The Battle of the Canon

I recently found myself entrenched on a familiar battlefield. After making what I thought was an innocuous statement about needing more texts that my AP Literature students would enjoy reading that would also represent “literary merit,” and noting some contemporary texts that would meet these criteria, another teacher began to lecture me on the necessity of requiring students to read canonical British literature.

Her unyielding tirade provided some insight into what it must feel like to be a student in that class – in which choice is something the teacher makes, books are taught (not students), and the teacher is the sole purveyor of knowledge.

Before I continue, let me say that I truly believe that this teacher truly believes that she is doing what is best for her students. Her primary argument, in fact, was that we are doing our students a disservice if we do not expect them to read “hard texts.”

To her, rigor means old. She explained that if students are not struggling to decode classic books such as Beowulf or Cantebury Tales, they are not being challenged enough. She said that any book they read that’s not canon is a waste of their time.

But herein lies the rub: many students from different English classes eat lunch in my classroom, and I listen to their honest conversations about school. I watch as they use Sparknotes to fill out question packets on classic texts. When the focus is on a specific book, and the assessments are designed to elicit responses about the plot, students do not have much incentive to read the book. Thus, they find answers they need online and wait for the teacher to tell them what they should have learned from the text.

While I held back from sharing such observations, I did agree that students benefit from reading challenging texts. MRIs have recorded all of the brilliant ways the brain lights up with activity when reading the works of Shakespeare! However, I offered the suggestion that students need not read full novels as a whole class to receive this benefit. I often pull excerpts from classic texts to analyze in class so that the focus is on the writing craft and on ourselves as readers. We explore passages in depth to build reader confidence, look for literary devices and discuss their functions, and connect to theme. I provide them with incentive to read other than “because it’s tradition,” and – more importantly – I encourage them to find their own reasons for connecting to texts.

Screen Shot 2018-03-05 at 9.10.07 PMAmy Rasmussen and I have engaged in numerous conversations about the magic that happens when students choose the books they read for our AP English classes. Sure, students will often choose a contemporary text if given the chance because it’s easier for them to read and it seems more relevant to them. What’s wrong with that? Books like The Kite Runner and Never Let Me Go have been referenced by the College Board on the AP Literature and Composition exam®, so why do some teachers still cling to the classics as if nothing written after the turn of the 20th century has merit?

My students regularly start with more contemporary books like The Help or The Road and then choose, for various reasons, to explore books from the canon. Often, they have built confidence due to the work we do together in class with shorter texts and from their own choice reading, and they feel comfortable taking on a challenge. Sometimes, they decide that they want to read books they’ve always heard about. I currently have students who have chosen to read Wuthering Heights, Oliver Twist, and Les Miserables on their own. When we have book talks and the students begin speaking with excitement about the books they’re reading, you better believe that others will want to read these books, too. I’ve seen it happen for several years in a row; students read more canonical texts due to choice than they ever would if the books were strictly assigned.

Many of us speak and write about the benefits of a workshop classroom, and the idea of choice in reading has been explored by leaders in education such as Kelly Gallagher and Penny Kittle. So why are some teachers so afraid to let go of their perceived control? What do they think will happen if a student walks out of high school without reading Beowulf? I would rather see my students leave my classroom having read several books they chose to read than having faked their way through a list of classics, and based on the honest feedback I get from my students, they prefer it this way, too.

I left the battle of the canon feeling that we had reached a stalemate. Until I can convince nonbelievers of the benefits of choice in the AP classroom, I will continue to provide a safe space for any students to come in and talk about books, even as some Sparknote and Google their way through the classics.


Amber Counts teaches AP English Literature & Composition and Academic Decathlon at Lewisville High School. She believes in the power of choice and promotes thinking at every opportunity. She is married to her high school sweetheart and knows love is what makes the world go around. Someday she will write her story. Follow Amber @mrscounts.


11 thoughts on “The Battle of the Canon

  1. […] looking for more support for your reading choices, check out these posts by Amber Counts here and here. And these by Amy Rasmussen here and […]


  2. […] The Battle of the Canon by Amber Counts from Three Teachers Talk created a little bristle in me at first, but then reading further I understand her opinion. Student choice is valuable. […]


  3. Pat March 9, 2018 at 11:35 pm Reply

    Why not spend a little time reading and enjoying “Macbeth?” The story and characters are interesting…do not dissect it so much…it wrings out the juice.
    Do it with electric candles at Halloween!


  4. adventuresinhighschoolworkshop March 9, 2018 at 3:12 am Reply

    I would rather see my students leave my classroom having read several books they chose to read than having faked their way through a list of classics, and based on the honest feedback I get from my students, they prefer it this way, too.
    Thanks for saying this. It’s honest and real.


  5. sanjee sivanesan March 7, 2018 at 7:15 pm Reply

    confirmation bias aside, your thoughts and suggestions warm my soul as I sit here seething b/c a Sr. colleague publicly shamed other colleagues for not teaching Shakespeare. Is it really rigorous if they spend most of their time decoding and the rest piecing together insights from various websites and essays written on the text since? Isn’t it oppressive and ethnocentric to suggest the canon i.e. British lit is what counts for literary merit?


    • Amy Rasmussen March 9, 2018 at 6:19 pm Reply

      I just had this conversation with a reader in our FB group. If we will remember we are literacy teachers, not literature teachers, the focus shifts from the text to the needs of the readers. I am all for British lit when we use it to advance readers who can read and think about it in the way its complexity demands; however, in my experience, students shut down, turn away, and some even shudder at the mention of Shakespeare. We do more harm than good when we force feed the bard. And I agree with you about the ridiculous idea that the canon is what counts for literary merit. Come on, people, read a little, will ya? Some of the literature written in the last few decades puts some of those books to shame — in my humble opinion, of course. 🙂


  6. Pat March 7, 2018 at 11:40 am Reply

    Tell the plot as a story…use important scenes for study…do not reveal spoilers!


  7. Marc Achtziger March 7, 2018 at 7:35 am Reply

    They do not read those texts. They fake read. I also watch them copy each other’s AP Homework from other classes. Many kids take 3 or 4 college level courses and can’t keep up with he workload.
    In addition to choice I find we must give them time to read in class- also something very unpopular. But without the time they slip. The time is crucial along with book talks and conferences. You can’t convince everyone- just keep going . I’m sure students have read more this year in your class than at any other point in high school.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Pat March 6, 2018 at 10:01 pm Reply

    I always wondered why we were dragged through the classics. Why not study a few scenes to whet the appetite? Miss Haversham instead of the entire “Great Expectorations.” (as we called it back in the day.)

    Liked by 2 people

    • Amy Rasmussen March 9, 2018 at 6:20 pm Reply

      Miss Haversham is my favorite character ever! She, however, is not my students’ favorite. And that’s what matters most!


  9. Julissa Rodriguez March 6, 2018 at 9:26 pm Reply

    I completely agree with you. However, I struggle to make the plan make sense in my head. I wonder about how I can use a book in short snippets without losing the plot. I would love to see a sample unit plan or lesson plan that takes a core text and connects it to the students’ choice reading.


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