Considering the High School Canon

As I mentioned in my most recent post, I made the decision to return to school in order to obtain a Master of Arts in Education degree and teacher certification earlier this year. Since then, I have already studied many different aspects of education that I will be sharing with the PALS community. This week’s post examines my research on book-length fictional texts assigned in high school English Language Arts (ELA) classes over the last thirty years, in which I was interested in determining the frequency at which texts by female authors have been taught. This post will also examine some underlying issues for why the most popular texts taught in ELA classrooms have remained almost entirely the same (and almost entirely written by men) over the last thirty years, before considering how high school teachers can create alternative spaces in which different authorial voices can be celebrated and what this means for college instructors who are introducing students to authorial voices that do not align with their past learning experiences.

Tracing The Commonly Assigned Texts

In “Stability and Change in the High-School Canon,” Arthur Applebee (1992) reports on a series of studies conducted by the National Center on Literature Teaching and Learning. These studies sought to compare current text selections for high school classrooms with those from thirty years ago. When examining their results, Applebee (1992) concluded, “Although the rank ordering of titles differs somewhat in the three samples, they are remarkable for their consistency more than their differences” (p. 27). Macbeth, Huckleberry Finn, Romeo and Juliet, Julius Caesar, The Scarlet Letter, Hamlet, Lord of the Flies, and To Kill A Mockingbird are listed in the top ten most assigned texts for all three types of schools (Applebee, 1992). Harper Lee is the only female author named in this study’s results.

Although Applebee (1992) calls for “finding the proper balance among traditions, separate and intertwined, that make up the complex fabric of society in the United States” (p. 32), the most frequently taught book-length text selections in ELA classes have remained remarkably consistent. In 1992, Vicky Greenbaum asked teachers in an NEH seminar to share their reading lists with her; the only texts that differed from the ones appearing in Applebee’s study were The Glass Menagerie, Catcher in the Rye, and A Separate Piece (Greenbaum, 1994). Harper Lee remained the lone representation for female authors. Like Applebee, Greenbaum calls for the implementation of texts written by more diverse writers, even providing a list of alternative texts for high school teachers to adopt (Greenbaum, 1994). Only three of these texts (Their Eyes Were Watching God, The Joy Luck Club, and The House on Mango Street) written by women from Greenbaum’s suggestions will be named in upcoming surveys of book-length texts most commonly taught in secondary schools (Stallworth, Gibbons, & Fauber, 2006; Stallworth & Gibbons, 2012).

Stallworth et al. (2006) conducted a survey of 142 ELA teachers from 72 public schools in Alabama, with the intent to determine what book-length texts were most frequently taught and why the teachers had selected these specific texts. Despite the large variety of texts named in the teachers’ responses, the most frequently mentioned titles remained almost exactly the same as those appearing in Applebee and Greenbaum’s research. The one notable addition is Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun (Stallworth et al., 2006).

While their 2006 study uses a fairly small sample size, Stallworth and Gibbons expanded this study in 2011 in order to see what changes, if any, had occurred. The five most frequently taught books, based on this survey’s results, were The Great Gatsby, Romeo and Juliet, The Crucible and The Odyssey (tied), To Kill a Mockingbird, and Night (Stallworth & Gibbons, 2012). While these titles remain surprisingly consistent, the findings of this survey did show a shift toward teachers using other, more diverse, texts written by women. Stallworth and Gibbons (2012) acknowledge, “In terms of change, the total number of titles mentioned is much higher and reflects greater diversity…The House on Mango Street, The Giver, and The Secret Life of Bees were mentioned several times across grade levels” (p. 3). In addition, Their Eyes Were Watching God was found to be the sixth most often taught book-length text in the survey (Stallworth & Gibbons, 2012).

