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.
|Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter||
|Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath||
|Dickens’ Great Expectations||
|Melville’s Moby Dick||
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.