Sunday, January 18, 2015

A Case for Balancing the High School Literature Curriculum - Part I

I went into college with grandiose plans of taking a separate class each for Chaucer, Milton, and Shakespeare.  I was going to be a English major and then become a teacher.  Because, after all, "Teaching is just presenting information enthusiastically," my pompous, arrogant, college freshmen self thought.  So I plugged along, taking not one but two classes on Shakespeare (fun!), two very bad Survey of American Literature courses (ugh), American Novels 1945-Present (okay) where I struggled to read a novel a week, and immediately dropped some course on early English novels that were written as a series of letters to avoid being scandalous (barf).

My first semester as a junior, I realized that in addition to presenting information enthusiastically, I would also need a teaching license, and apparently my enthusiasm alone wouldn't get me one of those.  So I reluctantly began taking education courses.  Schooling in the United States.  Boring.  Literacy and the Learner.  Could be interesting, but the adjunct professor just preached about multiple intelligence theory most of the time.  Really, both classes could have been better if they weren't one evening a week for three hours.

And then there was Adolescent Literature.

That is where I learned what teaching really is.  That there is a science to it.  That there were strategies that taught students best.  It was in this class that I fell in love with book clubs.  And where I read all the literature that I had never read as an adolescent.  Monster.  Son of the Mob.  Feed.  Speak.  The House on Mango Street.  Out of the Dust.  My middle and high school years would have been so much brighter with books that I could relate to.

The only book that qualified as young adult literature I read in middle or high school for a language arts class was Are You There God, It's Me, Margret.  Never read it?  Go read the synopsis.  Right now.  Really.  I'll wait.

What adolescent boy would want to read that book1?

I finished my English degree with a double concentration in education and literature.  It seemed silly not to finish the literature concentration after spending two years in literature courses.  But taking those classes in conjunction with Adolescent Literature and my own personal life experience embedded in me a dislike of the canon, especially teaching it.  Why teach that when there was so much good literature that spoke to my adolescent self?  What great books I missed out on.  What great books my students would be missing out on.

I started this post because I'm in the second week of my Action Research Proposal class, working to finish up my masters.  I thought I was going to do my research on using young adult literature in book clubs to connect with the canon.  And as I was freewriting on that I found myself asking again, why is it so important to teach the canon?  How will I explain to my students why they should care?

The next day, I asked my colleagues at school.  And they had some pretty good answers, which I'll paraphrase below as I understand them, because it's Sunday and I want to ask before quoting their e-mails:
  • The canon, better than anything else, addresses the issues that are at the heart of the human condition.  What other text on the same themes can equal To Kill a Mockingbird?  None that I know of. 
  • Cultural relevancy and the ability to understand allusions to greater works isn't just good for cocktail parties.  It actually makes you smarter because you're able to understand so much more.
  • Without reading enough of the canon, you cannot understand most of Western Civilization and how those in power remain in power.  Instead of being an agent of change against the status quo, you are a cog in their machine.  The Republic by Plato was used as an example text.
I realize now, after writing this, that "Why teach the canon?" isn't the question.  And it isn't "How do I use multiple forms of media to help students engage with the canon," though I'll be working on that this next semester as well.

The purpose of my action research is to determine ways to integrate young adult literature into the high school language arts classroom.  

Adolescents need stories about characters like them.  It increases the chances that they will become lifelong readers and increases chances they will continue to read other works, including the canon, after they are done with school.  Reading the canon is important.  Reading the canon in school is important.  But not to the point of excluding other texts that can change students' lives.

Footnotes:
1. But I did read it, and liked the parts about struggling to choose a religion.  In fact, that's all my book report focused on.  Props to Judy Blume for publishing a book on the topic in the 1970s - it was banned all over the place.  Go back.

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