The Canon of High School Literature

There have been many arguments throughout the decades regarding how the canon of literature is comprised at the high school level.  What books should be included in this collection?  What authors should be included in this collection?  Furthermore, what books and/or authors should be eliminated from the canon of ‘great literature’ we are exposing our students to at the high school level.

Do you believe this list should be ‘uniform’ from state to state or even from country to country?  What authors are people studying in Europe, Asia, Australia, Africa, South America, and Central America?

I am looking for input from parents, educators at all levels, and anyone that believes they have a stake in this argument.

Please comment.

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About jpsteltz

Proud husband and father of four; Literacy Specialist; Reading Teacher; Literacy Coach; HS ELA Teacher; Published Author
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8 Responses to The Canon of High School Literature

  1. Hi John,

    Here’s a slightly edited version of a departmental memo I wrote a while back. It refers to Grades 6-10, as in Grades 11 & 12 we teach the IB curriculum, which has its own book lists.

    We should aim to choose texts for class study that students would have difficulty reading on their own and reserve other worthy titles that they can read on their own for possible inclusion on required Independent Reading lists.
    We should choose texts that will help prepare students to succeed in Grades 11 and 12.
    When possible we should choose texts that are not taught in Grades 11 and 12, and should give special consideration to worthy texts that are not included in the reading lists for English A1 (and A2?).
    We should aim to include a good representation of World Literature (not written in English originally).
    We should aim to give students a broad introduction to the ‘canonical’ works of Western literature.
    We should include an appropriate selection of texts from Chinese literature [our school is in China].
    We should aim for a balance of genres: fiction, poetry, drama, and non-fiction prose.
    We should aim for a balance of texts that may have more appeal for boys than girls, and vice versa.

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    • jsteltz says:

      Interesting thoughts here. We have students visiting from France. We are reading The Adventures of Tom Sawyer…an American Literature “Classic”…and the students from France have never heard about it.

      Interesting to view our ideas/teachings on a global platform.

      Thanks for your input.

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      • And I bet your students have never heard of ‘Candide’ or ‘Le Misanthrope’ ;^ ).

        Teaching in international schools, one quickly learns how parochial national literatures can be. On the world stage I’m think that ‘Moby-Dick’ and ‘Leaves of Grass’ would make the cut, but after that . . . I’m not so sure. When the standard is set by Sophocles, Dante, Cervantes, and Shakespeare, the dropout rate rises steeply. On that level even Twain becomes a regional writer, just as Willa Cather is on the national scale.

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  2. PS: And we should have a school-wide program of Independent Reading: http://ericmacknight.com/wordpress/?page_id=114.

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  3. jsteltz says:

    Eric- You illustrate my point exactly! English/Language Arts in America we seem to base our choices on regional literature. What we deem as “classic” literature is NOT viewed the same on a global platform.

    That is precisely why I am suggesting that we need to truly examine what we use in terms of literature and authors. The world is shrinking via technology, but our students are held back by what we deem, regionally, as important.

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