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Possible Causes For This Consistency

It is important to acknowledge that many of the teachers surveyed throughout these studies expressed a desire to select texts that were relevant and of interest to students (Applebee, 1993; Fairbrother, 2000; Greenbaum, 1994; Stallworth et al., 2006; Watkins & Ostenson, 2015). Changing one’s classroom curriculum to make it more relevant, however, is not as simple as it may appear to be. One consistent reason for why teachers did not introduce more book-length texts written by women lies in their own educational experiences (Applebee, 1993; Fairbrother, 2000; Greenbaum, 1994; Stallworth et al., 2006; Watkins & Ostenson, 2015). Many teachers still receive their training in the context of the traditional canon. Teacher Susan Coryat acknowledges that she had not received proper multicultural or feminist theoretical training when realizing how many female British authors she had never even heard of, calling herself a “victim of the gaps in education” as well as, with her colleague Colleen Clemens, “perpetrators of the same gaps” (Coryat & Clemens, 2017, p. 40). To address this issue, Watkins and Ostenson (2015) advocate for theories behind text selection to be discussed more often and included in the curriculum for preservice ELA teachers.

In addition, teachers often cited practical issues, such as difficulty moving outside of their school district’s required textbooks or reading lists, pushback from students, parents, other teachers, or the administration, and the high cost of purchasing new classroom sets of books, for why they teach the same materials (Applebee, 1993; Coryat & Clemens, 2017; Greenbaum, 1994; Stallworth et al., 2006; Watkins & Ostenson, 2015). As Coryat and Clemens (2017) observed during their reflective self-study, which examines the lack of female authors in their own British literature classes, they were teaching from the same textbook Clemens had studied from as a student at their high school, and it was published in 1991 (p. 40). Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre became the first book-length text written by a female author to be included in their British Literature classes after Clemens found a class set of the text hidden in a closet (Coryat & Clemens, 2017, p. 42).

Considering the Canon: Implications for High School and College Teachers

person-690157_1920When considering the issues mentioned above, it may be easier for high school teachers to create spaces outside of the traditional classroom where students can have opportunities to critically think about, share, and discuss non-canonical texts. For example, Dr. Jarred Amato and his students started the Project LIT Community and its accompanying Project LIT Book Club. One of the core philosophies of Project LIT Book Club is that students should have the opportunity to see themselves in the books that they read (Amato, 2018). As of this summer, Project LIT has become a movement, with 850 chapters of the Project LIT Book Club in 48 different states (Amato, 2019). Teachers should look to and think about how they can facilitate alternative spaces, such as book clubs, independent reading, and choice in text selection, that provide students with more opportunities to read diverse writers.

College instructors who wish to teach outside of the traditional canon must keep in mind that some of their students may not have read non-canonical texts during high school. This may be especially true when teaching survey courses in which the majority of students are not English majors. When designing a unit, remember that some students may need explicit reading instruction, especially if they perceive the challenging nature of a non-canonical text as being too difficult to navigate. Include opportunities during class to model the ways in which students should be reading and thinking about the text. Have discussions or assign reflection writing on what books students read in their high school ELA classes. These strategies can help college instructors better prepare themselves and their courses for students who want to engage with non-canonical authors and texts, but who may not have been prepared to do so.

References
Amato, J. (2018). Creating social and empowering reading opportunities: Exploring Project LIT, a growing youth focused community. Young Adult Library Services, 16(2), 31.
Amato, J. (2019). Project LIT mailbag—book lists, tips, and reminders. Retrieved from https://jarredamato.wordpress.com/
Applebee, A. N. (1992). Stability and change in the high-school canon. The English Journal, 81(5), 27-32. doi:10.2307/819891
Coryat, S., & Clemens, C. (2017). Women in or outside of the canon: Helping high school students investigate the role of women in “literature.” English Journal, 106(5), 40-45.
Fairbrother, A. (2000). Confessions of a canon-loving multiculturalist. Multicultural Education, 7(3), 12.
Greenbaum, V. (1994). Expanding the canon: Shaping inclusive reading lists. English Journal, 83(8), 36.
Stallworth, B., Gibbons, L., & Fauber, L. (2006). It’s not on the list: An exploration of teachers’ perspectives on using multicultural literature. Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy,49(6), 478-489. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/40017605
Stallworth, B. J., & Gibbons, L. C. (2012). What’s on the list…now? A survey of book-length works taught in secondary schools. English Leadership Quarterly, 34(3), 2-3.
Watkins, N., & Ostenson, J. (2015). Navigating the text selection gauntlet: Exploring factors that influence English teachers’ choices. English Education, 47(3), 245-275. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/24570935

Teaching the Crucible in the Post-Truth Era

Actual still frame from The Crucible (1996). No alterations have been detected.

