'Kids can't live on literary Twinkies alone': What kids should be reading in classrooms

In preparing Cross Country Checkup this week, producer Anna-Liza Kozma spoke to several teachers about the challenges of teaching English to today's students.
Lake Scugog near Port Perry, Ont. (CBC )

An essay by Checkup producer Anna-Liza Kozma

Early this morning before work, I drove down to Lake Scugog near where I live and dragged my new plastic kayak across the grass to the water.

The lake was as still as glass and over by Scugog Island the remnant of the sunrise spattered like a children's finger painting.

I clambered into my craft — there is no elegant way to do it — and pushed off with my paddle. Within seconds I was gliding towards the centre of the lake, away from town, away from the school lunches still to be packed, the phone calls to be made, the radio interviews to set up.

As I floated there on the mirror-still lake, a blue heron took off from behind a clump of bulrushes, legs ramrod straight behind. Without thinking, I opened my mouth and sang, "Casting down their golden crowns, around a glassy sea."

Perhaps it was more a croak than a song. And then I recalled another line, "Early in the morning our song shall rise to Thee." That poetry set to music came unbidden, drawn up from the deep well of childhood hymns I'd sung in school assembly every morning.

I kept singing but I paddled back to shore and the chores of the morning with an overwhelming sense of sadness.

The night before I'd been asking my teenagers what their favourite poem was. They couldn't name one. Needless to say they don't have a favourite hymn either.

For better or worse my children are products of our modern education system which ensures they've never had to suffer mouthing the archaic words of an early 19th century Bishop and adventurer. 

The uses of poetry

All the way into work on the train I brooded about what is missing in my kids' education. Of course all the girls at my school had grumbled and goofed off during morning assembly — just as we baulked at learning by heart our obligatory Shakespeare sonnets, soliloquies, and romantic poetry.

The funny thing is, 30 years later, I get more use out of the hymns and the poetry I imbibed back then than almost anything else. I've lost count of the time when I've hauled out Keats' desperate clamor for a drink: 

O for a beaker full of the warm South,

... With beaded bubbles winking at the brim,

And purple-stained mouth;

Or shut my kids up with Eliot's irrefutable "Man's life is a cheat and a disappointment..." 

Making kids do anything is out of fashion now

Is this just about showing off? I hope not. There are simply some things that have been said so exquisitely in the past that it is impossible to render them better. Try putting Portia's "The quality of mercy is not strained" speech into everyday language and you will see what I mean. It can be done but only by using twice as many words. And words that are not as beautiful. I know because my school teachers used to make us do it.

But making kids do anything is out of fashion now.

In preparing Cross Country Checkup this week, I spoke to several teachers about the challenges of teaching English to today's students.

Lynn Filliter, head of the English department at Jean Augustine Secondary School in Brampton, Ont., told me that there haven't been any mandatory books — what we used to call set texts — for over a decade in the Ontario curriculum.

"It wouldn't make sense to pre-determine books across the board. One school might choose to use texts from a certain culture that fits the makeup of their student body," she told me.

Instead of a whole class reading a single book, students are encouraged to pick what most appeals to them from a range of titles. The idea is woo children back to reading with books that are "relevant" to them. And if novels don't appeal ,then students can supplement their reading list with videos or slam poetry.

It is not because of its age that it is inherently superior literature. Or because of its origin (that) it is inherently superior.- Lynn Filliter

I was curious. Is it possible for students to go four years through high school without reading anything that wasn't written  more than 20 years ago?

Filliter laughed. "Certainly there is the possibility that a student can go all the way through high school and read mostly modern literature, or all modern literature and never read Shakespeare, and yet have built all the skills related to the English curriculum and have read more recent but equally phenomenal literature," she said.

"It is not because of its age that it is inherently superior literature. Or because of its origin (that) it is inherently superior."

How do we balance the old and the new?

I have sympathy with encouraging kids to keep reading. My own teenagers are perversely adverse to picking up any book recommended by their parents — with the grand exception of Terry Pratchett's seductive oeuvre. But what does it mean to make the English curriculum "relevant"? And should students be given the choice to skip the classics altogether? How do we balance the old and the new?

These are questions that Laurentian University's humanities professor, Ron Srigley, has written widely on. 

Professor Srigley, who also used to teach religious studies at the University of Prince Edward Island, agrees that there is indeed good new stuff being written and that students should read it.

