Selecting Literature for the Secondary Classroom by wuxiangyu


									Abigail Adams
December 9, 2002
ENG 499C – Semester Project

                    Selecting Literature for the Secondary Classroom
                       Pairing Young Adult Literature & the Classics

        Language arts educators enter their classroom with a strong desire for their

students to discover the significance of literature. The students’ response to literature

relies heavily upon what teachers require them to read. Typically teachers feel obligated

to uphold reading traditions of the past; therefore, they concentrate their curriculum

around the “classics.” Classic literature is important to high school literature; there is a

reason why certain works are canonical and students can benefit from experiencing this

literature. However, students (especially those reluctant to read) are often alienated by

classical literature’s language or it’s ability to relate to their lives. Unfortunately, this

consequence is in total opposition with the language arts educators’ intent of bringing

students toward an appreciation of literature. In order to not completely lose students’

interest in literature, teachers have been introducing young adult literature to the high

school classroom since the late 1960’s.

        In Using Young Adult Literature in the English Classroom, John H. Bushman and

Kay Parks Bushman identify young adult literature as writing targeted toward adolescents

and teenagers with conflicts, themes, protagonists and language that reflects young

adults’ lives (2). Because young adults find they can relate to a teenage protagonist and

subject matter concerned with adolescent issues, young adult literature provides the

enjoyment of reading to many high school students. Young adult literature is especially

beneficial to readers who are considered reluctant or learning disabled. Despite the

positive response young adult literature has on students, it has failed to gain widespread

acceptance in the high school curriculum; Leila Christenbury notes that it is still

considered the “stepchild” to traditional classic literature (154). Proponents of young

adult literature must fight against attacks in its quality and confront constant fears that the

“classics” will be neglected if young adult literature is taught. However, with careful

consideration and proper planning, young adult literature can be an effective educational

tool in the high school curriculum. At the same time classic literature, despite opinions

that it is does not connect to adolescents, has much to offer high school students and

should not be completely ignored on the secondary classroom. Rather than allowing one

type of literature to dominate the curriculum, students would benefit more if young adult

literature and traditional works were equally valued and included in the language arts

classroom. This approach to high school literature would allow language arts teachers to

integrate young adult literature with classics by teaching from thematic units and even

pairing related works from each genre.

       There are few language arts classroom that do not include the classics in their

curriculum. Classics are the works of literature that have been deemed canonical and

capable of withstanding the test of time. In his article “Young Adult Literature in the

Classroom – Or Is It?” John Bushman conducted a survey among high school students in

which he yielded a list of the most frequently assigned books. The list included titles

such as Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet, Great Expectations, Oedipus Rex, Grapes of Wrath,

Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Canterbury Tales, Moby Dick and Lord of the Flies

(Bushman 37). Although this list is not comprehensive it is difficult to argue that these

classic works are not the same works included in almost every high school curriculum.

There are many reasons that validate these classics being included year in and year out in

the high school classroom.

        Essentially, classic literature’s status within the literary canon keeps them in the

high school curriculum. Without sorting through the debate on why and how the canon is

defined, it is easier to say that these works have been deemed canonical based on their

aesthetic quality. Also, it is only natural for language arts educators to want to expose

their students to what society considers great literature, especially since it is commonly

the same literature they were taught in high school and college as “great” works. It is

difficult to escape the fact that the classics are significant based on their ability to expose

readers to developed writing styles, in addition to offering accounts of the human


        The National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) has published among their

Standards for the English Language Arts specific criteria for the area of literature which

educators are encouraged to uphold. According to the NCTE, when students study

literature they should “realize the importance of literature as a mirror of the human

experience, reflecting human motives, conflict, and values” and they should “become

familiar with the masterpieces of literature.” (NCTE web page). Few can question classic

literature’s ability to meet these standards; thereby language arts educators readily value

the classics and maintain the right to include these works in their curriculum. However,

as alluded to in the introduction, there are some problems occurring in the high school

classroom due to language arts educators’ reliance on the classics despite the many

positive things the works have to offer.

        In their standards the NCTE also urges educators to ensure that reading allows

students “to identify with fictional characters in human situations as a means of relating

to others” and “develop habits of reading that carry over into adult life” (NCTE web

page). Unfortunately there is some evidence that the current reliance on classic literature

in the classroom is not fully meeting these standards and the repercussions are


         First, for students to “identify with fictional characters” they must be able interact

and have a personal connection and understanding of the text. However, the classics

frequently present characters and subject matter that are incapable of reaching teenagers.

