Literary Canon–Boom!

Several years ago, I worked in a school where some folks debated whether it was appropriate to use Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson in an honors English class.  I won’t go into the details of who said what, because it doesn’t really matter, but I will say that my pedagogical practice has come a long way since then, and these days, I wonder, what was the issue with somebody wanting to do this?  Was their professional judgement, knowledge, expertise being questioned?  Did the work itself not seem “rigorous” enough?  [I have feelings about the world “rigor” and how it’s used to shame folks into feeling that their classes aren’t challenging enough, but more on that at another time.]

This semester, I’ve taught not one, but TWO YA novels in my AP English classes–and I’m confident every single student will tell you they loved them–and got what they needed to progress toward mastery of skills for the course.


Back in the day, when I was a little less sure of what I was doing, and more dependent on others for validation, I believed that canon snobbery was a legitimate thing.  I was teaching with people who had experience teaching and learning to teach in England, at Oxford no less, so I awarded them status and assumed they were better than me.  Someone I once worked with told me, “I’ve decided to become a grammar snob,” as a point of pride–and I blindly accepted that.  In that environment, thoughts like “What do I know?” invaded my psyche almost daily.  In other words, I believed in my own inferiority, both as an educator and navigator of the language arts landscape.

These days, one MAEd, one MFA certificate and many years of experience later, I now know that my strength as a teacher lies in my ability to listen to my students, read their reactions, learn beside them. THIS (not some experience in the birthplace of the English language) is what makes me fully qualified to make decisions about what my students can, should, and will want to read in class.  I don’t need someone else to make those decisions for me.

Though the district would love to make me, I’ve rejected their canned curriculum–enforced by curriculum “experts” in the effort to “bring everyone in line”.  To some people’s chagrin, I continue to do what I’m gonna do with a strong bias for reading and learning from works students themselves create.  I spend hours each summer writing and tweaking my syllabi until they reflect what I want–a class that meets the standards and/or content requirements of the course, while still staying true to who I am, who my students are, and the world that we inhabit.  My administration (thankfully) has supported my desire to teach the class as I see fit.

The AP English Language and Composition standards are as follows:

  • Revise a work to make it suitable for a different audience.
  • Demonstrate understanding and control of Standard Written English as well as stylistic maturity.
  • Converse and write reflectively about personal processes of composition.
  • Gain control over various reading and writing processes, with careful attention to inquiry(research), rhetorical analysis and synthesis of sources, drafting, revising/rereading, editing, and review.
  • Demonstrate understanding of the conventions of citing primary and secondary sources.
  • Evaluate and incorporate sources into researched arguments.
  • Create and sustain original arguments based on information synthesized from readings, research, and/or personal observation and experience.
  • Respond to different writing tasks according to their unique rhetorical and composition demands, and translate that rhetorical assessment into a plan for writing.
  • Write for a variety of purposes.
  • Use effective rhetorical strategies and techniques when composing.
  • Analyze images and other multimodal texts for rhetorical features.
  • Analyze and interpret samples of purposeful writing, identifying and explaining an author’s use of rhetorical strategies.

Nobody is trying to dictate how I go about making sure students meet these standards–and I have the education and experience to make sure they can/do.  We read a variety of works, and as long as students are progressing toward skills mastery, developing reading and writing identities, I believe the end justifies the means.  But, I am fully aware that this is not the case everywhere AP English is taught.  It is not uncommon in urban ed, for a first-year educators to be teaching AP English–even if they hold no advanced degrees in (or passion for) the content area.  What do we do, then?


In my class, AP Lang students have read numerous essays, poems, and songs, and also the following novels: Motorcycle Diaries, Native Son, (choice novels), The Things They Carried, The Poet X + Electric Arches

AP Lit students have read a few essays, numerous short stories, lots of poems, and the following novels/plays: The Bluest Eye, Macbeth, Siddhartha, Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man, Long Way Down, Poems from an anthology, A Raisin in the Sun, Oedipus Rex, Antigone, Hamlet (if we have time) and Ragtime.

I have blended canonical works with those I know students will find interesting, and others they might find challenging, but will learn a lot from being exposed to because this is what my actual reading/writing life looks like.  This is not the only way to design the course, but it is one way, and I’m pleased with how it has turned out.  Wouldn’t it be great if all teachers felt empowered to bring their authentic reading and writing lives into the classroom?

The College Board shies away from dictating that certain texts are used in the courses, but there are certain texts that show up again and again on the test.  I’m a pretty intelligent lady (I’ve worked hard to become so) and I know how to figure out the way passing tests works.  In looking at the works most commonly referenced on the AP exam, I know my students are at a statistical disadvantage.  The likelihood that they will be familiar with a work that shows up on the test is slim.  I know that the only way around this is to help my students learn skills that are transferable to a variety of contexts and situations.  I know that students in predominantly white suburban environments–which the test is still designed to cater to–spend years preparing for the test, knowingly or unknowingly from an early age.  They get introduced to texts and vocabulary that might appear on the test gradually, from as early as 6th grade.

My students do not.  They cannot count on any kind of consistency (with regard to instruction) from one year to the next, and it is highly unlikely that they will encounter a text they have already read on the rhetorical analysis, poetry, or short story free-response portions of an AP English Lang or Lit test.  So, I prepare them the best I can be having them practice skills with texts that will not bore them to death, in the hopes that the skills will be transferable to whatever excerpt they encounter on the test.  Though I do not believe all learning boils down to how well it can be measured by a test, I am a realist, and I know the students and I will be judged by the outcome of the AP exam.  Furthermore, some students rely on the economic advantage that comes from entering college as a sophomore due to advanced credits from college classes taken while in high school.  The stakes are fairly high. I want to give them this advantage.

