Friday, July 7, 2017

The White Canon of Schools

The work of making books for children and teens more diverse and inclusive is ongoing.  How do I know?  MANY People of Color offered specific examples throughout the American Library Association conference in Chicago. One area of work that needs attention is the continued Whiteness of the literary canon, especially in our K-12 schools.  
During his 2017 CSK Honor speech Jason Reynolds (video) recalled a discussion with his college English professor.  Their debate was focused on Reynolds’ interest in writing a thesis about the expansion of the traditional canon to acknowledge the contributions of the wide diversity of U.S. authors.  His White professor would not accept this idea.  This White gatekeeper of culture said a work must “shape and shift the face of literature” to be considered canonical.  Reynolds offered some remarkable examples (Nikki Giovanni, Ralph Ellison, Zora Neale Hurston, and Phillis Wheatley to name a few). The professor denied all of these possibilities. Will you do the same?
Let’s talk about the work to be done in our high schools. If you work in or liaison with secondary schools what are the titles students are required to read (i.e. the canon)?  Steven Wolk reported the results of a national survey he conducted to answer this question.  The top ten titles (with a three way tie for 10th) identified in his article What Should Students Read? (Kappan Magazine V91 N7 2010) were:

The Great Gatsby
To Kill a Mockingbird
Catcher in the Rye
Lord of the Flies
Romeo and Juliet
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
Animal Farm
Of Mice and Men
Hamlet, 1984, The Things They Carried

According to this survey the White canon maintains a firm grasp on the reading lives and imaginations of all secondary students. Wolk said of his findings “When looking at what students are required to read in school in 2010, it might as well be 1960.” These books are required reading. Think about the dynamic of a system that continues to force a diverse student body to read mostly White male authors.  Compulsory reading of the White literary canon is one way White supremacy is expressed and sustained in schools. Are the required books in schools near you overwhelmingly White?  Can you use your power to make change? What will be the pushback?  How do we redefine classic?  The first Printz award winning book, Monster by Walter Dean Myers, shaped and shifted the face of literature - right?! United States schools were legally segregated until the 1960s.   Would it be reasonable to establish sometime after Brown vs. Board of Education as a timeframe to select our readings?  
Reynolds presented the need to make the expansion of the canon a reality in our K-12 schools. This is part of the work. I don’t have the answers to all of these questions.  But, I do know we need to get to answering them without delay.


Monica Edinger said...

This is indeed a critical issue.but very hard to address. I'm in a private school and we are looking at this, but not enough to my mind. One reason in my school and similar ones is that teachers have a great deal of autonomy in their curriculums and hold on to what they know how to teach. Sadly, they don't want to spend the time to get to know and work on something new. I am often horrified to hear of books being used in my and my fellow independent schools. There is good equity work being done by organizations such as the National Association for Independent Schools, but if it is ignored, I'm not sure what to do. In all cases (public and private) I think the best way is to express concern as a parent. That definitely drives a lot of better practices in my school. Doing workshops at conferences, writing articles, etc.

Ernie Cox said...

Teacher autonomy is an important facet of the professional practice. In many schools it is owned by a mostly White teaching faculty. I like the idea of getting parents involved in the conversation but it should be an actual conversation. Teachers could host a focus group of parents to review reading assignments and solicit input and ideas and actually act on those ideas. The conversations could be formative and not merely reactionary. The same could be done with students.

Unknown said...

We can change this. Educational systems start by shifting from teacher-centered instruction to Student-centered. Once we set a target for personalizing learning and offering choice to leverage students' interests and motivations, we set the stage for taking action and shifting instructional practices in the ELA classroom. Moving forward means leaving some things behind. The teacher selected, whole-class novel must be left behind. The required reading must be left behind. And, in many cases, we are asking English teachers to leave their teaching identities behind. Which is hard, but absolutely the right thing to do. Because adhering to the canon means that we are graduating a lot of non-readers who haven't been offered the volume and variety they need to see themselves in literature and develop their own reading identity. We must change this.

Jamalia Higgins said...

It's important not to get too hung up on those top 10 or 12 titles. There needs to be more diversity, but there also needs to be considerable and rigorous literature education in an educational system that is suddenly very STEM-focused. We need MORE titles, including these 12, not sending students into the world with fewer windows and mirrors.

(I could certainly make an argument for replacing a few of those 12 titles with more diverse choices, but I would expect college-ready students to at least be familiar with the themes of all of them.)

And while I find Wolk's study to be illuminating, I also find fault in his claim "it might as well be 1960". For years and years late boomers and Generation X students were not receiving education about the Vietnam era. Now millennials have to read The Things We Carried and we're complaining? Not to mention that it was published in 1990. I hope it doesn't seem I'm nitpicking, but that kind of commentary frustrates me.

Jamalia Higgins said...

The Things They Carried, of course!

suewrite said...

Teachers at my school requested A Raisin in the Sun for the sophomore text -- the district chose Fahrenheit 451. The new textbook has Kafka, Poe, Shakespeare. Our department added Achebe and Hansberry.It's a slow process.

