Somewhere in America, possibly at this very moment, an English
teacher is passing out dog-eared copies of Romeo and Juliet to
each of her 30 freshmen. It will take three weeks to read and study the
play (four if the students are poorer readers), and then next quarter
she'll begin another month-long unit on The Odyssey.....Meanwhile,
on a university campus far, far away, literary scholars and professors
of English are continuing their lively debate about the literature canon.
They are busy exchanging ideas with colleagues about which texts should
be taught and how to teach them, writing and reading articles which propose
new ways of thinking about texts, restructuring their departments and
offering new courses in contemporary and nontraditional literature.....back
at the high school, a pimply, precocious ninth-grader examines the faded
cover of his copy of Romeo and Juliet, raises his hand and asks,
"Why do we have to read this?"
Good question. Constant examination and evaluation of what students read
are vital, and the issues raised by the canon debate are as relevant to
a high school freshman as they are to a university graduate student.
English Journal, the most widely-read professional journal for
secondary English teachers, is full of articles that deal with the problem
of what students should read, with most of the authors arguing for change:
"Canons must be changed and challenged" (Pfordresher 29). "We cannot give
students the impression that literature is....static" (Burke 59). "The
canon needs expanding; an inclusive reading list will begin to allow the
growing numbers of students who are not white or male to feel the curriculum
belongs to everyone" (Greenbaum 36).
The truth is, though, that decisions regarding English curricula in public
high schools are influenced by many forces which have little to do with
the philosophical canon debate occurring in academia and on the pages
of English Journal. The high school English department has to consider
the reactions of parents and school boards, and the issue of how to prepare
students for standardized tests.
In Fairfax, there is no county-wide required reading list; instead, each
individual high school must compile a list of core (required) and supplemental
readings and send that list to the FCPS Department of Instruction for
approval. While the county doesn't stipulate which books should be taught,
it does specify the skills students must learn. These skills are outlined
in the county's Program of Studies (POS), and encompass everything from
research to media. The POS is in turn based upon the Standards of Learning
(SOL) which are generated by the Virginia Department of Education. As
far as literature goes, both the POS and SOL state only that students
must read "a variety of genres" and outline a series of literature-related
skills that students are expected to master.
Core readings are the major works (usually "book-length") studied by all
students at any particular grade level. While core readings may not constitute
the majority of the curriculum, teachers tend to spend a great deal of
time on these works, and they are often presented to students (perhaps
unconsciously) as more substantial, more worthy of serious study, than
the short stories and poems students read. A teacher is more likely to
assign a major essay and exam in conjunction with a core work like The
Odyssey than with a non-core Native American folk tale, indicating
to students the superiority of The Odyssey as a work of literature.
Let's take a look at the core reading list for a typical Fairfax County
Grade: Romeo and Juliet The Odyssey
Grade: To Kill a Mockingbird Either Othello, Julius Caesar, The
Merchant of Venice, or Taming of the Shrew
Grade: Two of these dramas: A Raisin in the Sun, The Crucible,
The Glass Menagerie, Death of a Salesman Two of these novels:
Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, The Great Gatsby, A Farewell to
Arms, The Scarlet Letter
Grade: Macbeth, Frankenstein, A Lesson Before Dying
readings are rooted in tradition. With the exception of Gaines' A Lesson
Before Dying, these are the same plays and novels that have been taught
as "classics" in high schools for decades. And the list at my high school
is certainly not unique. In schools across the entire county, traditionally
canonical texts like Shakespearean plays and classic British and American
novels form the basis of most core reading lists.
Table 1:Most Frequently Required Titles, Grades 9-12 From Applebee's "Stability
and Change in the High School Curriculum, p. 28.
Kill a Mockingbird
Mice and Men
of the Flies
for this relatively stagnant canon are many and complex. Teachers have
limited time and resources for developing new lessons plans. Parents exert
subtle and sometimes not so subtle pressures to teach the canon. And Fairfax
teachers now confront new demands for "accountability" as measured by
Each year, Virginia students in third, fifth, and eighth grades take this
battery of tests in each of the four "core" subjects: English, math, social
studies and science. In the eleventh grade, they are tested again in English.
When the students first took these tests back in 1998, the results were
troubling. Statewide, only 39 of 1800 schools had at least 70% of students
pass all four tests. Even in Fairfax County, often considered the most
elite school system in the state, only 13 of 212 schools passed (Benning
Schools must pass these tests. If, by the year 2007, an individual school
does not achieve a 70% pass rate for each of the core subjects, the school
will lose its accreditation. In addition, any student not passing all
four SOL tests will not receive a diploma, starting with the class of
2004. These new mandates have sent principals and department chairs scrambling
to find ways to get students to pass the tests. In Fairfax County, all
teachers of English, math, science and social studies must now undergo
30 hours of training in "Standards-Based Instruction," a course which
focuses on the state standards and how to help students master them. All
of this effort to get students to pass a standardized test certainly doesn't
leave much room for innovation and experimentation in the English classroom.
So where does all this leave our English teacher? How does she respond
to the ninth-grader who asks why the class is reading Romeo and Juliet?
Does she tell him that she didn't have time to prepare anything else?
That they're reading it because it's always been taught in high school?
That they need to read it because it's on the SOL test? Unfortunately,
these too often are the reasons that books are taught in high schools.
Even worse, there is little likelihood that the situation will change
anytime soon. Community expectations, demands placed on teachers, and
the crusade to meet specific standards are forces which overpower the
canon debate and seem only to be getting stronger. Dialogue about which
texts will most benefit students is either falling on deaf ears or is
not occurring at all, and teachers--whether they're committed to William
Shakespeare or Pablo Neruda--may soon be too busy attending SOL meetings
to participate in the canon debate at all.
Applebee, Arthur. "Stability and Change in the High-School Canon." English
Journal, 82 (1992): 27-32.
Benning, Victoria and Jay Mathews. "97 Percent of Schools in VA Fail New
Exams: Local Officials Say Results Are Worse Than Expected." Washington
Post. 9 Jan. 1999.
Burke, Jim. "Canon Fodder." English Journal, 83 (1993): 56-61.
Greenbaum, Vicky. "Expanding the Canon: Shaping Inclusive Reading Lists."
English Journal, 84 (1994): 36-39.
Pfordresher, John. "Choosing What We Teach: Judging Value in Literature."
English Journal, 83 (1993): 27-29.