The adult characters and plots within the classics offer little connection to the life of the

modern day student. Studies in human growth support theories that adolescents undergo

certain developmental tasks that place emphasis on their social and emotional

development. If the student is not developmentally ready to relate to a particular work

then they will be able to identify with very little of the literature. John Bushman and Kay

Bushman comment upon the classics failure to offer students a connection to their own

life as he states:

                 Teachers have failed to choose literature that enables students to become
        emotionally and cognitively involved in what they read. If students are asked to
        read literature that is not consistent with their developmental tasks, they will not
        be able to interact fully with that literature…. The attitude found in this classical
        literature curriculum seems to be that the schools have a body of literature – a
        canon – to be taught to students, whether they can read it or not. Therein lies the
        problem. Most students cannot read classical literature well (i.e. they cannot have
        a personal involvement with it) (3).

        Almost any reader would have difficulty reading and enjoying a text they could

not relate to, but the task is even more difficult for the student who is reluctant to read or

learning disabled. Students with special needs require a curriculum that is even more

specialized and sympathetic to their reading experience. Their abilities must constantly be

built upon rather than torn down if they are to continue to grow intellectually. Classic

literature requires the students to latch on to ideas that they can’t fully grasp because the

gaps between their life and the events in the novel are so far removed. The demanding

skills it takes for students to make these connection with little to no personal attachment

becomes too difficult a task to willingly accept. When these students and regular

education students fail to connect to literature the common response is to turn away from

the task that is so difficult. The ultimate result then is typically the creation of a student

who leaves school without the desire or skill to be come a lifelong reader.

        Christenbury asserts, “Developing lifelong readers is tricky, and for some young

people, the shift from elementary to middle school and above leaves their reading far

behind” (153). Lifelong reading is one of the most significant skills a language arts

teacher can instill in their students, but if the student doesn’t relate to reading then their

experiences are wasted. Concerned with the classical curriculum, John Bushman notes

in his article “Young Adult Literature in the Classroom – Or Is It?” statistics from the

1993 National Adult Literacy Survey suggests that lifelong reading is in fact not

occurring as nearly half of the American readers are in the lower two of the five reading

levels (38). The significance of teaching lifelong reading is very critical to the continued

literacy of our nation and the failure to create lifelong readers is totally preventable.

Language arts educator need to reconsider their curriculum and find a way to get students

involved and interested with what they read.

        Guy Bland, a high school language arts teacher describes his experiences with the

classical curriculum. In “Out with the Old in the with the (Not So) New” Bland tells how

he came to realize that the classics do not have to be the only way students develop a love

for reading. He declares, “There’s no disputing the profound contributions of the great

authors, nor the suitability of the classics to conformed readers. But we must question

the illogic – the elitism, really – as well as the futility of expecting nonreaders to

suddenly become readers simply because they are presented with the very best literature”

(21). This is where language arts educators have to accept Nanci Atwell’s belief, “There

is no one book everyone has to read.” Then they begin to seek assistance from the young

adult novel in order to bring students to enjoy reading.

        The young adult novel offers a teenage protagonist who encounters an issue or

concern that many of today’s students would find interesting or somehow capable of

relating to their life. There are novels such as The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Jane

Eyre and Lord of the Flies that border on being young adult literature with their teenage

protagonist but still they carry a strong classical reputation that continues to intimidate

some students. As students strive to relate to many of the classics due to the discrepancy

between their developmental tasks and the content of the literature, young adult literature

nurtures these adolescent issues by treating topics the students most likely encounter in

their lives. In Bushman’s survey he discover that when students have the opportunity to

read for “pleasure” they are choosing young adolescent books like: The Outsiders, M.C.

Higgins the Great, Go Ask Alice, April Morning, The Hiding Place and others (37). If

students are reading these works for pleasure and not the classics, then why doesn’t the

curriculum include young adult literature?

       Even with the best of the young adult literature, critics will still conclude that the

language is “easy reading” and not as challenging as much of the classic literature. But

for students who struggle with the classics, young adult literature can offer reading that is

manageable and interesting. With Piaget’s theories for cognitive development in mind,

Bushman and Bushman note that based on the levels of cognition some students in high

school are still not in the final concrete operational stage that requires higher order

thinking; therefore, their interactions with young adult literature is more appropriate and

should be expected (4). In this sense young adult literature is especially beneficial to

learning disabled students who function at an even lower cognitive level. But even if

readers are mature, they can still use the young adult literature to complete the same tasks

that previously the classics were used for.

       As already established, teachers are wary in having to say that the classics are not

the only way to when it comes to reading good literature. Christenbury points out that

educators question the quality of this literature largely due to their inexperience with

young adult literature (154). Even if teachers do try to include young adult literature in

their classroom, they do so in a way that suggests young adult literature is not quite as

worthy as the classics. The works on Bushman’s list are the titles studied and discussed

in class, while the titles students indicated they read for pleasure are used as extra credit

or outside reading. This implies to the students that nothing truly worth reading has been

written since works like The Catcher in the Rye or Lord of the Flies. For students who

are not connecting to the assigned literature, this attitude suggests that what they are

reading isn’t really good literature; therefore, they aren’t really reading at all. With the

emphasis on the classics, young adult literature is unfairly treated as the “stepchild” of

the curriculum when it can actually offer a lot, if not more, to high school students

(Christenbury 154).

