This post was written with Teaching Reading in Secondary English Language Arts class members, who are all Master of Education candidates at New York University. These are the same authors of the #teachread project.
This semester we have read several articles and chapters that discuss the selection of texts. Though they each have varied foci, one thing cuts across all these articles: The metaphor used to describe the relationship between “the classics” and other texts, particularly young adult literature.
Here’s the metaphor: “A Bridge to the Classics”
Just as all roads lead to Rome, apparently, all texts used in the ELA classrooms are supposed to lead to classics. YA literature, in particular, is positioned as the way to get kids on the reading path. And once we get ‘em reading, we clasp their hands and start toward the classics, trying to convince them along the way that there’s a connection between the contemporary story they just read and the further removed story they’re about to read. (This sounds less like a bridge and more like a “bait and switch.”)
We do not have a problem with the ‘classics’ or pieces in the literary canon (although we’re nearly unanimous in feeling the ‘canon’ is problematic at best considering that it is created from and sustained by institutionalized privilege, and should be far more inclusive), but rather, it’s the metaphor that’s problematic. The “bridge” metaphor implies a hierarchy of value to texts; classics are the end-goal and thus, the text of value. As other texts—contemporary, young adult, small independent press, community-based—are only used in service of understanding the classics, there is a residual devaluing of those texts.
If we continue to talk about texts in just this one way, we are likely to miss the myriad of other relationships texts have with each other and with individual readers.
With that in mind, we propose a few new metaphors for how texts should/could/will be used in our classrooms. We’d love to hear your thoughts!
- Which of these metaphors help reframe the relationship between texts the most?
- Which of these metaphors resonate with your reading experiences?
- What revisions would you suggest?
For the canon metaphor, we discussed using music or fashion. With this in mind, we wanted to pointed out how one time period always influences another and that whenever a new song or style comes out, it is a product of whatever came before it. For instance, when Kanye West samples, he takes part of another song and implements it into his own. As a teacher, we can imagine it would make sense to take Kanye West song, play it, then play the song to which the beat originated. We would then link this to the book we are reading. I would let the youth watch a movie influenced by the book or read a short story with a similar theme as an interpretive entry point (not a bridge!) to the novel.
The Generations of American Immigrants
Texts in our classrooms are like the generations that follow the arrival of our first ancestors to America. We continuously create new experiences and establish new identities through our current popular culture and community—but always in relation and reflection of the practices of our heritage. Our inherited culture informs our present culture and vice versa.
We imagined reading texts as a spiderweb. The spaces in between = unconscious learning. The intersections = visible connections. There is no hierarchy. Texts are contextualized by other texts in a dialogic relationship: The taking up of perspectives from other books contributes to knowledge/learning. The use of texts in the classroom is an issue of agency and what we choose to emphasize. And in these ways we can rationalize an emphasis in student choice.
We were discussing how most of the books in the ‘canon’ deal with timeless themes which have their basis in mythology, the bible, or epic poetry…and how all of literature is basically rewriting something that has come before it. We came up with monkey bars because hopefully we can teach books in the canon as having predecessors and as something that our students can work upon and rewrite themselves, rather than this idea of climbing up the ladder of literature, this views literature more as a level playing field.
The canon (or really, literature, in general) as a roadmap (through The Waste Land, if you will) that brings us to a place where we are able to communicate clearly, and to understand one another’s experiences in a meaningful way. Studying a common body of literature gives us a frame of reference to understand one another. Just like “the map is not the territory,” the map or catalog of books we’ve read does not equate to the actual experience of reading. It does, however, give us that point of reference to understand our world and each other.
In this conception of literature, there isn’t really a significant difference between canonical and non-canonical literature. YA is in some ways preferable because it is more accessible for students who may not be technically advanced readers, and the canon is in some ways preferable because it’s a more widespread frame of reference, allowing the potential for understanding to extend beyond the context of the classroom.