I don’t think anyone will argue that the AP English Language and Composition and AP English Literature and Composition tests have historically been heavily biased in favor of those who have exposure to texts from the “Western” (European–White) canon.

So where does that leave us?

I know a few teachers of color who refuse to teach AP classes, because it is their belief that the College Board perpetuates a status quo that marginalizes and excludes students of color and their lived experiences.  It is also their belief that the AP test and AP classes create a divide in school systems between those students who are considered “gifted and talented” and those who are not.  This carries with it shades of elitism and classism that do not sit well with the educator truly motivated to fight educational inequity.

On the other side is the argument that the more AP classes a student takes, the more prepared they will be for college.  Then, the statistics and charts get drudged up about how they are more likely to succeed in post-secondary education if they take AP classes while in high school.  So, what’s an urban ed high school AP English teacher to do?

While I’m compelled to believe these statistics, I am also one who does not believe or trust that The College Board will ever design a test that reflects the strengths and lived experiences of my students.  While I work in pieces from the “traditional” or “Western” canon, I also bring in culturally relevant and FUN pieces as much as possible–even if that means moving the more “established” pieces to the side.


This is where the YA comes in.

Without a doubt, my students have loved Long Way Down by Jason Reynolds and The Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo more than any other text we have read.  Every single time I ask them, they are very vocal and expressive with their praise.

 

 

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Reading these texts has allowed my students to access exemplary storytelling, hightened and meticulously crafted authorial style/voice, and socially conscious messages that elevate our students to a higher humanity.

Surely, such works are worthy of in-depth academic study.  Though they have deliberately been written for younger audiences, aren’t they still for everyone?

This begs the question, “What makes a text canonical?”  Typically, it is the acceptance and study of a work by the academic (read “post-secondary”) community.  Though I’m sure they have a lot to offer to the conversation, they are not the ones teaching the texts to high school kids.  So, I have felt for a while now that it might be time for secondary and post-secondary folks to come together to re-imagine, and re-invent the literary canon.  While we are doing this, why not include the texts that transform our students and make them fall in love with reading again as this student from my class did?

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Jason was not alone.  I legit got “boos” when I told them we were going to do something OTHER than reading in class today.  In my environment, a passion for reading is what we all strive to achieve–and help students want to develop.

It is what we ALL want.  The students wish they had it.  I want it for them.  This book (along with several others classified as “YA”) made it happen.


If stories written in poetic verse make reading seem less intimidating for my students, so much the better–we’ll study elements of poetry, and hip hop lyrics.

If authors of color write stories that help my students feel validated in who they are by representing the lives they live, so much the better–we’ll learn about what it means to be a young person from a marginalized community today, and center those stories.

The AP English test may never have lyrics from Cardi B. on it for FRQ 1, an essay about Chance the Rapper from They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us (not technically YA, but full of pop-culture references still the same) as FRQ 2, or list Electric Arches as one of the options for FRQ 3.  But, in teaching these works, I know that my kids are getting a taste of what real writers do: write for an audience that can relate to their work.  In my case, this is the Black, Brown, and Indigenous children.  I know that the writers who created these works are every bit as talented as those who created works considered worthy of inclusion in the canon–perhaps more so because they have a pulse on what it means to be alive today and trying to navigate this complicated world, not the one of generations long gone. #TeachLivingWriters

 

 

Anaïs Nín says, “We write to taste life twice.”

In the end, what are we doing in Language Arts class if we are not encouraging students to examine and “taste” life?

I believe the skills my students practice will transfer to whatever performance task they encounter on an AP test, and if they don’t, they will have gained a valuable experience in reading a text they can relate to and learning that, as my student Oscar A. told me [after reading Long Way Down] “There really is a book out there for everyone.”

Sometimes that book is a classic from the fossilized canon.  Sometimes, that book is classified as YA, and it hits at just the right time in a young person’s life–but means so much more to them because the characters, and setting, are those they can relate to.  Adolescence is a time rife with uncertainty and feeling misunderstood–like one’s life is not one’s own.  So, why not make that time a little gentler–“grease the tracks”, so to speak?  There is room for both old texts that preserve voices from our history, and those that bring the lived reality of various cultures and traditions to the forefront. So let us transform.  We can do this, and it will be good for us–and the students we serve.

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Continuing to teach the canon of books we are supposed to read and teach shows loyalty to the idea that certain stories are embedded in our collective consciousness and must be continued forward.  But, what about loyalty  to the stories created today and the kids living/creating them? It is past time we re-imagine the texts that are considered “literary canon”.  I’ve even got a Google doc with my master plan for envisioning just that. If it is fear of losing “rigor” that is holding us back, I am confident I can come up with a list of prospective titles that would rival The Grapes of Wrath for the title of “Mastery of the Craft” (Jesmyn Ward’s Salvage the Bones comes to mind).

If it is academics leading the charge, I respectfully propose we let them try to teach the students we teach and make the case for their choice of text with your average high school student.  It would be a healthy exercise.

PS.

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Those of us teaching and reading works with students in k-12 classrooms, and cultivating collections which students will read have the most power to impact what will be considered “canonical” in the future.  But, those who should hold the ultimate power are (or should be) our children–our students.  Let us listen to them, take heed of what they like and what they need, and adjust our practices (and the content of our courses) accordingly.

 

 

Author: Julia E. Torres

I am a mother, high school Language Arts teacher, activist, world traveler, and reader. Here you will find the story of a woman making her way in the world and making her mark, one word, and one classroom at a time.

2 thoughts on “Literary Canon–Boom!”

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