Friday, September 05, 2008

More on the Canon and Teenage Readers

Libby, are you out there?

Libby, my colleague and the author of Lessons from the Tortoise, and I have been having an ongoing conversation about the teaching of English and the importance of what is read.

This week Jay Matthews at the Washington Post discusses these issues with his article Catering to the Teenage Reader. He returns to ideas from the Schnog article We're Teaching Books That Don't Stack Up and asks:
Should we abandon the most strenuous parts of the literary and philosophical canon in order to get more students engaged in their studies, or will that doom the next generation to a watered-down version of reality and make future writers, teachers, researchers and politicians the poorer for it?
I think I know what Libby's response will be. She's all for both, and I think she would heartily agree with Frazier O'Leary, an AP English teacher quoted in the article.
As someone who teaches Beowulf and Chaucer along with [Flannery] O'Connor, [Sandra] Cisneros and Edward P. Jones, I feel that good writing never dies. My students are always interested in how writers like Shakespeare and Morrison are masters and mistresses of their own genres and how their artistry is what makes their works timeless. I don't think it is necessary to slim down or modernize the canon. I do think it is important for 21st-century students to be able to believe that they could one day be a part of a canon which includes people who look like them. We are talking about the ability to read and comprehend works written generally in English, not works written by English people necessarily.
It's hard not to agree with this kind of logic. However, my concern is not for the kids who enroll in A.P. English. It's for all those kids still struggling to read (decode) and comprehend. Unfortunately, many of them exist at the high school level. How do we select books that will help them improve their skills as readers while learning to appreciate the written word? This is where I think all the arguments fall short. What should we do for these kids? I'm all for high expectations for every child, but what do we do for the young adults for whom Chaucer might mean turning off to reading and English class entirely? I suppose I'm really asking the "one-size fits all" question here. Should every kid in high school read the same list, or should teachers try to find works that meet the needs of the students?

1 comment:

  1. Tricia, thanks for alerting me to this. Obviously, I think the problems start much earlier than high school--no one should get to high school still struggling to decode, and if they are, then I'm afraid it's hard to imagine the curriculum that could help them, especially without turning off their peers who are at grade level. I'll have to go read the article before I can comment more, but I do get discouraged when people seem to think high school (or college) is not too late to fix things that have already gone terribly wrong. We should be focusing on the earlier grades to make sure they don't go so wrong...