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Voices from the Middle--Moving from Print to Practice, September 2013 (21.1) - Previous Revision

This Issue’s Focus: Pathways to the Canon

The editors ask us to consider the following questions in this issue: Should the canon be expanded? Have the rationales for canon inclusions changed? If so, why? What type of instruction connects students with the literary canon? As we extend this issue, we can also consider the needs of young adolescents in relationship to the canon. How do we balance the cultural literacy perspectives that often influence the composition of the canon and its inclusion in middle grades classrooms with the need of young adolescents to see themselves and their world reflected in what they read?

Consider how middle grades are defined in your state licensure structure or in your school district’s building configuration. When we think about works that are included in the traditional canon, we often name works that are better suited—based on reading level and topic—for a high school audience. What does the canon in middle grades mean to you? Many authors in this issue suggest using contemporary young adult literature as steps toward or companion texts to complement the traditional canon.

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to Voices from the Middle.

“Critiquing and Constructing Canons in Middle Grade English Language Arts Classrooms” by Amanda Haertling Thein and Richard Beach

General Discussion Topic

This article discusses the many “canonizing” forces that middle grade teachers face. High school curriculum is often guided by the College Board and the Advanced Placement English Literature and Composition exam, where titles included as preparation for the AP exam often filter down into middle grades. The authors cite other forces, such as the Newbery Medal and Printz Award, as canonizing forces for middle grade reading lists. Many educators are concerned that the text exemplars in the Common Core State Standards will represent a coming canon of required reading at all grade levels. How can teachers work as advocates for young adolescents against some of these canonizing forces to ensure that students have access to a wide range of reading materials that meet their developmental, emotional, social, and academic needs?

Key Points
  • Middle grade teachers can expect to encounter an array of “canonizing” forces as they navigate their instructional choices.
  • Student voices are typically not loud enough in teachers’ consideration of texts. 
  • As students develop skills in critiquing the construction of the young adult literary canon, teachers might challenge them to consider both classic and contemporary canons. 
  • Reading counter-canonical narratives can lead students to write their own stories for inclusion in the classroom canon—stories that challenge and complicate the underlying value assumptions constituting prototypical character traits and actions.
Common Core Connections

Text Exemplars are included in the Common Core State Standards within grade-level bands. (See Appendix B of the Standards for all text exemplars.)

Grades 6–8 Stories:

Little Women by Louisa May Alcott
The Adventures of Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain
A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle
The Dark Is Rising by Susan Cooper
Dragonwings by Laurence Yep
Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry by Mildred D. Taylor
“The People Could Fly” by Virginia Hamilton
The Tale of the Mandarin Ducks by Katherine Paterson
“Eleven” by Sandra Cisneros
Black Ships before Troy: The Story of the Iliad by Rosemary Sutcliff

(Check out the free Common Core app from for all text exemplars.)

Using This Article with Your Team

Examine the list of text exemplars in informational texts. Canonizing forces can work in all content areas, not just language arts. How can you help your colleagues to incorporate more informational texts into their classrooms, but not use these lists as required readings? Can you lead all of your colleagues to advocate for a wide variety of reading and not be limited to the lists in the Common Core? How does this list of exemplars align with your state standards in math, science, and social studies?

Why Not Try This?
  • The authors use the classic Cinderella story as their example of a text that is part of the canon of fairy tales, but that has been interpreted in many alternate versions over the years. They suggest having students write parodies or fan-fiction versions, beginning with a study of examples of fan fiction from
  • Picture books provide additional examples of parodies, twisted tales, and alternate versions. Here are some examples:
The Rough-Face Girl by Rafe Martin and David Shannon

Mufaro’s Beautiful Daughters by John Steptoe

Ella’s Big Chance: A Jazz Age Cinderella by Shirley Hughes

Bigfoot Cinderrrrrella by Tony Johnston and James Warhola

Bubba, the Cowboy Prince by Helen Ketteman and James Warhola

  • Young adult titles offer a more complex story, but add twists or story lines that differ from the classic. Check these out:
Ella Enchanted by Gail Carson Levine

Just Ella by Margaret Peterson Haddix

Red Gone Bad by Lucy Pireel (a collection of short stories)

  • Have students analyze these variations. Remind them that forms can vary. Traditional paper and pencil will work just fine, but why not try a blog, wiki, or even collaboration on your classroom bulletin board or butcher paper on open wall space? Consider this variation of a semantic feature analysis:

 The Rough-Face Girl
Mufaro's Beautiful Daughters
Ella's Big Chance
Bigfoot Cinderrrrella
Bubba, The Cowboy Prince
 Female "Cinderella"
 Wicked step-parent
 Shoe is central to plot
 Wicked step-family is defeated in the end
 Cinderella and prince marry in the end
 Setting is a castle or palace, obvious wealth and privilege

 For more explanation of semantic feature analysis, see

“21st Century Student Demands a Balanced, More Inclusive Canon” by Tonya B. Perry and B. Joyce Stallworth

General Discussion Topic

The authors liken the discussion of the canon to a dinner table conversation. It depends on who is at the table and participating in the conversation as to how “good literature” is defined and promoted. Author and teacher Nancie Atwell uses dinner conversation as her metaphor for engaging students in reader-response kinds of conversations. If you were to engage in a conversation about what makes a book worthy of inclusion in the canon, what would you say and who would you invite to join you in that exchange? What would happen if you posed that question to your students? Their parents? Your colleagues?

