Creating Canon(s) with Children (and others)

Posted on August 24, 2013 
Filed under Discussions, Dramatic Inquiry, Shakespeare, Teaching

What I posted Aug 24 2013 on the Imaginative-Inquiry Blog:

Sorry I’m a bit of a Johnny-come-lately here. I agree with Tim that it’s the conversation that’s important. Like reading itself, and teaching, I always believe it’s the journey not the arrival that’s more important.

I’m writing from the US (though I’m from the UK originally) where the Canon has in effect just morphed into a list of “complex texts” attached to the new Common Core State Standards (the first step toward a National Curriculum?). Who got to choose those texts is a poststructural question that I like to raise but as people have noted it’s not going to remove or add to the list which is not going to go away as teachers begin right now across the country to turn to a list to know what they should be reading.

I don’t have much of a problem with our “Canon” – you’ll likely guess what’s on there. And for teachers who actually look (or are allowed to do so by principals) they’ll see that the list is not prescriptive at all – so in that sense I like it.

My problem (as always) is with people telling me (as a professional) what I should or should not be doing. That doesn’t mean I don’t want debate (a al this Blog). However, it’s the top-down assumption (by so many living and dead white males and their female wannabes) which is so profoundly undemocratic that I resist. I value dialogue. I’d embrace conversations in schools, and classrooms, about what we could (should?) be reading and studying. That’s at the heart of democracy – the struggle to move forward when there is disagreement.

What I’d like to see mandated is that the conversations should happen – teachers (and students!) should be required (not all the time!) to create their own Canons (not the plural). Wouldn’t it be great to hear from recent immigrants to a school (and their parents) what they’d like us to read that might enlighten us about their culture. And I’m going to champion Shakespeare (and Homer … and the Beatles) but not just because I’m taller and older (and greyer) so I get to make you read this. No! If I want to bring texts to children (part of what I’m paid to do) I should be able to say why – and defend that with colleagues, and parents – and students. (No more “we do this cos Mr Gove says its good for you but I hate it”. Tim knows what that leads to).

When I lose faith in democracy I remember the classrooms where I’ve been invited into (I’m an education Professor) where there is an assumption that everyone has a voice – everyone should be heard, everyone can participate in dialogue. I see a huge part of my job as a teacher is to not to let anyone dictate everything that goes on in a classroom space (including me!).

I think my job is to create the climate and the activities in which we not only dialogue about what we might read but even more important about what we read means. Last year I used (the story and some of the text of) The Illiad with a small group of 14 year old “special” youngsters – supposedly “struggling” readers who were “behind” – their canon was pretty dumbed down material that would send me to sleep in 2 minutes. They loved meeting me-as-Achilles. They read an edited down account of his battle with Hector as we enacted it. And they were disgusted by what happened to the dead body – read it if you don’t know! I didn’t have to defend Homer to them – they told their parents why they loved him. Homer had just entered their Canon. The next time I went in they chose the text – they wanted to read about the sinking of the Titanic … (now which canonical texts would you have read? Mr Cameron? Mr Andrews?)

My point is that talk about what to read and dialogue about what we read should be local. By all means let those positioned as the good and the wise give us their lists but let those ready to explore literature go for it – knowing that they have to answer anyone who asks why they’re reading that – and why they should not be reading what they are passionate about. I’d say that goes for everyone: children, teachers, parents, principals … and Secretaries of State for Education!

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