A co-worker recently re-posted this article criticizing changes that my alma mater UCLA made in 2011 to the English department required courses. Gone are the days of required single author courses in Milton, Chaucer, and Shakespeare, which have been replaced with thematic courses and syllabi full of a combination of the traditional canon and new voices. Of course, I poked around and saw other articles like this one, in support of the changes and found this clear explanation of the changes from the Daily Bruin. This all got me thinking about the books that our high schools require. I currently teach American lit and British lit to juniors and seniors in high school and so my required reading relies heavily on our anthology with the supplement of a couple of novels. Even though I LOVE my curriculum, I think it is important to think about how we select required reading. Below I’ve listed some of the major considerations out there with a brief opinion of my own. I’d love to hear your two cents! How much control do you have over your required reading? Are you happy with your current list?
- Students should read the foundations like mythology, the bible, and philosophy. The argument here is that students cannot fully appreciate any works inside or outside of the traditional canon if they do not understand the allusions and underpinnings.
- I can relate to the difficulties of teaching Romeo and Juliet to students without a working understanding of mythology or Bless Me Ultima without the biblical allusions. I also relate to the struggle of engaging high school students in the philosophies of the metaphysical poets or the transcendentalist thinkers.
- Student should be able to read texts that connect with their identity. The required reading should be tailored to the school’s population to reflect authors, characters, and themes that connect with the race, gender, sexuality, and socioeconomic status of students.
- I have witnessed students come alive as readers when reading works from authors that they personally connect with, like Cisneros, Cullen, and Hong Kingston to name a few. There is a definite power in the approach and I think it is most evident in the long-term inspiration for students to be life long readers and writers.
- Students should read the masters like Chaucer, Milton, Shakespeare, Thoreau, and Pound. In Emerson’s “Education”, he writes about the paradox of genius and drill. Students must closely read the masters in order to create new, relevant works.
- This is a tough one for me because I sometimes feel that I sacrifice depth in order to cover the breadth of the “masters” which leaves even less time to explore other works. On the other hand, I want my students going into college with a working knowledge of the major literary players.
- Students should read around a universal theme. This approach can incorporate the traditional canon and maringalized voices around a common thread.
- I personally love this approach because it marries the two sides of the argument allowing the educator to juxtapose the traditional canon with additional perspectives. I think this can also lead to a deeper understanding of genres and style through direct comparison.
- Students should be able to choose their literature. There is also the argument that education in the information age must completely revolutionize to include choice as a center piece.
- In theory I like this, in practice I loathe it. As a teacher I take pride in my ability to guide a curriculum toward objectives. Allowing 100% choice muddies the water of rigor and assessment for me.
What do you think? How should we be picking the required reading for high school students?