Reading, the Common Core, and a Confession
I have a confession. It’s one that is quite blasphemous for an English teacher. According to some, this confession contradicts the essential aspect of being a high school English teacher. Here it is. Ready? I don’t believe in an essential literary canon for the high school student.
Let me first begin by addressing the concept of “essential”. Try to get a room full of English teachers to agree on the essential pieces of literature that should be mandatory for every student and I’m willing to guess that a few things would happen. 1. That meeting would last a very, very long time. 2. The list of nonnegotiable literary works would be long, very, very long. So I cringe a little around the work essential because we, the professionals cannot even agree.
Trust me; I understand the cultural literacy congregation will have already stopped reading at this point. To be honest, I don’t understand the source of this zealous reaction. I believe the conflict arises because there is tension between what can be at times, two divergent goals. The literary canon camp (and typically the ones raising the most raucous about the Common Core Exemplar Texts) focuses on the passing of a common cultural experience on to students. There may be additional instructional goals accomplished, but the primary purpose of having students encounter the texts is to recreate the cultural experience that all of us must be subjected to.
The other camp, let me call them the pragmatists, have a fundamentally different goal for having student encounter texts. The pragmatists see the English/Language Arts classroom as a building block to the world outside of itself. That the tools and skills needed to survive and flourish in this world outside of the classroom can be learned by any number of texts. In fact, a skilled teacher can use any piece of text to allow students to learn the essential skills outlined in the Literacy Standards found in the Common Core State Standards. When we open up to this possibility, the English/Language Arts classroom suddenly transforms into a laboratory of learning. Teachers and students are able to select texts that are relevant, rigorous, and lay the foundation for the kind of diverse, life-long learners that our world so desperately needs.
To achieve this end, the under-utilized genre of “literary non-fiction” could be greatly enhancing the learning experiences our students must have in order to become better readers, better thinkers. This also opens up the possibility of introducing students to writers that will feed their curiosity. While as a teacher I certainly believe part of our role is to create opportunities that challenge students and expose them to parts of the universe they may not know, this obligation is frequently used as the reason why all students must experience the same literary canon. Amazing authors like Mary Roach, David Sedaris, Susan Cain, Olivia Judson, David McCullough, Joseph Ellis, Walter Isaacson, and many, many more allow students to grow their curiosity, to view reading as an opportunity to think and grow. What is also occurring is that I can measure the learning of students using these types of relevant texts and these areas of growth align amazingly well with the Common Core Literacy Standards.
While the traditional literary canon attempts to transfer the human experience to generation after generation, I’ve come to believe that individuals should be allowed to encounter these quintessential human experiences when the individual is prepared to do so. I believe that students should be allowed to have these experiences when they are ready for them. My job is to keep them in the game until they are ready to do so.
Please feel free to leave a comment or send us a tweet @the_explicator (Chris) and @kastidham (Kelly). Thanks for reading.