“We burn a hot fire here; it melts down all concealment. Are you certain in your conscience, Mister, that your evidence is the truth?” – Deputy Gov. Danforth, The Crucible, ACT 3.

Dear College Professor,

As you may have read, I recently taught The Crucible in my 11th-grade English class. I know what you’re thinking. “I read The Crucible in high school in 1990, you read The Crucible in high school in 1971, you’re teaching The Crucible in 2019. What’s the diff, man?” When I first started teaching The Crucible last year, I didn’t know either.

But this year, I kind of started to, which is why I wrote the first part of this article, where I explained some of the difficulties I was encountering this year, and how I hoped to work around them. In this second part, I’m going to tell you how my solutions worked out, and what I learned about my students and myself.

Since I was once a College Professor, perhaps one not that different from you, I’m hoping that my observations about my students’ political and information literacy will help you prepare to teach this same body of students as they enter your classrooms.

If we limit ourselves to the historical context of the 1950’s, The Crucible is not a difficult text to teach. It’s when we try to help our students examine the play’s relationship with our 21st-century politics that things get sticky.

In 1952, the already acclaimed playwright Arthur Miller used the plot and setting of Salem Witch Trials as the foundation for an allegory about his own experiences during the Red Scare of the 1950’s. During this decade U.S. Senator Joseph McCarthy led the House Un-American Activities Committee to accuse numerous Americans, based on little or no evidence, of being communist spies. Miller represented the contagious panic and mass-hysteria of the Salem Community to show his audience how a search for truth and justice had become corrupted by fear and a compulsion among the political elite for self-preservation.

As a result of Miller’s play, as Erin Cassese recently explained in a recent Vox article, the term “Witch-Hunt” entered the American consciousness as a means to describe a government-led, fear-driven persecution of marginalized members of society (often, as in the Salem Witch Trials and the Red Scare, women) for scapegoats. Did you notice that woman being inappropriately assertive? She might be a witch, or a communist.

But as Cassesse points out, our modern “Witch Hunts” – the term invoked by President Trump each time his actions are investigated or his authority questioned, “are often invoked defensively by men in positions of power and authority.” Calling investigations into patriarchal abuse of power, be they Trump’s alleged collusion with foreign powers or accusations of sexual assault by men like Brett Kavanaugh (as in this shaky argument), “witch-hunts” does more than undermine their veracity in the public eye – it delegitimizes them, and repositions the powerful as victims.

This second point – about the way that the term “Witch Hunt” has been co-opted by men those who control the apparatuses of state power – is the lesson that I find both more important for my students to understand, and found impossible to teach in my classroom. But it’s the point I find most important because it’s about language and literature and the way language changes. About how a term used to describe the abuse of the weak by the powerful has been co-opted to protect the already powerful. Whether or not we believe Kavanaugh, for example, or even sympathize with his outrage, the use of the term “Witch Hunt” has changed – and this is relevant to an American literature classroom.

When I tried to discuss this problem of language with my students, they were mostly silent. It’s true that they’re in high school – many of these students don’t follow politics closely. But probably fewer of your students do than you think, either. Yet, I found that they are nonetheless exposed to the modern use of the term, through either their social media or their parent’s television sets. Yet, because of the disparity between the ways that conservative and mainstream media sources portray current events, a classroom cannot create a consensus because it cannot agree on basic facts.

