Like most 18-year-olds, I entered college having no idea what I wanted to be when I grew up. I had narrowed down the search and decided to take a class in each of the majors hoping it would produce an existential moment of clarity: I was destined to be a ________. As a result, I took an English class on Shakespeare. The course description said we would read and study a variety of Shakespearean plays and I knew from my in-depth study of Shakespeare in high school (which is code for Romeo and Juliet and Hamlet) that I love, love, loved Shakespeare. Then I got the syllabus and saw we were reading 14 plays in 16 weeks. I suddenly became terrified. To me, this was like running a marathon. Intense, vigorous, and entirely unnecessary. Yet, I committed to the cause. By the end of the semester, my puerile ponderings were correct: I was in love with Shakespeare except now I could justify my infatuation with a variety of histories, tragedies, and comedies. During that semester I realized that I would never be a writer. However, I knew I wanted reading to be a prevalent part of my career: hence the decision to pursue English education.
With the implementation of the Common Core standards, many teachers, myself included, are nervous about what will happen to our beloved literature, the pieces that we connected with so deeply that we were willing to enter into a professional marriage just to be able to read the same play every year and have a fresh experience through our students’ first reading. With the emphasis on non-fiction in the Common Core (because on-the-job reading rarely requires reciting Tennyson) is it possible to still teach the canon?
The answer is a resounding yes. However, the way in which we teach the classics will (and should) change. The key is to use solid non-fiction to supplement the core pieces of fiction found in the book rooms of most high schools. In the coming weeks we are going to provide suggestions of companion texts to major types/themes of fiction. This week we will be exploring non-fiction pieces to supplement a variety of coming-of-age novels, with titles ranging from The House on Mango Street to Hamlet.
Photo from marie-II