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Reflection on ILA’s "Expanding the Canon" Brief

By Jamie Hipp
 | Jan 24, 2019

readers-theatre-canonIn my former career as an elementary theater specialist, the perpetual hunt for royalty-free, developmentally appropriate, well-written scripts for rehearsal and performance was exhausting. I decided early on to allow my students to dramatize chapters from children’s literature into plays. This process offered my students rich playwriting opportunities for an authentic purpose. It also allowed me to cover a multitude of theater standards and vocabulary including playwriting, elements of fiction, character subtext and development, emotions, and more.

Newbery Medal texts are ubiquitous in many school libraries, therefore I started my search with a comprehensive winner list. I had simple criteria: I had read the book before and the text would make for an interesting scene for rehearsal and/or performance. My prioritization of Newbery winners I had read previously could also be regarded as part of the “canon of sentiment”—fondness for texts from your own youth and propagation of these texts.

Upon rereading the first group of Newbery Medal winners I secured from the library, I was hesitant to assign three books for dramatization. These were books that I adored from my own childhood! Those same books now seemed culturally disrespectful and promoted both negative stereotyping and gender roles when considering my readership (and audience) of 21st-century students.

Several articles and biographical sketches of author Scott O’Dell document his vague and inaccurate depiction of Nicoleño culture by using the indigenous customs and traditions of other tribes in the 1961 Newbery winner, Island of the Blue Dolphins. If I assigned The Slave Dancer (Aladdin), the 1974 winner by Paula Fox, I felt I would not be culturally responsive to my many students of color. The book is narrated by the white, 13-year-old fife player, Jessie, leaving out the voices of the enslaved Africans who were brutalized on the ship. Finally, if I assigned the 1981 winner, Katherine Paterson’s Jacob Have I Loved (HarperCollins), was I promoting gender conformity? As a staunch supporter of student choice, I simply did not know how to answer when a student picked up Slave Dancer from my desk and asked to borrow it.

Stereotypes were a frequent discussion topic in my class. The theater term "stock character" refers to an archetype easily understood onstage. To model stock character creation for my students, I would often hunch over, pantomime using a cane, hold my back, and wrinkle my forehead to portray an elderly person. In the discussions that followed, I would always emphasize that I do not (nor do many people) know any elderly individuals who legitimately look or move similarly, however, the depiction "reads" as elderly onstage. Still, a conversation about culture, gender, and nationality did not come as easily to me.

In a subsequent conversation with my colleagues who taught English language arts, I learned I was not alone. Their student demographics also included indigenous youth, students of color, and gender nonconforming students. They shared similar hesitations regarding certain books. ILA’s recent brief, Expanding the Canon How Diverse Literature Can Transform Literacy Learning, tackles this issue of expanding the canon of literature from only the classics and award winners to a wide array of works including various perspectives and peoples.

In my own reflection on this brief, it seems crucial to continue to encourage student self-selection of texts, even if their choices make us (teachers/educational stakeholders) hesitant. Student choice sets the stage for literacy learning. Pairing texts like Slave Dancer with fellow Newbery winner Show Way by Jacqueline Woodson (Putnam) puts the African American voice center stage. All literacy educators can play their part in expanding the canon through inspiring student choice of both classics and contemporary literature which embrace diversity in its many forms. Now, on with the show!

Jamie Hipp is an adjunct professor in LSU’s School of Education and serves as a fellow for the Louisiana A+ Schools network. Connect with her on Twitter @artsarehipp.

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