Why I Changed My View of the Literary Canon

Hi, my name is Rachel and I am a book snob.

I have been a book snob for pretty much as long as I can remember.  I was always reading pretty far above grade level and therefore was always showing off that I was reading “grown-up” books when other kids in my class were still reading Goosebumps (never mind that I probably would have been reading Goosebumps, too, if I had been allowed to and wasn’t a complete wimp when it comes to all things horror).

In high school, I voluntarily read Jane Austen and Charlotte Bronte and other literary classics.  I remember carrying around my mom’s hardback copy of Gone With the Wind (which was too thick to fit in my book bag) and all the other sophomores looking at me like I was nuts when I told them I was reading it by choice, not because it was required.

As I studied to become a teacher, I would rail against schools that were not teaching “the canon.”  I would claim that they were pandering and that it was absolutely essential that students be exposed to what history and I considered were the great works of literature.

And then I became a teacher.  I am ashamed to say that it was not until Teach for America’s Summer Institute that it really clicked for me just how difficult reading is for most people.  I thought people who didn’t like reading were just lazy; I never understood how much effort goes into it for people who are not natural-born readers like me.

When I started as an English teacher, I set a whole lot of goals for my classroom.  In my mind, however, I had another goal: to get at least one student who didn’t enjoy reading to change their mind.

I failed completely my first year.  I filled my classroom library with classic works that no one checked out.  I got so bogged down in the day-to-day and the standardized test that I didn’t even read a complete novel with my classes.

So that became my goal for my second year: read one complete book.  We ended up reading two: The Outsiders and A Raisin in the Sun.  I also spent inordinate amounts of time and money building a classroom library that would appeal to students – books filled with sports and romance and drama and, of course, vampires.  I don’t know if I got him to completely change his mind, but I did get LM to read an entire book, independently, from cover to cover, for the first time in his life.  It was a definite improvement.

I discovered something interesting through this experience.  I have no scientific facts to back this up, but it makes sense based on my observations.  To get someone to love the “great books,” they have to love books in general.  To get someone to love books in general, they have to first love one book in particular.

With that thought in mind, I chose to kick off 10th grade English by reading A Long Way Gone: Memoir of a Boy Soldier by Ishmael Beah.  This book is modern and exciting and borderline inappropriate because of the amount of violence – all things which pique the interest of teenagers.  And they have loved it.  We were brainstorming ideas for their essays and I was astounded by how much detail they remembered, including things we had not spent much time on in class.

And then I got an email from a parent.  Her daughter enjoyed the book so much that she started reading it and they have been discussing it together at home.  Her daughter has chosen to read The Outsiders next (with no prompting from me, by the way) and they will probably read that together as well.  She ended the email with this line: “Again, many thanks. My reluctant reader is starting to nurture a love for reading.”

Those two sentences are why I will spend the majority of my weekend grading and planning, why I work 12-15 hour days, and why I refuse to be content with where I am right now as a teacher.

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1 Comment

  1. Shaney

     /  October 9, 2011

    Rachel that is so cool!!


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  • A collection of ramblings and musings on Jesus, life, education, family, and anything else that pops into my head.

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