should come the implementing of meaningful, authentic assessments which Wiggins discusses at length in his survey findings.  I will address these in my next posting,”Why Don’t They Love English Like We Love English?” Part III.

I happen to love both the literary canon AND broccoli, so when I am confronted with someone who does not like either, I do my best to cajole them into trying “just a bite.” Sometimes a taste is convincing; sometimes it is not. However,  I will not stop trying offering because they “don’t like it”.  I know the value of both.  I also know that many an adult broccoli eater started out as a fussy toddler.

A recent post (11/17/11) on the “Granted, but…” blog by the Understanding by Design guru and co-author Grant Wiggins discussed a survey that received 7300 student responses from middle and high school students nationally. “I am a big fan of student surveys,” notes Wiggins, “How can we achieve educational goals without the student’s perspective? We cannot.”

Wiggins organized the survey “to be instructive for readers to see the results from our study of student academic experience, conducted for the past year.” The alarming results should put English teachers everywhere on alert.

While math was both the most favorite and least favorite subject on the list, English Language Arts “fared poorly overall: not near the top of favorite subjects and second to last in least favorite.”

English was NOT a favorite subject?
English is a LEAST favorite subject?

Wiggins does point out that the results do not reflect a “normal” national sample. “All the responses came from schools with which we either had a past or working relationship; or with schools whose educators heard about the survey in workshops and asked to participate. As a result, the sample skews toward schools doing some amount of reform work, toward suburban rather than urban, and has no schools represented from the Pacific time zone.”

Gender was also a factor. Boys voted English as a least favorite more than girls.
Moreover, the gender gap in English was worse than the gap in math.

However, English teachers should take note.
English is NOT a favorite subject.
Actually, English is a LEAST favorite subject…further down on the survey than math.

Thankfully, Wiggins notes that the survey indicates that teachers are not the problem. For example, one comment is indicative of student opinion, “I was just never really interested into it. The subject does not appeal to me which makes it boring to me. I love the teachers just not the subject.”

Hmmm. So what are we English teachers doing wrong? Wiggins posts many of the survey responses to give teachers a general idea of how students feel. Reading and writing were the targets of student ire. Wiggins posted a plethora of student responses in the survey; I chose a few samples.

Complaints about reading summed up in student responses:
We don’t get to pick the books we read.
It is boring because all we read is boring books.

Complaints about writing summed up in student response:
Way too many essays

And the for the heart-breaking coup de grace:
I find it unnecessary for us to continue to take english (sic) classes all the way through high school because at this point we have learned everything that is required of a non-english (sic) major.

Well, he/she may be right…with the exception of knowing how to capitalize.

English teachers may or may not agree with these statements, but these sentiments do reflect the attitude of many of my students (grades 7-12) in a small rural school in Connecticut.
English is not their favorite subject either.

* sigh *

After reading student responses, Wiggins suggests, ” if you like the topic and are good at it, you like the subject.” In middle school and high school, English classrooms are staffed by those who had been successful readers and writers as students. However, a teacher’s comfort level with a discipline or a even teacher’s passion for a subject may not be enough to engage students, and the survey suggests that students dislike English because of the teaching, not because of the teacher.

So what might be the problem with the teaching?

  • English teachers may teach the way they learned (considered “old school”);
  • English teachers may love the literary canon (maybe too much?);
  • English teachers feel may compelled to correct (and correct and correct…);
  • English teachers feel obligated to quiz/test every book (was it only Sparknotes?);
  • English teachers may have too few “authentic” assessments.

Maybe the pressure of standardized testing is a factor? In Connecticut, our students write to a series of prompts after reading a non-fiction piece in Grade 8, and respond to a short story with four essays in Grade 10; this represents four years of preparation for state testing. We prepare for the test knowing-teacher and students alike-that writing these essays is formulaic. There is little that is authentic about this testing. For example, no business/industry will have employees read a non-fiction or fiction piece and respond with a timed drafted essay, beyond an interview, anyway. Similarly, the SAT has students draft a essay response to a prompt. Unfortunately, many colleges admit they do not consider the written portion of this exam. Students then wonder why they bother?

Wiggins suggests that “English teachers need to face some cold, hard facts as well: the work they assign is not of interest to most students, even good students – and, especially boys.” I do not need a survey in my school to confirm his findings about boys; I have lots of anecdotal information that confirms his results at every grade level, 7-12.

I will be looking more at Wiggins’ survey in my next blog and considering methods I might employ to help English claim a more favorable position in my own school. I know the importance of employing English skills in the real world today, and so do the other English teachers on my faculty. We need to discuss and determine how to get students to understand the vital importance of English without killing the love of English.