Monica Edinger said...

Agree that it is a slow process. I've actually seen a lot of improvement over the thirty + years I've been at my school, but I'm always impatient for it to go faster!

Regarding parents --- my school has a lot of groups and structures for parents to be appropriately involved. I've found them very helpful in highlighting the need for change.

Lauren Porosoff said...

Part of the problem is what Jamalia identifies: we "expect college-ready students to at least be familiar" with particular white male authored books. Why? If we taught them critical reading skills using Between the World and Me, Americanah, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, The Namesake—what wouldn't they be able to do? How aren't these intellectually rigorous experiences? The feeling that students "have to" have read certain books is just how we explain staying stuck in a reading tradition that maintains white supremacy. Let's start redefining what it means to be "well read" so that instead of it being code for having read certain books, it means reading diverse, challenging, multiculturally relevant books.

Rosanne Parry said...

I live in the Beaverton School District just west of Portland OR. My high schoolers attended 3 of the districts 6 high schools over the last 12 years and have read a completely different canon than I read in the same school district 30 years ago. About 50% of their writers are female. They read 2 or 3 African-American, African, or Afro-Caribean authors every year. They read 1 or2 Central and South American authors every year and at least 1 Asian or Asian American writer every year. They still manage to slide in some Shakespeare, Joyce, Orwell, Bradbury, Steinbeck, and Wilder. They accomplished this in part by pushing the Fahrenheit 451 and Lord of the Flies and the Outsiders to the middle school curriculum leaving more leeway in the upper grades.

The interesting bit to me is that there was no great push from parents to diversify the reading list and the English staff at all these high schools is overwhelmingly white. The teachers simply decided to change the curriculum and did so with little fanfare. It's likely that having an approximate 50-50 balance of white and not white students played a role. The use of the International Baccalaureate program also probably had an influence. I think there are very few barriers to this kind of change beyond habit. I would encourage any teacher who is interested to just slowly and steadily plug away at diversifying the reading list. No need for grand statements or proclamations. Your students are going to get into college even without a hearty spoonful of Hemingway. Poets are probably the easiest to add to the curriculum. Think long and hard about the best of the best of those old dead white guys and keep the real gems who stand the test of time. What a treat it has been to read the books my students have brought home--I might not have picked up Rita Dove or Edwidge Danticat otherwise and I'm grateful to have found them and so many others.

Jamalia Higgins said...

Hi Lauren,

Thank you for your thoughtful response to my comment. The reason I specifically said "I would expect college-ready students to at least be familiar with the themes..." is that it is unrealistic that there won't be a transitional period from the canon of the past decades and today.

Getting to your point, it might be best to ask: Just how much Shakespeare is truly required of 21st century students? Probably not as much as in the past. And how we teach him and other dead straight white men could be amended, too. Would it be possibly be enough to cover a few major plays in terms of focused summaries of their themes/language/historical context, rather than entire units devoted to individual works? Despite my desire for there to be much more diversity in literature coursework, it still concerns me when works are discarded without care as if the only option is one-for-one. We can replace dusty old works, but we can also strive to teach differently.

K T Horning said...

There are obvious classics missing from this list that could diversify it greatly and expand the students' reading horizons. Don Quixote, One Hundred Years of Solitude, The Invisible Man, The House Made of Dawn, and I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings come to mind immediately. And that's if teachers insist on teaching adult books, instead of some of the great contemporary YA books out there that might speak directly to students' developmental experiences.

Steve Burby said...

I jump at the opportunity to include works by women and POC in my instruction. I'm currently teaching English 12 in summer school and I'm including Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison, poetry by Pablo Neruda, and excerpts of works by WEB DuBois, Octavia Butler, and others. Where I teach canonical books (e.g., To Kill a Mockingbird), I include satellite nonfiction works such as critiques by writers of color and primary sources from the period. Sometimes I go rogue just to get a diversity of voices in front of my students.

Allie Jane Bruce said...

This has been such an interesting conversation. I feel the need to name the fact that Monica and I, in private schools, have a lot more teaching autonomy than the vast majority of teachers. That autonomy is reflected both in the breadth of the choice of books that we can teach, and in the ways that we can teach them.

I do actually think that students should be familiar with many of the books on this list of "classics", and that they should also be aware of the interplay between these books, their authors, their audiences, and the way they've both shaped and reflected the dominant society. I absolutely have a responsibility to buy and teach diverse books. I also have a responsibility to understand and teach about the spaces that Huckleberry Finn and To Kill a Mockingbird occupy in US history, culture, and collective consciousness; for that matter, I have a responsibility to also understand how Uncle Tom's Cabin, Birth of a Nation, Gone With the Wind, and The Help fit into that historical timeline, and how they've reflected, shaped, and served an overt and covert narrative of white superiority and white exceptionalism that undergirds systemic and structural racism.

You've heard it before, but I'll say it again: It's not just what you teach, it's how you teach it.