Alternatives to the Canonical Heavy-Hitters

Behaviorist B.F. Skinner wrote “We shouldn’t teach great books; we should teach a love of reading.  Knowing the contents of a few works of literature is a trivial achievement.  Being inclined to go on reading is a great achievement.”  In this short quote, Skinner captures what I believe to be the lion’s share of where things are going awry with the literacy educations of students entering high school.  Our culture holds fast to a particular list of books that we feel any American student needs to have exposure to in order to qualify as truly literate and educated.  We shape much of our teaching policy and curricula around this list and how to best communicate it to students.  Generally, this list is referred to as the Western canon.

Hemingway, Melville, Dickens, Hawthorne, and a host of their white, male colleagues preside over this canon with a certain rigidity that seems to have held our classrooms hostage for many years now.  While I hold these authors and their works in the highest esteem and often personal affection, I will be the first to say that I did not enjoy Melville’s “Moby Dick” in high school.  If the only books I had read in high school made me feel like Melville’s did, then I might never have grown to be the true lover of Shakespeare and Conrad that I am today.  My proposal, then, is that we explore the possibility of teaching a love of reading to our students in a way that will train them for lifetime literacy.

I am not suggesting that we torch the Western canon in the modern classroom.  Many of the teachers I have spoken with have reiterated the institutional importance of classic works in the classroom.  Several of the teachers I have discussed this with truly enjoy teaching the classics in certain circumstances.  For better or for worse, the classics are not something that we can ignore for the sake of our students, who will have to operate in the existing educational system.  I am suggesting, however, that we accompany this canonical education with authentic, enjoyable reading that falls outside of the hard lines of the canon.  I am suggesting that we explore ways to integrate everyday literacy and love of reading into the traditional, canon-based curriculum that we use today.  I am suggesting that we communicate in every way possible to our students the things that really matter about literacy.

The route I would like to follow in investigating this potential would be to search out accessible, non-canonical texts that have the potential to either pair with or, in certain situations, replace classical texts in the high school classroom.  If we can find a way to achieve our literary educational goals while integrating books that high school students will enjoy, relate to, and engage with, then we might be able to revive the idea of loving literacy as a lifelong skill.  Literature that might be able to achieve this goal would have to come from a more diverse background.  As opposed to the white, male authors of the canon, this supplementary literature would be authored by women or by multiethnic writers.

In our progressively diversifying classrooms, utilizing literature from a variety of ethnic backgrounds has been shown to increase the potential benefits for kids of non-white cultural and ethnic backgrounds.  Research shows that texts which relate directly to a student’s life and background are more likely to engage and appeal to them.  Florze-Tighe’s research demonstrated that culturally authentic literature notably enhanced the language development and thought processes of African-American children.  If we know this, as teachers, we need to be proactive about searching out texts that our multiethnic and female students can engage with and relate to on an authentic and personal level.  Our classrooms cannot be relatable and accessibly only for the white, male population.  Reading from strictly canonical classics can often make a curriculum inaccessible for even the white, male students.  I propose we explore creative ways to integrate modern, multiethnic, and female literature into the high school classroom without compromising our academic and curriculum standards.  In the words of Salem State University’s Chair of English Theresa DeFrancis, “We need to stop spending all our time teaching our students stuff written by dead, white guys.”

I have created a list of sample, canonical texts that are traditionally used in the high school classroom.  From this list, I have researched and generated complementary literary titles that would pair well with these works.  My intent in creating these sample lists is to indicate the potential that exists to engage alternative learners, multicultural students, and diverse gender identities from a variety of backgrounds in ways that are meaningful to them without compromising the traditional values of what is considered to be “literacy” in the existing academic community.


Canonical Text Alternatives/Complements
Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter
  • Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson explores societal expectations surrounding female sexuality using strong symbolism to represent female and adolescent identity and themes.
  • The Outcast by Jolina Petersheim is a modern retelling of Hawthorne’s novel placed in an Old Order Mennonite community.
  • Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi is a graphic novel exploring religious and cultural ideas of female identity through the eyes of a young girl growing up in Iran.
Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath
  • The Glass Castle by Jeanette Walls is an honest exploration of modern-day homelessness and poverty.
  • Daughter of Fortune by Isabel Allende chronicles the story of a Chilean woman who leaves her home to travel to California and join the transient and feverish culture of gold rushers in 1849.
Orwell’s 1984
  • Feed by M.T. Anderson tells the story of a young boy living in a mechanized, dystopian future.
  • Y: The Last Man by Bryan K. Vaughan is a graphic novel chronicling the story of the last surviving man navigates a dystopian world dominated entirely by women.
Dickens’ Great Expectations
  • Feed by M.T. Anderson tells the story of a young boy living in a mechanized, dystopian future.
  • A Step From Heaven by An Na. Young Ju and her family emigrate from Korea to the United States, where they struggle to make their way.  The story follows Young Ju’s personal development from a young age until she heads to college.
Melville’s Moby Dick
  • White as the Waves by Alison Baird is a modern retelling of the classic told from the perspective of the whale.
  • Moby Dick: The Graphic Novel by Lance Stahlberg is a graphic adaptation of Melville’s tale.

