Life in the Time of Canons

There are two categories of English teachers: those who believe in traditional means of teaching students and those who I would categorize as progressive. Traditional English teachers typically believe in the teaching of the canon of literature that has traditionally been taught in schools and also hold the belief that grammar must be taught by any means necessary, along the line of the idea that the dangling participle is the worst a student could do in a piece of writing.

Progressive teachers believe in teaching grammar in the context to the types of writing students are doing and that if we can get students genuinely reading, who are we to make judgements? After all, what’s the goal, to get students to read or to fake-read some works typically written by white guys from another century?

By this point in time, I know you, dear reader, can tell where I stand on this issue. I teach both AP Lang and a course for struggling writers, Writing Lab. The moments when I have taught the traditional canon, my students have not actually read the works. How do I know this? They have told me…after the course, of course. I really don’t believe that teaching something just because we “should” teach it is helpful to anyone in education. I believe that if I choose to teach a text in the canon it needs to be in the context of whatever it is I’m teaching, the relevant ideas and notions in a course.

My school right now is facing a crisis of nonreaders. At a recent department meeting all of our teachers agreed that the culture in our school does not value reading.  Why aren’t our students reading? Because we, the teachers, have done a terrible job leading them to books they might actually like. If we are complaining that our students don’t read and we insist they keep reading the same books we read in school, doesn’t it make sense that maybe we should try to find texts they can relate to so that they read. Do the books have to be part of the canon? If so, why?

Wait, I haven’t even started talking about grammar or writing…I’m just getting warmed up.