Creating Canon(s) with Children (and others)

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!

Reynoldsburg Shakespeare Festival 2013

The second annual Reynoldsburg Shakespeare Festival was held May 4, 2013.  There must have been over 100 students involved grades 2-12 performing extracts from 8 plays to a packed auditorium at the Summit Road Campus.  What a joy it was to see the young people so enjoying Shakespeare and their parents so enthusiastic about the work.  Congratulations to Amy McKibben for spearheading the Festival and to other teacher-directors: Janet Benedict, Aubrey Gibson, Lorraine Gaugenbaugh, Sandy Guinto, Tonya Peacock, Anna Meyer, and Jessica Sharp, all alumni teachers from the OSU/RSC Professional Development Program.  Everyone is looking forward to next year!

Macbeth (Amy McKibben, director)









As You Like It (Janet Benedict and Aubrey Gibson, directors)









A Midsummer Nights Dream (Lorraine Gaugenbaugh, director)









Romeo & Juliet (Sandy Guinto and Tonya Peacock, directors)









(Anna Meyer, director)









All’s Well That Ends Well (Jessica Sharp, director)


The Tempest (Janet Benedict and Aubrey Gibson, directors)


I, Cinna (the poet) and Julius Caesar: the RSC productions

On Friday May 3 I joined Jessica Sharp, Amy McKibben (teacher-leaders from the OSU/RSC PD Program) and their middle and high school students at the Southern Theatre for a performance of Tim Crouch’s I, Cinna (the Poet).  It was performed on the set of the compelling RSC’s production of Julius Caesar (directed by the new RSC artistic director Greg Doran) which I’d seen two days previously.  Placing the events of the play in a modern-day African setting had evoked in me knowledge and memories of contemporary dictatorships and civil wars in post-colonial Africa.

You can watch a video recording of I, Cinna (the poet) on the RSC website but as always, being in the theatre was so much more engaging and compelling.  We were framed as if we were in the imagination of Cinna, the poet, (masterfully portrayed by Jude Owusu who also played the character in Julius Caesar).  As the events of Shakespeare’s play unfolded off-stage (as if in contemporary setting like London) we became implicated as Cinna led us each in writing down words that gradually create a poem.  What would you die for?  What would you kill for?  We gradually wrote one of Shakespeare’s lines  – It must be by his death – as we realized we were seeing Cinna predicting and then accepting his death.  Cinna raises questions for us about the value of poetry: Mark Antony changed the course of the play (and of history) by his words.  We are left wondering about the effect of Cinna’s words and of ours when he asks us to write to explain his death.  Like the several hundred young people, over 5 minutes I wrote:

Butchered like a chicken

By heartless men

Following the rightness of the mob

Following the wrongness of the inauspicious day

Who let slip the dogs of war?

OCTELA Conferences 2013 and 2012

On March 23, 2013  I chaired presentations by eight of the RSC/OSU teacher-leaders at the Ohio Council of Teachers of English/Language Arts annual conference, held in Worthington.   We had three sessions titled: Teaching and Learning Shakespeare.  Over 50 teachers from all over Ohio attended our sessions.  You can see how engaged people were!

Lorraine Gaughenbaugh, Megan Ballinger, and Alison Volz led a session on Active Rehearsal Room Approaches to Reading









Jessica Sharp and Jill Sampson led a session on Ways in to Complex Texts










Sandy Guinto, Kathy Hoover, and Chris Ray led a session on Building a Community of Readers and Writers.









This was the second year we had presented.  In 2012 Amy McKibben, Tonya Peacock, Aubrey Gibson, Janet Benedict, and David Hall presented alongside the teachers who presented in 2013.

Transforming Teaching and Learning

Transforming Teaching and Learning with Active and Dramatic Approaches: Engaging Students Across the Curriculum. will published by Routledge in August 2013.

Tables and Figures are posted under Handouts.











NCTE Conferences 2012, 2011, and 2010

In November 2012 I presented in two sessions of the NCTE annual conference in Las Vegas with two of the teachers: Jill Sampson and Jessica Sharp.  We had over 100 people at our sessions.

In November 2011, at the annual conference in Chicago of the National Council of Teachers of English, I presented with four of the teachers in the Professional Development program as part of the OSU/RSC collaboration: high school teachers, Megan Ballinger, David Hall, and Jessica Sharp, and middle school teacher, Jill Sampson.  Over 75 eager participants attended our presentation, 100 Ways to Teach Shakespeare.

At the same conference, I was a discussant for a presentation by Camille Cushman and Lorraine Gaugenbaugh: At the intersection of dramatic play, critical inquiry, and performance in third grade reading instruction: imagining new possibilities for English language learners performing literacy.  Camille graduated in Summer 2011, was my doctoral advisee, and conducted her dissertation in Lorraine’s 3rd grade classroom.

In November 2010, at the annual conference in Orlando FL, Camille, Lorraine, and Harry Gee participated in an all-day workshop on “Ambitious Reading” led by me and Pat Enciso.