Ultimately, our students will leave our classrooms with whatever skills and knowledge we help and direct them to attain.  While I personally am very motivated to see my students graduate with a working knowledge of several of the most important classics in the Western canon, it is more important to me that my students know how to relate to, engage with, and respond meaningfully to a literary text.  It is critical to me that they know how to and desire to read texts in order to learn more about their world, the people around them, and themselves.  My ultimate goal is not necessarily to teach great books.  In B.F. Skinner’s words, my goal is to teach a love of reading and I would like to explore ways in which our academic community can do that for our increasingly diverse body of students.


8 thoughts on “Alternatives to the Canonical Heavy-Hitters

  1. Julia says:

    Speaking as one who is currently writing a thesis on Moby Dick: it is a f*****g HORRIBLE idea to teach that book to high schoolers. Why? Because the text is too difficult, plain and simple. The prose is dense and wordy, and if you’re just going to read the book for plot, it’s not worth even reading it at all. It is a good book… IF you have a great teacher to read it with, one who explores the many deep, complex philosophical and theoretical problems the book opens up. If you’re not prepared to do this, don’t read MD… and DON’T make a 16-year-old read it, for crying out loud!!!

    Sorry – Rant over, and that was not directed at you. This is why I changed my mind about teaching high school. First of all, I definitely agree that DWM are way over represented in students’ reading lists, and that diverse literature is needed to engage diverse classrooms. But the so-called classics aren’t bad, per se–it’s the way we teach them. There is no point in reading Moby Dick if you’re just going to focus on plot, themes, and relating it to students’ lives. If you do, you’ve missed everything that makes the text worth reading. If you read Moby Dick and don’t have an existential crisis, then you did it wrong. (Again, that’s a generic “you.” I’m just venting frustration.)

    And that’s not even mentioning the fact that the book is friggin’ hard to read! The prose is antiquated and contains MANY long-ass sentences and unfamiliar vocabulary words. It’s a challenge even for advanced readers, not to mention struggling ones and ELLs. Why even bother having students struggle with the prose to do a surface-level reading of the book? It’s just not worth it for the teacher or the students.

    Okay, NOW my rant is over. I have to cut myself off. Okay, maybe one last thought: the Cetology chapter–which high school teachers often skip–is funny. Funny, I tell you! If you read it as a parody of scientific classification, it is frickin’ funny! *Gets down from soap box.*

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Danah Rae says:

    haha, you can get on that soapbox any day! Preach! I completely agree. I personally do not think Moby Dick is appropriate for a high school classroom in any context. On the upside, I do think it is being used less than it used to be, but you are right in saying that one time is too many for high schoolers reading Moby Dick!

    What is your dissertation on?

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Julia says:

    Ha, I wish I were writing a dissertation…but it’s just my undergraduate capstone. I am using MD (more specifically, the hieroglyphic images that appear throughout the text) as a means to explore different accounts of what language is and how it gets its meaning.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Anne says:

    As you know, I am totally anti-canon. I think we need to be teaching more texts by more diverse people (people from different groups like our students). And yet, I realize that this may not really be a choice in our future schools (administrators may make that decision for us), so something you can do with the canonical texts is to teach them differently. No matter what students are reading, we should always tell them to question it and question their own thinking. But we can also use different theories to interpret a text or part of a test (like a feminist criticism/ Black criticism/ Marxist criticism for The Great Gatsby). I love the idea of using other texts o similar themes; I can even picture trying to pair the two in the class (maybe for differentiating for different students? or just reading both together).


  5. Megan says:

    Ugh, I was writing you a looong comment and of course it got deleted. 😦 Basically I wanted to say thanks for this post, and I agree that it is SO important for diverse learners to see themselves reflected in the texts they read.

    I also wanted to mention that I think asking students to read a more inclusive group of texts benefits all learners, not just minorities. Say, for example, I had a class of all middle-class, native English speaking, white students. Even though they theoretically already see themselves reflected in the canon (maybe), I would STILL ask them to read beyond the canon because I think it fosters empathy and helps them to understand others’ life experiences, which may be important for privileged, non-minority students.

    This kind of goes back to our discussion in 726 of what it means to “read as” versus “read with.” We can only read AS what and who we are. But we can make a genuine effort to read WITH others who identify differently than us. I hope to ask my students to read with authors and characters both like them and un-like them so that they can practice reading with many kinds of people.


  6. Danah Rae says:

    I’m sorry that what was almost definitely a post full of genius and insight didn’t make it onto the page…
    But the points you raise in your version 2 post are super valid. Extra-canonical reading is just as important for individuals who see themselves represented almost exclusively in their reading as it is for minority readers. This always makes me think of the TED talk by Chimamanda Adichie, “The Danger of a Single Story.”

    The inability to authentically see and experience people and ways of life different from our own affects both society, but also the individual negatively.


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