Sunday, August 24, 2008

More on Reading and the Canon

In my post on Boys and the Bard, I asked the following:
Why are we so blessed concerned with the "right" books instead of the process of immersing kids in books that they will love? Shouldn't the goal be developing readers?
Libby responded with the thoughtfully defended response that it should be both (canon and enjoyment), and that not all reading is good.

I continue to think about these issues as I read with my own son. The books I read aloud are generally classics (Charlotte's Web, The Mouse and His Child, etc.) or newer works we have come to love (Clementine, Judy Moody, and lots of nonfiction). Some of the books he selects wouldn't be my choices, but he likes them, so he reads to his heart's delight. Right now he is plowing through--in order--the books in the Geronimo Stilton series.

What happens when this split happens in the classroom--when teachers and kids have vastly different tastes? You can find out in the piece We're Teaching Books That Don't Stack Up. Written by a high school English teacher, this essay goes back to the heart of the debate about canon vs. enjoyment. Here is an excerpt.
Far too often, teachers' canonical choices split from teenagers' tastes, intellectual needs and maturity levels. "Why do we assume that every 15-year-old who passes through sophomore English is an English major in the making?" asks a teacher friend. "It's simply not the case. And the kids go elsewhere, just as fast as they can -- anywhere but another book."

I watched this play out last year when the junior reading list at my school, consisting mainly of major American authors, was fortified with readings in Shakespeare, Ibsen and the British Romantic poets. When I handed my students two weeks of readings by William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge after a month-long study of American transcendentalists, it became clear that they had overdosed on verse packed with nature description and emotional reflection. "When will we read something with a plot?" asked one agitated boy, obviously yearning for afternoon lacrosse to begin.
This is an excellent piece with some strong criticisms of what happens in English classrooms. The author begins her summary with these words.

The lesson couldn't be clearer. Until we do a better job of introducing contemporary culture into our reading lists, matching books to readers and getting our students to buy in to the whole process, literature teachers will continue to fuel the reading crisis.

Schnog's essay is excellent. Do take some time to read it. If you feel like dropping by afterward, I'd love to hear your thoughts.


  1. I still think we're being presented with a false dichotomy (canon vs. enjoyment). A large part of the problem--as the article you cite notes--has to do with *how* and *when* works are taught, rather than what works are taught. *Catcher in the Rye* doesn't work with middle schoolers as well as with high schoolers, for example. I think *Romeo & Juliet*, though, can work really well with high school students if it's introduced properly--with a production of the play, for example. Students won't learn high-level reading skills if they're not presented with complex works, but we need to be choosing the *right* complex works for the students, not just throwing them in the deep end without preparation. But I wish this debate were about pedagogy instead of about the canon--I think that's where the real issue lies.

  2. Amen to that (pedagogy, that is). That's exactly where the author went. We have to do a better job teaching the works. I know there are plenty of creative teachers out there doing an extraordinary jobs with complex and challenging material. The problem is there simply aren't enough of them.

  3. I hated being forced to read a certain number of pages a day or whatnot. It made it such a chore ... but I guess it's the only way to get a class through a book in time for the multiple choice test.

    I'm always glad that no teacher tried to make me read Dickens, because I'm sure I would have hated it.

    By finding his books on my own, many years later, I discovered that I loved them.