I love it when Diane Scrofano suggests an idea for guest blog post. She keeps me ground in thinking about literature large ways. She reminds me that we can think bigger that a single text or a single way of teaching literature in a classroom. She has written about YA text and mental illness in a post that suggests the need for more diversity in the representation of this national issue. She addressed it again in a post that talked about Dear Evan Hansen in its form as a book and as a musical. Her first post for the blog took on Hamilton and YA historical romance. It doesn't surprise me one bit that she would want to discuss combining the classics and YA.
Workshopping the Canon and No More Fake Reading: Two Recent Approaches to Combining Classics with YA Literature
by Diane Scrofano
I just finished grading one of the worst sets of essays on Emily Bronte’s 1848 novel Wuthering Heights that I’ve ever received in twelve years of teaching that novel. Of twenty enrolled students (fewer than the usual about twenty-seven that my community college English classes usually have), two didn’t turn in an essay at all. Three used their thesaurus to change the wording of the SparkNotes just enough so that Turnitin.com wouldn’t recognize the content as outright copy-and-paste plagiarism. There were a few Cs and Ds because students misunderstood key details in the novel or in the assigned pieces of literary criticism on the novel. After grading this batch of essays, I wondered if it was still worth it to teach Wuthering Heights. Despite the fact that sometimes it doesn’t go well, I’m going to teach Wuthering Heights again. In fact, I hope I never stop using Wuthering Heights. Here’s why.
And then we look at some of the same things in Gene Luen Yang’s 2006 graphic novel, American Born Chinese. Who is the real man? The Monkey King beating the crap out of the gods who won’t accept him or the reformed Monkey King who serves others? What precipitates the Monkey King’s reform? Why do 19th-century stereotypes of Asians sometimes resemble stereotypes of present-day Latinos more than they resemble 20th- and 21st-century stereotypes of Asians? Once Jin Wang gets some “cool” status, does he oppress those below him, kind of like Heathcliff does when he ascends the social ladder? How do artistic elements of color, line, and negative space help express the theme of self-acceptance?
And yet these two factions war on. At YA literary events, there can be outright hostility toward the classics: You are an elitist because young people today can’t understand the outdated diction. Classics are too hard. Classics are too white. Classics are irrelevant. If you like them, you are out of touch with the youth. Worse yet, if you think that young people are actually reading the classics you persist in assigning, you are deluding yourself.
At the same time, there is a lot I like about Gordon’s No More Fake Reading approach. For introverted teachers like me, this approach relieves the pressure to be performing in front of large groups all the time. For disciples of Teaching With Your Mouth Shut (Donald Finkel’s book from 2000), Gordon’s approach puts the onus for the learning onto the students. The teacher can be the “guide-on-the-side,” not the “sage-on-the-stage.” The approach also allows students large blocks of time to read. They need all this practice to develop fluency, and this fluency will serve them well in college, Gordon argues, where they’ll need “marathon-like stamina” (81).
But can reading modern young-adult fiction about topics that students like really prepare them to tackle reading in college, where most of the books aren’t chosen by students and where many books, particularly those assigned in their general education or non-major classes, will not be on topics they enjoy? When Gordon asserts the common wisdom that “we’re teaching reading skills and strategies, not the content of the novel” (88), she directly contradicts research that indicates that often students are unable to transfer skills independently of content (see British researcher Daisy Christodoulou’s Seven Myths About Education, 2014). Also, reading fiction is very different from reading expository text (see Louise Rosenblatt’s distinction between “efferent” and “aesthetic” reading), and even expository texts vary from discipline to discipline. But uh-oh. If I argue that reading isn’t a transferrable skill, that reading YA won’t prepare them to read classic novels, then I must also admit that reading classics won’t prepare them for reading their Biology 101 textbook. So why read any fiction, classical or modern, at all?
For blending the classics with YA literature, I’m much more comfortable with an approach like Mary Styslinger’s in Workshopping the Canon (2017). Styslinger suggests themed units that bring in a wide variety of texts and techniques of studying those texts. A unit on heroes might be necessary in a practical sense to meet the requirement by the school district to read Beowulf but would also include modern songs, poems, YA short stories or novels, non-fiction articles, and more. Rather than being dragged through a several-weeks-long teacher-led slog through Beowulf, students would actively learn about both ancient and modern concepts of the hero through reader response journals, essays, book clubs, readers’ theater, and more. I know I could certainly put more modern materials into my Wuthering Heights unit and incorporate more active learning. Perhaps I could even give chronological order the boot and teach American Born Chinese before Wuthering Heights so that students could tackle big questions with an easy-to-read book first and then work up to the harder one.
Christodoulou, Daisy. Seven Myths About Education. Routledge, 2014.
Finkel, Donald. Teaching with Your Mouth Shut. Heinemann, 2000.
Gordon, Berit. No More Fake Reading: Merging the Classics with Independent Reading to Create Joyful, Lifelong Readers. Corwin Literacy, 2018.
Rosenblatt, Louise. The Reader, the Text, the Poem. 1978.
Styslinger, Mary E. Workshopping the Canon. NCTE, 2017.
Yang, Gene Luen. American Born Chinese. Color by Lark Pien. Square Fish, 2006.