       In considering the standards set forth by the NCTE, young adult literature can still

fulfill the values for literature as they offer an students a way of identifying with fictional

characters, discovering the importance of literature as a reflection of the human

experience, developing ways to write about literature, and even developing habits of

lifelong reading (NCTE web page). If anything there is a greater chance that students

will meet these standards through the use of young adult literature because they can use

find a connection within the young adult works that seems to not exist with the classics.

       As young adult literature promises to bring more students toward lifelong reading

and this genre can no longer be ignored, as it deserves respect within the classroom. At

the same time the classics continue to make a profound contribution to the language arts

curriculum and cannot be neglected, as students still need to be exposed to the literature

that has for so long been deemed great. Rather than battle which genre deserves the full

attention of the high school curriculum, it would be more worthwhile for educators to

accept the benefits of both genres and equally treat both the classics and young adult

literature in the classroom. Joan F. Kaywell definitely supports this approach to teaching

literature in the secondary school curriculum and has developed a three-volume work,

Adolescent Literature as a Compliment to the Classics, based on the assumption that both

genres are valuable to the education of high school students. This approach offers

“balanced diet” of literature that gives students the necessary exposure to the classics

while also providing meaningful experience with quality young adult literature (Kaywell


        The pairing of the genres relies heavily upon thematic units. The language arts

educator uses a central theme to connect a classic and a young adult work together. In

volume one of Adolescent Literature as a Compliment to the Classics it is suggested that

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn be taught under a theme concerns with the various

types of prejudice, including racial prejudice. The young adult novels that could

accompany this classic include Mildred Taylor’s Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry (racial

prejudice), Madeleine L’ Engle’s The Summer of Great Grandfather (age prejudice),

Robert Cormier’s The Chocolate War (status prejudice), Judy Blume’s Are you There

God, It’s me Margaret (religious prejudice), Cynthia Voigt’s Izzy, Willy Neely (disability

prejudice) (Kaywell 39-40). With this particular unit before reading The Adventures of

Huckleberry Finn, the class would be divided into five groups and assigned a novel

concerning one the prejudices. After the students read these novels and share with their

classmates what they have learned, they will then move on into reading The Adventures

of Huckleberry Finn (Kaywell 39-40). Another possible literature paring include The

Grapes of Wrath with Sue Ellen Bridge’s All Together Now in a lesson teaching the

theme of brotherhood. The Tragedy of Julius Caesar is paired with Lois Duncan’s

Killing Mr. Griffin to teach relationships as Duncan’s characters reflect important figures

in this classic. For more ideas on what or how to pair classic literature with young adult

literature I suggest sorting through Kaywell’s multivolume work, Adolescent Literature

as a Compliment to the Classics or looking at reviews of young adult literature available

through the Assembly on Literature for Adolescents (ALAN).

       The debate on canonical works steams daily with little resolution. Yet, each day

language arts educators are expected to stand at the front of their classrooms providing

students with a sense of literature that can broaden their insights and allow them to

experience the joy of reading. What they choose to include with their curriculum is

crucial not only because their decisions continue to define the literary canon, but also

more importantly their decisions affect the potential reading capabilities of the students

they encounter. A wrong choice could yield a reluctant reader who may never appreciate

what literature has to offer. With the interest of their students in mind, language arts

educators need to offer students the best possible exposure to literature. The aesthetic

contributions of the classics, in addition to the appropriate content of young adult

literature both enhance the high school’s students’ interaction with literature. As

language arts educators are dealt the task of instilling an appreciation of reading into

every student that sits in their classroom, they should recall the words of C. Robert

Carlsen: “Every time we select a piece of literature to read, we are exposing ourselves to

a vision: a vision of people and places and things; a vision of relationships and feelings

and strivings.” It is important then that students are provided a selection of literature that

is diverse so that they may never know limits to the visions literature has to offer.

                                     Works Cited

Bland, Guy. “Out With the Old, in with the (Not So) New” English Journal. 90 (2001) :


Bushman, John H. and Kay parks Bushman. Using Young Adult Literature in the English

       Classroom. Upper Saddle River: Merrill, 1997.

Bushman, John H. “Young Adult Literature in the Classroom-Or Is It?” English Journal.

       86 (1997) : 35-40.

Christenbury, Leila. Making the Journey. Portsmouth: Boynton/ Cook Publishers, 1994.

Kaywell, Joan F. Adolescent Literature as a Compliment to the Classics. Norwood:

       Christopher-Gordon Publishers, Inc, 1997.

National Council of Teachers of English. “Standards for the English Language Arts.”

       National Council of Teachers of English. 5 October 2002


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