As I told you in my last post, in an attempt to remedy this problem, I asked my students to research a controversial current event that has been characterized in the news media as a “Witch Hunt.” I asked them to then write an essay that argued whether their event really is a Witch Hunt. In other words, based on their research, are the accusations driven by actual evidence of wrongdoing, or by mass hysteria and desire for political power.

Well, I’ve now had time to read their essays, and to reflect on what I learned from reading them. I’m ready to share with you, reader.

And the main thing I found: finding good, unquestionably unbiased and reliable sources about current events is getting to be kind of a sticky situation.

When Things Are Sticky

Quand y’en a marre […] via Adrien Leguay

As in any research project, our choice of sources will often determine the answers to our research questions. When I taught research in college, and when I teach it now, I try to teach my students how to identify reliable sources and to avoid unreliable sources.

My students made a lot of mistakes in this part of their projects. Often, these were the same mistakes my college students typically made – failing to understand the difference between an editorial/opinion piece and investigative journalism, for example. Or relying heavily on sources that did not analyze any primary information, but whose primary purpose was just to generate web traffic. Or accepting the face-value assertions that their source is non-partison when just a little digging reveals it’s sponsored by an oil company or something. So, I need to teach this better. You might consider the idea of placing an emphasis on this area, too.

There is no oil in the water. Coast Guard_100618-G-5176S-237-oil via Florida Sea Grant

On the other hand, I found that when we’re researching current events, it’s much more difficult to find the lines between a reliable source and an unreliable source than when we’re doing the research typical of the college classroom. We can’t just say “use only peer-reviewed sources.” If you’ve ever tried using your university-provided databases for research on a topic less than a couple of years old, you’ll know it doesn’t work that well.

When we leave the sources open to the online sources that could be arguably deemed reliable, which I did when I assigned the “Witch Hunt” project to my students, students can find the “facts” to support either side of an issue. My students found the sources to support arguments that Trump and Kavanaugh are victims, as well as that their victims are victims. They were not always sources I necessarily liked. But they were sources that, based on my initial online surveys, their families and immediate social circles would find reasonable.

Faced with this issue, I’m aware that some teachers make a list of prohibited sources. For example, you can use CNN but not FOX. You can use the Washington Post but not the New York Post. But I’ll tell you, it’s really easy to alienate your students by telling them that the primary sources of news accepted as unbiased in their household are really propaganda.

The Fire of Concealment

Fire! Via D4E

In your research and in my research peer-review is the gold standard but there is no peer review for current events because no one can agree on who has authority. Our standard news conduits leave open questions we would have once deemed reasonable to all but conspiracy theorists. What is reliable information? Is it the Attorney General of the United States? Is it the Central Intelligence Agency or the President of Russia?

In the United States we cannot agree on the answer to these questions as a society. In teaching The Crucible this year, I’ve come to doubt that it is not reasonable to presume that I can solve them in my classroom.

In Act 3 of the Crucible, the protagonist John Proctor who, as the saying goes, has 99 problems with him but being a witch is not one of them, tells Deputy Governor Danforth, the judge of the play’s Salem Witch trials, that Abigail Williams and the other accusers are lying. To prove this, John Proctor calls on Mercy Warren, who has herself accused others of witchcraft, to testify. Danforth warns Proctor: “We burn a hot fire here; it melts down all concealment. Are you certain in your conscience, Mister, that your evidence is the truth.”

Danforth’s fire is one of purification, that burns the impurities away from society. But what if our 21st-century fire does not “melt down all concealment” but instead burns so brightly that none can see what is behind it? What if this fire burns so long that we come to question whether there is any truth behind it, at all? Maybe this is the danger. Maybe this is the lesson of The Crucible in the Post-Truth Era.

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Clay Zuba is an English Teacher at Xavier College Preparatory High School in Phoenix, Arizona, where he teaches American Literature and writing. In 2016, he was awarded a Ph.D. in American literature at the University of Delaware. His acclaimed blog love7g.com about Nathaniel Hawthorne is a precursor to his upcoming historical novel Love in the House of the Seven Gables.