A High School Teacher Considers Canon and Curriculum: or, Wherefore Art Thou Still Teaching Romeo and Juliet?
Mary Gallager

omewhere 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 High School:

  9th Grade: Romeo and Juliet The Odyssey  
  10th Grade: To Kill a Mockingbird Either Othello, Julius Caesar, The Merchant of Venice, or Taming of the Shrew  
  11th 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  
  12th Grade: Macbeth, Frankenstein, A Lesson Before Dying  

These core 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.

  Romeo and Juliet 84%
  Macbeth 81%
  Huckleberry Finn 70%
  Julius Caesar 70%
  To Kill a Mockingbird 69%
  Scarlet Letter 62%
  Of Mice and Men 56%
  Hamlet 55%
  Great Gatsby 54%
  Lord of the Flies 54%

The reasons 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 standardized tests.

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 and Mathews).

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.

Works Cited

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.