Key Points

  • Quality young adult literature does not dilute the canon but expands the levels of complexity available to all readers.
  • Students who are taught how to close-read quality canonical and non-canonical texts and how to provide textual support for their claims are much more critical of the author’s purpose, the point of view of the narrator, gaps in reasoning, and the development of language and word choice.
  • The challenge to teachers and teacher educators is to teach students to examine different types of texts as independent thinkers.

Common Core Connection

The concept of clustering in this article supports two College and Career Readiness Anchor Standards:
2. Determine central ideas or themes and analyze their development; summarize the key supporting details and ideas.
7. Integrate and evaluate content presented in diverse formats and media, including visually and quantitatively, as well as in words.

Using This Article with Your Team

The Common Core State Standards spread the responsibility of teaching reading skills across all content areas. If you follow the cluster idea that the authors suggest for providing balance in the curriculum and expanding from the canon, this could become an interdisciplinary unit of study. As resources cross subject area boundaries, use the cluster to incorporate reading material in multiple disciplines.

Why Not Try This?
Perry and Stallworth offer the idea of “clustering” texts to provide balance and to combine a variety of texts, including young adult literature and canonical works. They suggest using The Giver by Lois Lowry to explore the concept of the power of memory. Now add to these cluster:
  • “Harrison Bergeron” by Kurt Vonnegut
In an effort to make everyone equal, human beings are outfitted with all kinds of devices to inhibit physical strength or mental ability so that those of greater ability will sink to a level equal to everyone else. This includes interrupting thoughts with interfering transmissions so that memories are lost and connected thoughts cannot lead to any particular action.
  • “The Power of Memory” by columnist Joseph Smigelski of the Huffington Post offers another format for reading about and considering the power of memory as well as multiple other options for source material in his references.
  • “The Riddle of Experience vs. Memory,” a TED Talk by Daniel Kahneman, is available at the link below or you can try the iPad App to experience and share TED talks. This one is about 20 minutes long and kids may need some support and discussion to understand all that he is talking about, but that is what we as teachers do, right? Don’t miss the feature at the lower right under the media player labeled “show transcript.” This may be helpful for differentiating instruction or posting videos online.

  • Try to search for poems about memory.
  • “Reading a Mind’s Memories” by Stephen Ornes is a scientific article for kids; it poses the question What if a brain scan could reveal your memories?

Expanding the Canon

“Graphic Narratives and the Evolution of the Canon: Adapting Literature for a New Generation” by William J. Fassbender, Margaret Dulaney, and Carol A. Pope

“The Image Becomes the Weapon: New Literacies and Canonical Legacies” by David E. Low and Gerald Campano

General Discussion Topic

It’s time to turn the tables on a familiar refrain. Fassbender, Dulaney, and Pope write “many of us were taught the classics in school and believe the books that made a difference in our lives will be the same ones that make a difference in our students’ lives.” It is time to think about the books that are making a difference in our students’ lives and give them a chance to make a difference in ours. Is this what it means to rethink the traditional canon?

Key Points

  • In an ideal learning environment, students will encounter and create a range of texts as they come to see themselves as operating within rich and evolving intellectual traditions.
  • The question needs to move away from whether there should or should not be a literary canon and toward how literary legacies are manifested in our students’ lives and writings.
  • The canon is not solely a mechanism to be reproduced; it is also critically reinvented by our students.
Common Core Connections

There are multiple Standards that could apply depending on what you do with graphic novels in your classroom.

Grade 8 Reading Literature: Craft and Structure

5. Compare and contrast the structure of two or more texts and analyze how the differing structure of each text contributes to its meaning and style.
Grade 8 Reading Literature: Integration of Knowledge and Ideas
9. Analyze how a modern work of fiction draws on themes, patterns, events, or character types from myths, traditional stories, or religious works such as the Bible; describe how the material is rendered new. Have students compare and contrast traditional literature in multiple forms, including graphic.

