Monday, February 02, 2009

This is where I make my stand

However, when I say "this is the hill I'm willing to die on," I don't mean it literally! But it sounds ever so much better than "this is the hill upon which I will sacrifice my career."

Anyway. Over at the English Companion ning, there is a discussion about classic texts. Now I'm pretty firmly anti-canon. I don't think there is any work that is so definitive or so meaningful that it absolutely MUST be taught to EVERY student who studies English literature.

I had to stop commenting on it, because I just got so mad! The comments that totally steamed me have somehow disappeared, which is annoying, but someone actually said something like 'you can't be culturally literate without having read Shakespeare.'


My poor Hunk bore the brunt of my sputtering reply to that statement, so I won't go into detail here. Suffice it to say I disagree. Strongly. But imagine my surprise when, less than a day later, I found myself having to DEFEND the classics from our literacy coach!

Wait. WHAT did you say? I hear you gasp, after a few moments of shocked silence.

Yeah! Our literacy coach. She was arguing against teaching classic literature. I just have a hard time getting my brain wrapped around that.

I mean, I totally know where she's coming from. Her point is that many of our students are unintentionally learning that 'reading is really hard,' along with the companion lesson 'and boring.'

"Did you know that there's nothing about Shakespeare in our state standards?" she asked me.

Oh dear. I'm not too shabby at picking up on vibes, and she was sending off, like, laser beams. I think I said something along the lines of, "Oh? Hm. That's unexpected." Something so bland I put vanilla pudding to shame.

I listened for a bit as she kind of vented about how we dredge students through four years of Shakespeare and novel after novel with lots of dialogue and description and little action, and the consequences that has for their reading habits. I did end up being a LITTLE less weenie; I said something about how it is important to challenge the students - to push them past where they're already comfortable. But I kind of felt like this wasn't a discussion. Not yet.

A person's "book diet" affects mental health in much the same way that nutrition affects physical health. It's important to eat - and to read - things that are good for you. But there's LOTS of good food, and lots of good books! Within the category of "things that are good for you," there's plenty of room for personal choice.

There's also no reason to exclude books (or foods!) that aren't good for you, as long as they aren't poisonous. Sometimes it's just nice to have something sweet, mindless, and calorie-rich!

I'm so glad I got to participate in the voicethread conversation awhile back. I think Kelly Gallagher has the right idea with the 50/50 approach. Like in other aspects of life, it's important to find balance in what we read.

Images thanks to and


Mrs. Chili said...

Oh, dear.

I have a LOT to say about this and, as usual, I'm somewhere firmly in the middle of the argument.

There are some canonical books that I LOVE - and that I love to share. I've surprised more than one student with Frankenstein - they slogged their way through it only to discover that it's a REALLY great story with a LOT to talk about. I think there's something to be said, too, for many (all?) of us having the shared experience of a particular story; it gives us a common experience and a common vocabulary, and something to which we can refer and relate to.

That being said, I agree that there are no books that should ALWAYS be taught. I think that there is a LOT of value in books that are completely disregarded by the canon of Dead White Writers, and those voices are desperately important in our cultural conversation.

See? Right in the middle...

mazenko said...

In the English department at my school, we regularly debate the validity of "the sacred book." Is there a book that is absolutely indispensable for a high school graduate? The over-whelming consensus is "of course not." However, at the same time, our population requests a pretty rigorous classical education curriculum, and we acknowledge our mission of being "purveyors of culture," even if that culture is Euro-centric. An important theme of my classes, honors English, is being "people on whom nothing is lost." Getting the allusions is an integral part of their education, and it serves our population well. Another school in our district has moved to a focus on nothing but contemporary literature. I prefer a blend of the classic and the contemporary. I also think Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and To Kill a Mockingbird are nearly "the perfect book."

Lightly Seasoned said...

I like a mix. No book hits all the kids, but even the classics appeal to a great many. We get this idea that all kids hate the classics, when it isn't true -- at least not for me. I have kids who really get into, say, Julius Caesar and Great Expectations.

As a department, we debate our required and optional lists every year. Nothing is particularly sacred, although we do like our kids to all have a core of common literary experience.

FWIW, there is nothing about any particular author on our state standards either. However, one of the figurative language terms they must know is allusion. I know what allusions are on the test (because I wrote items for it), and they come from the sorts of lit a 10th grader would reasonably be assumed to have been exposed to.

Cultural literacy is a slippery term, but even the most contemporary stuff assumes knowledge of the canon. The God of Small Things, for example, I think is heavily derivative of One Hundred Years of Solitude (and, by extension, alludes to Heart of Darkness). It's an interesting read on its own, but a far richer one knowing the other classics.

Clix said...

Hm. So what are our criteria? What separates a "good book" from a "great book?"

That may wind up being a post all of its own!

Lightly Seasoned said...

Oh, it's probably like porn: you know it when you read it. One could probably extrapolate a good working definition from Aristotle. Somehow I doubt it matters that much, though.

If you really want to get into it, ask the AP teachers if Kite Runner has "literary merit." Whee!

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