"I'd put texts by George Saunders on the curriculum, the monologues of Spalding Gray, and any number of other new things. But this will have to be judged very closely and carefully. The reason texts are 'canonical' in the good sense is that the picture of human life they paint is as wide as it is deep. They get at everything, which makes them a perfect foundation for other, lesser works to come in a riff on them. But if all you've got are riffs, no deep harmonic structure, then things are going to get pretty flimsy pretty quick. Like watching a highlight reel of the Jays instead of an actual game," he told me in an email.

'Kids can't live on literary Twinkies alone'

Srigley is also concerned that changes in the curriculum in the name of relevance can mean two other things — "easier" and "not at all."

"First, easier. As in the university, the high schools are dumbing things down at an alarming rate. Kids can't read things they used to be able to read for the simple reason that we don't care whether they can or can't. The evidence on this problem is in. The kids are losing ground. Even the business sector is asking what we're doing with them for all those years given their limited abilities. But kids really do want real things, appearances to the contrary notwithstanding. Which means that what's actually happening is that they're starving to death intellectually in our classes. The kids can't live on literary Twinkies alone."

[Students are] starving to death intellectually in our classes. The kids can't live on literary Twinkies alone.- Ron Srigley

When it comes to finding literature that appeals to students of different backgrounds, Srigley insists the tried and tested canon still offers the richest resource, especially when broadened to include canonical texts from other cultures.

"I teach Sikh kids and Nigerian kids and Chinese kids. If you boil away the strange context of our literature — or even better, show how it, too, in its essentials is very similar to their own because it's driven by basic human desires and needs — the lack a relevance fades to nothing. But I would also say that if the population of our country and our schools is changing that dramatically (and it is), then we should add to our curriculum the great works of literature and art of other traditions. Perhaps we should do this regardless. Have the kids read Rumi, and Mencius, and the Buddha. We do this in universities; why not in high schools?"

We need coherence not a hodgepodge

Part of the challenge of re-working a literature curriculum to include a wider variety of traditions is to maintain a coherence in what has always been an elastic and unwieldy field.

Ken Coates, a Canada research chair at the University of Saskatchewan wrote a book called Campus Confidential which argues that  high school students are not being properly prepared for university precisely because they are not reading widely or deeply enough.

"I was not a fan of Shakespeare in high school and I am not a fan of Shakespeare now. However, I recognize that he is part of the canon," he told me.

"We need also to be open to a wide range of carefully selected voices. We need to know the many ways in which the people around us see the world. So here in Canada we need to do more to include Indigenous voices, women's voices, Acadian voices, voices from Quebe c... We need to be broadening out a little bit. And somehow we need to develop an overall coherence ... It will be a hodgepodge otherwise." 

We need to reflect the value system we have as a country. Books that reflect social justice, attitudes to women and Indigenous people… And we do need to provide some national sense.- Ken Coates 

So whose role is it to craft that coherence, especially as unlike most countries, Canada doesn't have a national curriculum?

What we do have is 13 education departments, each with different priorities.

"We are one of the few countries in the world not to have a federal education department and we can't fix that. That's just how (our) confederation works," explains Ken Coates.

"BC is going to have different needs from Quebec ... But what we can do is to approach this in a public way. We can ask people: What are the principals for a new curriculum they would like to see? We need a public discussion."

The best writing squeezes quarts into pint pots

Simply attempting to represent a variety of diverse groups on a reading list is not really the solution to giving our children a better education.

"If every ethnic and cultural group has some place in curriculum that won't take us very far.

We need to reflect the value system we have as a country. Books that reflect social justice, attitudes to women and indigenous people … And we do need to provide some national sense and a coherent vision — otherwise we will just continue to bounce around."

Poetry is distilled meaning. Like grains of salt after the sea has been evaporated, it flavours and preserves.- Anna-Liza Kozma

Going back to the snatches of the old school hymn that framed my early morning paddle on Lake Scugog, I am ever grateful for my coherent, if old-fashioned, education.

The best writing squeezes quarts into pint pots. Poetry is distilled meaning. Like grains of salt after the sea has been evaporated, it flavours and preserves — morning after morning, day after day. And I hope we can find a way that makes this true for our children too.  They are going to need more than Twinkies for the voyage ahead.