Keywords: Canon, Critical Pedagogy, Seminar

Canon, Critical Pedagogy, Seminar

             When I was just starting out in my teaching career, I would have cringed from the very idea that my teaching would be described as “canonical”. Yes, I’ve loved Shakespeare since my mom and I read our way through The Tempest before my 9th birthday, in preparation of one last “just the three of us” trip, my first to Stratford, Ontario, before the as-yet-unannounced birth of my brother, and yes, I was looking forward to integrating Shakespeare once I was teaching 8th graders instead of my grade 7 students that year (since I remembered fondly encountering Midsummer during that year of my own schooling), but my teaching identity in those early years was fiercely rooted in “confronting the dominant culture”. I designed units around social justice in a rural Michigan town, where, to my horror, a student pointed to an image of a Klan member in full regalia and said, “Oh! Those guys. My grandma takes me to the picnic they have every summer.” I mostly ignored my textbook, other than for the pieces by authors who were neither dead nor white, and I encouraged my students to flail aimlessly in pursuit of my own poorly structured ideas of what inquiry was (and how little I should be involved in the process).
            As my career evolved, however, I began to shift toward a more canonical approach, although I was still predominantly ignoring my textbook and teaching with YA and middle grade novels (but they were, essentially, canon, because they were the novel sets that had been purchased by the school to align with the other schools in our district: even the multi-cultural titles, which I gravitated toward, were all at least ten years old). I started teaching grade 8, and I gleefully taught Midsummer, with all its innuendo and chaos, and I’m ashamed to admit in reflection that my first experiences teaching Shakespeare, I did not leave any room for the students to interpret the text differently than I already had, even as we compared scenes from two very different film productions.
            My teaching began to swing more toward a classic canonical approach when I shifted my focus and started teaching college learners developmental English and reading; as an adjunct, I was bound by a syllabus and a text I did not choose, and I came to delight in the uniformity of teaching the structure of a paragraph and the five-paragraph-essay. Those years made me a better educator after the fact, but at the time, the experience was rote. I was not challenged in the five years I spent as an adjunct, and my teaching stagnated, even as I used those years to explore my creative potential as a novelist.
            When, in 2016, I took a position mid-year as a high school English teacher in a Project-Based-Learning school, I finally, nine years after graduating and beginning my career, found the balance of critical canon that suited me best. The school was critical by nature, designed to foster independence and social justice, both at the local and the global levels. I walked into a rich, collaborative environment peopled with other educators who forced me out of complacency, who challenged me by example to bring my A-game every day. The environment was electric, and I thrived. It was there that I learned that I could better teach a text I didn’t particularly like (such as Animal Farm and Romeo and Juliet), but that I liked teaching. There, I taught canon with a critical lens, crafting driving questions that pushed students to make meaning of their own interpretations and the broader world, and I integrated YA novels through literature circles or direct textual pairings, as when I taught excerpts from The Odyssey  paired with Esther Friesner’s YA novel of Helen of Troy titled Nobody’s Princess. But the crowning glory for me was, as always, Shakespeare; I am probably a little two proud that two years’ worth of grade 9s in North Carolina read Romeo and Juliet as a soap opera in which they deemed no one innocent, least of all the young lovers (and prouder still that the majority of those students walked away resistant to the culture myth that the play is a love story).
            It wasn’t until these readings, however, that I had the lens to reflect on my shift from critical to canon and then into a blending. My epiphany is that when I was in an environment that did not have other educator voices in the critical camp, I was the one who went all in. I was able to develop my blended, mostly canonical with a bit of an edge, teaching style at my last high school because I was not the only voice trying to lead students to a deeper, critical understanding of our world. In a social justice saturated faculty, I did not have to be the “radical” voice for change; I could be conservative for the school, and yet still far to the liberal side of teaching practices in the state, a place that suited me quite nicely.

            Did I teach canon, those works considered “classics” of Western literature, penned by dead, white men? Yes. But I continued to integrate other voices in my curriculum, most importantly by making space for my students to share their evolving ideas, particularly through Socratic seminar. Although aspects of my teaching have changed over the years, I have always employed seminar with my students, and I am always blown away by the quality of discussions this form encourages, and the maturity with which students respond to the seminar circle. I feel like I could go on for pages about this, and my response is already getting long this week, so I’ll wrap up by reflecting that, despite highs and lows of my own pedagogical practices, and despite things I wish I could change in hindsight, my pedagogy has always “insist[ed] upon active mental engagement, thinking, questioning, and stimulation of the imagination” (Joseph, et al., 2010, p. 159).

References: Joseph, P. B. (2012). Cultures of Curriculum. Hoboken: Taylor and Francis. 


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