Disrupting the Literary Canon: Culturally Responsive Pedagogy

Disrupting the Literary Canon: Culturally Responsive Pedagogy


  • The Return of the Native by Thomas Hardy
  • Billy Buddby Herman Melville
  • Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky
  • The Tragedy of Julius Caesar by William Shakespeare
  • The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne


These titles could have been pulled from any high school English reading list; a Who’s Who of dead, educated white males in the literary canon.  In ancient Greek, the term canonmeans “standard” or “measuring rod.”  In modern vernacular, we often use the term canonto mean the best and/or most representative works of a certain kind.  In literature, canonical works are often valued because they provide uniformity in education and scholarship.  When our students graduate and enter higher education, they enter with a common knowledge base of canonical works they’ve all read and studied, works that are supposedly worth our time and intellectual energy to both read and teach.

The truth is, however, that there are several works in the canon that I feel strongly that students should experience before they graduate.  Works like To Kill a Mockingbird, Macbeth, The Great Gatsby, and The Turn of the Screw.  These are works that I value based largely on the criteria used to establish our literary canon:

  1. Aesthetic elements: language and style
  2. Subject matter
  3. Innovation
  4. Authenticity

The titles listed at the beginning of this article are all book I studied in high school.  The only selection I can remember in any detail is Julius Caesarand that’s because I’ve taught it, not because I read it in high school.  When I look at that list from my veteran teacher lens, the problem I see is that there is not one character in those canonical texts who looks like me, talks like me, or offers me a shared experience.  These works have, without question, stood the test of time in terms of their aesthetic elements.  They were, indeed, innovative and authentic for their time(s), but the question I find myself asking now is whether or not the subject matter is such that our modern readers can engagewith the text in a way that allows for the creation of critical connects: text-to-self, text-to-text, and text-to-world.  Can our modern readers study To Kill a Mockingbirdand understand the connection to the current context of race in our society?  Can they relate to the experience of Mayella Ewell and understand that she, too, is a metaphorical mockingbird?  Can they look at Atticus Finch and “climb into his skin and walk around in it”?  Can our students be empowered to be social justice warriors from this novel?  Is this literary work the best way to get my students where I want them to be or am I teaching it only because it’s in the canon?

I’ve spent the past couple of years focusing on building my classroom library with meaningful, impactful, and diverse texts that reflect the students who read them!  A portion of my class every day is dedicated to self-selected independent reading and I want to make sure my students have quality texts to choose.  My current library houses works like:

  • Becomingby Michelle Obama
  • Boy Erasedby Garrard Conley
  • Americanizedby Sara Saedi
  • Children of Blood and Bone by Tomi Adeyemi
  • Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jessmyn Ward
  • Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi
  • Dear Martin by Nic Stone
  • I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter byErika L. Sanchez
  • The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead
  • Persepolisby Marjane Satrapi
  • The Poet Xby Elizabeth Acevedo
  • The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
  • Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates


I have also found the value in pairing diverse modern text with more canonical texts.

TKAm                                                                                    THUGTo Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee                           The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas

TCINTR                                                                              BAC                                                    The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger                       Born a Crime by Trevor Noah

            Night                                                                                          BSOG                                 Night by Elie Wiesel                                                    Between Shades of Gray by Ruta Sepetys

RJ                                                                                            TFINOS

Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet                                The Fault in Our Stars by John Green







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