Permission To Ditch The Literary Canon

Permission To Ditch The Literary Canon

Update: Since I wrote this article two years ago, much has changed in the young adult literature landscape, including the addition of two amazing resources for finding diverse books for our students to read. I will update this article during Summer 2020. While you’re waiting though, check out #DisruptTexts and #WeNeedDiverseBooks on Twitter.

Note: The following is a paper I wrote as part of my mid-term assignment for a graduate class I’m taking in the Jeannine Rainbolt College of Education at the University of Oklahoma. I am working on a master’s degree in Instructional Leadership and Academic Curriculum with a concentration in English Education. According to the OU website: “The ILAC mission is to prepare teachers and other professionals for leadership roles in education-related settings; to engage in critical inquiry through professionally recognized research and scholarship; to support and promote diversity, social justice and service; and to provide leadership to the profession and society.” The purpose of this paper is to help teachers rethink their literary curriculum choices in light of our mission to serve all of our students.

As a high school English teacher, I have never been comfortable teaching the literary canon. Sure, I read To Kill a Mockingbird, The Great Gatsby, All Quiet of the Western Front, A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, The Scarlet Letter, Of Mice and Men, and several other classic books, short stories, and poems of Western literature in high school and Western Civilization class at a private Christian university. But not only do they all seem out of touch with the lives of our students, some are problematic in that they depict certain groups of people in ways I find insulting to and glaringly incomplete representations of some of my most vulnerable students.

On the other hand, it is the literary canon, developed over decades by people more educated than I am, so I have been pressured by more experienced teachers and administrators to honor their expertise and continue to teach what they recommend. Who am I to question what is acceptable to teach in English class, right? Except I am a professional, I know my students, and I am aware of the diversity in our society that must be acknowledged and honored. Through my own research via my online professional learning network and the discussions in my University of Oklahoma Literature for Adolescents and Young Adults class, I have begun to rethink the literary canon composed predominantly of (mostly) dead white men, and pondering possible replacements gleaned from the contemporary works written by authors who are representative of our society and who grapple with the issues our students actually face.

In one of the first online discussion threads from my class, a fellow student and OU undergraduate summed up what I want to happen in my classroom with the books my students choose. In response to Every Day by David Levithan, she wrote: “I believe a lot of young people could identify with this story and find that we can embrace our differences and other’s and in the process become more engaged. We can’t really experience life in a different body every day, but maybe we can experience a different part of ourselves and others every day.”

As a teacher who has taught in three predominantly white rural middle and high schools, I have the opportunity to open windows and sliding glass doors into lives and worlds my students will never see. Some of my students live in poverty while a handful are comparatively rich thanks to local farming or ranching and related industries. With the exception of a handful of students of color, the only association most of my students have outside the enclave of rural Oklahoma (and they are connected via social media with students in many of the surrounding towns) with people who don’t fit what our society considers “normal” is through television, music, and the media (both the Hollywood and social variety). I also know that they are confused about what is an acceptable discussion of racism, sexism, or other -isms, and what is actually prejudiced. For example, students referred to American Born Chinese by Gene Luen Yang as “that racist book” until I pointed out that discussing racism or telling a story that illustrates its impact is not racist. It’s perpetuating stereotypes and engaging in behaviors that are complicit with structural and institutional racism that is racist. None of them had heard of institutional or structural racism.

I entered my graduate class excited about the possibilities of teaching modern literature, but also nervous about the response my choices (and the choices I provide my students) will receive in my community. Fortunately, the books we have read in my classroom themselves (and our discussions) have provided answers to my questions and reasons to remain resolute in my belief that students must be exposed to modern literature that addresses today’s social issues, that uncovers stories hidden in our past, and encourages our youth to use their voices to positively impact our society, just like the young survivors of the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla.

The stories that are told in the books we have read in class are important because they are still impacting us. The responses that we see today to the #MeToo and #BlackLivesMatter movements from rich white men and the women who pander to them are indicative that we still have a long road to travel to truly become a melting pot, an inclusive society that is safe for all – a goal with which our public school system and its teachers and administrators are tasked. Jennifer Latham, in her novel, Dreamland Burning, which is about the burning of “Black Wall Street” in Tulsa in 1921, addressed the issue of police brutality today and ties it all the way back to the events that lead to white people burning down Greenwood: “The lives that ended that night mattered. It was a big mistake for this city to try to forget, and it’s an even bigger one to pretend everything’s fine now. Black men and women are dying today for the same reasons they did in 1921. And we have to call that out, Rowan. Every single time.” (Dreamland Burning, 192)

Several discussions that I’ve followed and participated in with my online Professional Learning Network (PLN) have explored the concept of structural racism – how being racist isn’t just about using certain words, or harboring ill will against people of color. A white person can be a perfectly well-meaning human being and still be racist – because they are complicit in a racist system that was designed to benefit them while at the same time oppressing a person of color. A man can be nice to every woman he meets, but still be sexist in that he is complicit in a system that is designed to benefit him through higher wages and more opportunities. I can see this even in our school system where men are quickly moved into administrative positions and women are not even considered.

The concept of structural racism is also described in The Hate U Give: “’Right. Lack of opportunities,’ Daddy says. ‘Corporate America don’t bring jobs to our communities, and they damn sure ain’t quick to hire us. Then, shit, even if you do have a high school diploma, so many of the schools in our neighborhoods don’t prepare us well enough. That’s why when your momma talked about sending you and your brothers to Williamson, I agreed. Our schools don’t get the resources to equip you like Williamson does. It’s easier to find some crack that it is the find a good school around here.’” Starr’s father continued to talk about how drugs are flown into their communities by people in power and how those drugs destroy lives. The system is rigged to destroy them. In some cases, “them” is black people. And in other cases, it’s about women or other people who don’t fit what society deems acceptable.