Using These Articles with Your Team

There are sources for graphic novels across the curriculum including:
Social Studies and more:
The following are the YouTube clips I use throughout my unit:
  • A Christmas Story Clip:
  • American Born Chinese Book Trailer:
  • Gene Luen Yang on American Born Chinese:
  • Asian Backstreet Boys:
  • I Peepee in Your Coke:
  • Shaolin Monks and Qi Gong:
  • Charlie Chan in The Black Camel:
  • Transformers Opening Credits:
  • William Hung American Idol Audition:
  • Charla Nash Was Attacked by a Pet Chimp:
The following sites allow you to download sound effects that are in the public domain (free):
After I found the sounds on these sites, I put them into an iTunes playlist in the order they appear in the book. This past year, I upgraded to an iPad app called "Soundboard for iPad" by Ambrosia Software, Inc. that allows me to organize the sound effects, and I find that it works easier than a playlist. However, it does cost $20 in the iTunes store.

Why Not Try This?
The canon and graphic formats are not mutually exclusive. There are several apps for iPads that turn classic stories into graphic form.
  • Romeo and Juliet: HD by Ave!Comics Production

  • Alice in Wonderland: The Graphic Novel for iPad by Ave!Comics Production
  • Don Quixote: HD by Ave!Comics Production
  • The Bible: Kingstone Comics by Kingstone Media
  • One author suggests for students to make their own comics as a form of assessment.
  • Be sure to check out NCTE’s Tips for Teaching Graphic Novels
  • Tons of additional resources can be found at Graphic Novels for the Librarian

Expanding the Universe of Texts

"The Power of Song: Exploring Cultural Relevance in the Eighth-Grade Classroom” by Emily Grater and Danielle Johnson

“Teaching the (Uni)Verse: An Essay for Teachers of Languages, Texts, and Cultures” by David E. Kirkland

General Discussion Topic

The term “text” can be defined as broadly as the term “canon.” Put the two together and we really have an infinite number of items to put in front of our students to help them build the skills of observation and analysis necessary for reading and interpreting literature and meeting the demands of the Common Core State Standards. Consider the traditional texts you use. In this context, I mean short stories, poems, novels, or plays, usually written on paper and read by students and teachers. From that list, how could you expand the concept of text as reflected by these authors? Song lyrics? Commercials? Artifacts? How can you use these new texts to help your students explore other cultures or viewpoints?

Key Points

  • The world is littered with such “reading” materials, unlikely texts that archive important narratives of our humanity.
  • As our universe of texts expands, so should our thoughts about what and how we teach ELA. 
  • Popular culture can both supplement academic texts and help connect students to traditional curricula. It can be a powerful component of culturally relevant literacy instruction.

Common Core Connection

Reading Literature: Craft and Structure
Grade 6

5. Analyze how a particular sentence, chapter, scene, or stanza fits into the overall structure of a text and contributes to the development of the theme, setting, or plot.
Grade 8
5. Compare and contrast the structure of two or more texts and analyze how the differing structure of each text contributes to its meaning and style.

Using These Articles with Your Team

Artifacts, songs, commercials, or poetry can be applicable in any discipline. Share these articles with colleagues on your team and help each other brainstorm examples to expand the universe of texts. Use advisory time to build a team display or other cache of ideas from teachers and students around a theme or topic that has been part of your advisory program.

Why Not Try This?
  • Kirkland uses a box as a new text to help his students tell a story. Are there other objects or artifacts that could accomplish the same goals?
An article of clothing
Plates, cups

Any object that can be used to spark imagination and be the cornerstone for telling a story will work. Extend this activity by asking students to name objects from stories they know that were central to the plot or theme, such as the combs and watch fob from O. Henry’s “The Gift of the Magi.” The discussion can go in two directions. Begin with the object and work to the story, or reflect from the story back on the object.

  • Reading and writing are inextricably linked. Both articles use writing to help students process information they are learning and analyze the variety of texts they are encountering. Use props such as boxes or hats, or alternatives such as songs, poems, advertisements, commercials, or public service announcements; anything can serve as the text to be analyzed, and those skills of analysis can be stretched gradually to apply to longer and more complex works.
  • Look at the Common Core Standard for grade 8 cited above. Here is another spin on clustering from the Perry and Stallworth article earlier in this issue. Can you create a cluster that includes an object as an opening prompt or item for discussion and analysis? Move to a song, then maybe a commercial before tackling a short story. For example, have students examine a small box lined with cotton, such as James may have used to present the combs from “The Gift of the Magi,” or a set of combs themselves. Students may be unfamiliar with such an item.
  • Additional texts:
Kodak Commercial from 1985:

“The Gift” song by Jim Brickman

“Gifts” by Sara Teasdale:

Blog post with retro gift ads in a slideshow (teachers should review this prior to sharing with students. Some ads around this slideshow may not be appropriate for classroom viewing!):

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