By Adrin Fisher
My two middle-school aged sons love videogames—but they don’t get to play as often as they’d prefer (which would be every single day). To fill time between videogame sessions, they talk about videogames, read handbooks and record books and novels about videogames, and invent their own storylines for videogames. One word they’ve adopted in the past year is “canon.” It’s not uncommon to hear them argue about whether this or that place is “canon” to The Legend of Zelda or if it is outside the “official timeline.” As I type, in fact, they’re in a heated debate over the canonical placement of Netflix’s The Epic Tales of Captain Underpants vis-à-vis the Captain Underpants novels. Somehow, the placement within “canon” is up for debate—at least in the minds of my creative children.
It occurs to me, then, that the notion of canon is in the eye of the beholder.
It’s a list—but not one that we live and die by.
It’s full of white, male writers—but with imagination and creativity we can expand.
It’s come to be seen as prescriptive—but it’s ripe for discussion and challenge.
If my children believe they can disrupt the canon of their favorite pastime, how much more should teachers, as the adults in the room, grant ourselves permission to fill in the spaces with texts that challenge our students? That reflect the modern world our students live in? That demonstrate diversity in terms of race, class, gender, and orientation?
On a gloomy day last February, I was lying on the couch scrolling through social media. I caught a notice about a project sponsored by the Black Caucus of National Conference of Teachers of English called the African-American Read-In. It is a simple proposition: gather people to read out loud from the works of African-American writers. The Read-Ins often occur in February to coincide with Black History Month. I immediately decided to make this happen this at my school.
I called a colleague in my department and a well-loved retired history teacher. Coordinating with our administration, we decided to do the Read-In during the AA time built in to our Wednesday schedule. We had students sign up to attend.
It was clear to me that the best way to run this Read-In would be to have students doing the reading—after all, they listen to teachers most of their day—so I sought out student readers. I explained that all they had to do was read something. Once. No questions, no analysis, no discussion. I encouraged my kids to choose poems. Some had a favorite African-American writer. For others, I printed out options. I prepared a handout listing student readers and the pieces they had chosen.
On February 21, 2018, the readers sat on the edge of the stage. The house lights were dim and the spectators sat in the center section.
It was breathtaking.
High school students sat in awed silence as their peers read words from Langston Hughes, Maya Angelou, Emi Mahmoud, Lucille Clifton, and many others. One student in particular—Haikeem—started off shaky, unsure. But by the end of “Still I Rise,” his voice rang out, filling the auditorium. His classmates whooped.
Many of the readers were African-Americans students, but not all. Many of the spectators were African-American students, but not all.
This event was the first African-American Read-In in the history of Fairmont Senior—one of only two events in the entire state of West Virginia last year as listed with NCTE.
Afterward, I opened my door for my 3rd period English 12 class. Two students in that class had read. Two students who had struggled through high school had volunteered to read out loud to seventy of their peers. Two students—or, rather, many students—found power and belonging in reading out loud. And their comment for me?
“Mrs. Fisher, when can we do it again?”
So, this year’s event is scheduled for February 27, 2019—and we’re looking to build on the success of last year to bring more students into this expansion of the canon. Now, is one event enough? Of course not.
But it’s the notion of change, the idea that teachers have the freedom to expand the texts we highlight.
We do it through intentional celebrations of diversity.
We do it through silent reading time.
We do it through our big, dog-eared, thrift-store-found classroom libraries.
We do it through the studied choice of mentor texts, hooking Paul Lawrence Dunbar to Shakespeare.
We challenge the canon while teaching the required texts—
and we rebehold (and recreate) the canon as we go.
You can read about the FSHS 2018 Read-In at WVNews.com.
WVCTE wants you to contribute to the conversation. Interested in hosting a Read-In? See how you can rebehold the canon by checking out NCTE’s toolkit page. How do you bring diverse voices into the classroom? Leave us a comment, Tweet us your thoughts @WVCTE, or connect with us on Facebook!
Adrin Fisher is a contributing blogger for WVCTE. When she’s not explaining the red #EndItMovement X on her hand, helping students appreciate Banquo’s advice to Macbeth, or conferencing with budding writers, you can find her chatting with her boys, tree bathing, or pounding through a good novel. You can follow her on Twitter @fisheradrin