Angie Thomas has stated that she based The Hate U Give on Oscar Grant, an unarmed black man who was murdered by a police officer in 2009. We have been hearing similar stories in the media for almost a decade now and The Hate U Give helps us see the humanity that the media does not portray. While the media does not show the whole story when it does report on the symptoms of structural racism and sexism, in some cases, those stories are not told at all. Latham also uncovered the hidden story of the Osage women who started dying mysteriously in the early 1920s. The Osage women earned headrights – shares of the profits from oil pumped out of their tribal lands – but were required by the U.S. government to have a white guardian manage their monies without a certificate of competency.

“… a lot of white men married Osage women just to get control of their fortunes. Then a bunch of those women started dying in weird ways – drowning in shallow creeks, falling out of third-story windows, turning up with bullet holes in their skulls” (Dreamland Burning, 257). Naturally, the white men inherited (or controlled as “guardians”) her headrights and no one asked questions about the sketchy circumstances surrounding the deaths. Through circumstances experienced by Rowan, a character living in modern-day Tulsa, we not only learn about the history of what happened in the Greenwood district of Tulsa in 1921, but we learn how current attitudes and structures are perpetuating racism still – and what we, as individuals, can do to stop it. “I understand now that history only moves forward in a straight line when we learn from it. Otherwise it loops past the same mistakes over and over again. That’s why I’m here, wearing one of Mom’s knee-length business skirts, sitting on a bench near the courthouse, waiting to tell the DA what happened. I want to stop just one of those loops” (Dreamland Burning, 4).

And it’s not just about racism or even sexism. As Neil Shusterman shows in his novel Challenger Deep, other marginalized groups are at risk for erasure: “Dead kids are put on pedestals, but mentally ill kids get hidden under the rug.” This is why students have to know that their words are important, that their words can have either a positive or negative impact on our world. Latham stated in commentary at the end of her novel: “Some characters in the book use derogatory terms for African Americans and Native Americans, though not as freely as they would have in 1921. These words are ugly, offensive, and hateful, but I chose to include them because I felt that blunting the sharp edges of racism in a book about genocide would be a mistake.” (Dreamland Burning, 369) Students today often think that they’re just joking, that since their friends in small-town Oklahoma think their jokes are funny, it’s OK. What they don’t realize is that their jokes are the tip of an iceberg and that underneath that waterline is an ugly brew of racism and hatred that they either have not witnessed yet, or have been exposed to so often that it seems normal. The goal of that racism, sexism, ableism, or other -ism is to erase the humanity of someone. “‘That’s the problem. We let people say stuff, and they say it so much that it becomes okay to them and normal for us. What’s the point of having a voice if you’re gonna be silent in those moments you shouldn’t be?’” (The Hate U Give) Students of color must have the tools and inspiration they need to speak up and white students must be aware of the damage that is ongoing and willing to speak out against it for the sake of their peers and the rest of us – like the students in Parkland who are advocating for gun reform.

I, myself, have been silent and complicit in this system. That has to stop. As a teacher, I must speak up for my students, particularly those who are most vulnerable. As a teacher, I walk a fine line between advocating for my students and telling them what they should think. But through literature, I can enable my students to experience the lives of marginalized people and draw their own conclusions about humanity. As Angie Thomas said: “I look at books as being a form of activism because a lot of times they’ll show us a side of the world that we may not have known about.” Even through the use of literature, I must be careful though, as evidenced by recent efforts to censor The Hate U Give and other books reported by The Office for Intellectual Freedom of the American Library Association.

That said, whatever we read, we must remember what a young man in my OU class wrote when recounting his family’s experiences as Chinese Americans: “Whenever reading a book that offers a perspective of a people group’s experiences, I feel that a reader can be tempted to assume that this perspective is of universal experiences rather than of generalized experiences. There can be a dangerous tendency for a reader to think ‘This must be what all Chinese-Americans experience.’ The total encompassing experience of a people group will not be found in a single book or story.”

We must also push back against elitist teachers who have expressed concern about the complexity of modern literature, particularly graphic novels. A recent discussion of American Born Chinese in my graduate class illustrated how complex the interaction of text and art can be, and how much information can be conveyed in just a small symbol, such as the number 490 drawn on the side of a cafe. Another OU undergraduate noted the complexity of another novel in her comments on our discussion board: “One interesting thing I remember talking about for Dreamland Burning was how difficult it is to classify its genre. I didn’t really think about it as I was reading, which just tells me that Latham crafted a very complex novel very well. It blends realistic fiction, historical fiction, and mystery in a way that would appeal to a diverse group of students.”

Our world is changing, our students are changing. We – both the teachers and the school system – must change how we teach and the literature we teach with them if we want to nurture them into thoughtful young adults, to remain relevant in their lives. We must give ourselves permission to ditch the literary canon and embrace young adult literature to encourage our students to view books and mirrors they want to look into and windows they want to look through. And it’s working my classroom. Students are snapping up books before I can even put them on my shelves. They are talking to each other about them, talking to me about them, listening to me talk to other students about them, and they are reading the books.

About the author 

Michelle Boyd Waters, M.Ed.

I am a secondary English Language Arts teacher, a University of Oklahoma student working on my doctorate in Instructional Leadership and Academic Curriculum with an concentration in English Education and co-Editor of the Oklahoma English Journal. I am constantly seeking ways to amplify students' voices and choices.

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