An interesting thing happened in my classroom this year. Amidst a district effort to match test scores with literacy challenges, I shepherded the ELA department into a lit circles/reading groups program - away from the all-class novel. I used our library heavily, invested in Kindles and multiple copies of contemporary (highly recommended and duly Lexiled) fiction, graphic novels, and non-fiction.
My students read and read and read - in structured groups, then in loose groups, then in personal choice groups. Many read 1-1 with me because no one else wanted to read the book. I have YA reading exhaustion. My best estimate is that I read 75 novels myself, ranging in level from grade 5 to adult, conferenced on over 200, and spent my own dollars in excess of $800.
After we all reported out on the last novel read, we did a 2-week poetry unit with direct instruction on "only great poems." Each student read poetry independently and gathered 10 poems for an annotated personal anthology. Five students wrote and shared their own serious verse. Then we took the NWEA test. With 3 exceptions, scores of my students met or surpassed goals. The highest scores in the grade were in my regular classes, not in the G/T program. Success.
But that's not the interesting part. I asked 2 weeks ago - so what do we do now? I discussed this with the 4 classes involved. Two classes wanted to do an all-class reading of a "hard novel" and the other two wanted to read Shakespeare. The Canon had come to them!
We are reading The Dark is Rising by Susan Cooper, a novel so despised by 7th grade teachers and students in the past that the classroom set showed very little wear. When teachers see the novel in my room, they invariably say, "Why are you reading that?" My answer is the same as the explanation I have given to my students - it is a modern classic, it's hard, and the students are ready for it (one student is listening to an excellent Audible version I purchased for her). We are NOT doing reading questions and endless pre-reading - we simply immersed ourselves in the book the way we have been reading all year. We have had terrific discussions about good and evil, the fear of looming evil and death, Arthurian (and Greek and Celtic and Indian) mythical gods and heroes, choices, courage, symbolism, allusion... We have done deep readings of beautiful or significant paragraphs. Students make connections between this book and the other books, movies, video games and TV shows that capture them (What is the difference between being manipulated/raped by Zeus and manipulated by a Government?). At first, this title was "trite" - but now, it is viewed by the students as a rich foundation. I am, I believe, creating a base for their reading of The Canon in high school.
The same is happening with the Midsummer Night's Dream readers. Not only are we having a blast with the story (edited for them by my husband - about 20% reduced and annotated), we are site-reading outside in our woods, discussing, staging, and soon memorizing and performing. This is the first Shakespeare read in our Middle School in the memory of my colleagues.
I'm not entirely sure what to make of this all, except that I believe that the huge amount of choice reading done by students is a key element. The English Companion Ning is having a conversation currently about the place of The Canon in today's LA classroom. The comments are wide-ranging and I agree with most of the discussion. But no one is observing what I have observed: Students need to be led to The Canon.
In the past, LA teachers believed that students would rise to the challenge of reading those great literary texts by the simple means of achieving the required age or grade level. We now know this is false - preparation for the hard fun of reading great texts begins at age 1, is nourished through elementary school, and must be sustained in middle school.
I don't have much control over the reading done by my students before they see me, but I do see 156 days as enough time to make a difference. It's the type of hard work that we, as teachers must do if we really want to lead our students to deep thinking about reading and it connections to the meanings of the world around them.