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Pairing Classical Canon With Contemporary Counterparts

By Alina O'Donnell
 | Dec 05, 2018

book-clubs-ltAlthough we’ve long known the importance of cultivating a diverse classroom library, today’s English language arts curriculum remains dominated by a list of familiar titles, such as F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn,and Homer’s The Odyssey. Proponents of classical literature note their cultural and historical significance, praiseworthy prose, and contributions to a shared knowledge base.

On the other hand, a growing number of educators have moved away from using these classics in favor of more modern alternatives, arguing that they offer more compelling, inclusive, and relatable narratives while imparting the same skills and themes.

ILA’s latest brief, Expanding the Canon: How Diverse Literature Can Transform Literacy Learning, opts for a less binary option. Instead of pitting classic versus contemporary, the piece argues that teaching traditional canon in tandem with current titles is the more powerful option.

One added benefit of this approach is the ability of educators to cultivate a classroom library that reflects the “diverse streams of culture, history, and language that compose today’s increasingly global society.”

Here are a few sample pairings, provided via Twitter by classroom teachers and literacy professionals:

“This fall, we are ‘pairing/laddering’ the new nonfiction by Larry Dane Brimner, Blacklisted!, with Arthur Miller’s The Crucible. We actually get to read into the events that inspired the play with the pairing here.”
—@PaulWHankins  

“Teach texts in conversation with one another: The Great Gatsby with Toni Morrison’s Jazz, Macbeth with House of Cards, Never Let Me Go with The Marrow Thieves.”
—@CarolJago

“The most powerful pairings are the most unlikely ones—focused on the same questions but from different centuries and very different writers. My current favorite: Hamlet and Long Way Down. The Hate You Give and Romeo and Juliet.”
—@obrienfolger

“Sophocles’s Oedipus the King and Aaron Sorkin’s A Few Good Men. Codes of honor, courage to face the truth, complexity of the human condition.”
—@SycamoreHSEng

“I have an idea to look at language used to describe Othello and language used in the red lining maps, easily searched through Mapping Inequality. Same problem, different day. And important American history.”
—@blaney_anne

“We read Greek mythology and Shirley Jackson’s The Lottery with The Hunger Games—kids love making comparisons and finding thematic connections.”
—@Mrs_Matsalia

“Shakespeare’s King Lear and Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart.”
—@Cummins2Cathy

How often do you pair reading classics with modern, inclusive texts? Which pairings were especially strong or resonated with your students? What themes work well for these pairings? Email your answers to social@reading.org.

Alina O’Donnell is the communications strategist at ILA and the editor of Literacy Daily.

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