Dear English Teacher,
As a highschool student I believe that, although there are some with good messages, a lot of the Canon or traditional texts taught as highschool literature is outdated and should be replaced with more intriguing, modern texts. The Canon is a list of texts written by “classic” or “traditional” authors with books that are also classics. The authors throughout The Canon are almost all old, white men. There is pretty much no diversity, in ethnicity or background, of authors throughout the writers of the works in The Canon. It would be quite useful to students to have works that open their eyes to others’ situations and find a mirror of themselves in some. I chose to compare the texts based on different things such as, theme, figurative language, mirroring/windowing ability, or life lessons, they all have different effects on the story or message that affect and influence the reader. You, as an English Teacher, should definitely consider implementing different texts with a wide variety of figurative language, windows, mirrors, themes, and lessons to help students experience different things or situations through reading.
While both William Blake’s “Ah! Sunflower” and Langston Hughes’s “Dreams” pack quite a strong message in such a small text, I believe that the poem “Dreams” would be much better suited to high school literature students because of the way it can be applied to, number one, their lives, and number two, the dreams that an African American man such as Langston Hughes could have had. Blake writes “Ah Sun-flower! Weary of time,/ Who countest the steps of the Sun:/ Seeking after that sweet golden clime/ Where the travellers journey is done. Where the Youth pined away with desire,/ And the pale Virgin shrouded in snow:/ Arise from their graves and aspire,/ Where my Sun-flower wishes to go.” (Blake).
There isn’t very much figurative language throughout the poem but where there are rhymes, it can be seen that they connect every other line together. Pulling the lines together makes the whole poem seem like it is together as one, even though there are two separate stanzas. The message being received from the poem, specifically in the third and fifth lines, is that someone is searching for something. After reading the seventh line, it can be seen that they would be willing to continue searching after death. From those, the main theme being received is: If you want something you have to go for it no matter how long it takes. While Blake’s poem pushes a strong message so does Hughes’s with even less words. Hughes’s “Dreams” reads,
“Hold fast to dreams/ For if dreams die/ Life is a broken-winged bird/That cannot fly.
Hold fast to dreams/ For when dreams go/ Life is a barren field/ Frozen with snow.”(Hughes)
He uses repetition to reinforce and emphasize the warning/theme the poem is showing. In the third and fourth lines he compares someone who doesn’t have dreams to a “broken-winged” that can’t fly which means that one can’t grow as a person if they don’t have dreams to reach for. In lines seven and eight, he compares life and a barren, frozen, field using a metaphor. What Hughes means by this is that life for someone who has no dreams can be a boring, numb, experience. As a high school student, I feel that I can relate to this on a deeper level, the main reason being I have fallen into the desensitized zone of having no dreams and no motivation. I think this poem, if analyzed correctly, can really help students as they continue throughout their highschool years. Although I can see why one would choose William Blake’s “Ah! Sunflower” because of his status as a renowned, classic, poet, I believe that Hughes’s “Dreams” should be taught in high schools more often. The strong theme of not giving up on your dreams may be able to help students visualize what kind of dream colored people of that time would have. The theme could also help students in their own lives by providing them with motivation to continue and pursue their dreams.
While The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne shows that sometimes it is better to disobey the norms of society, “The Street of House of Wanders” by Rachida El-Charni shows a similar theme, it also acts as a window or mirror for many people reading. El-Charni shows the discontent when she says “A tremor of shame ran through her body, shame at being an inhabitant of that street: the submissiveness of her neighbors was a harder blow than the stranger’s aggression.”(El-Charni, 3-4). She felt harsh shame because of the way they treated someone in trouble. Not only did they mistreat her, they also put her down. What that means is that even if there was someone else in need of help, they most likely wouldn’t have helped them. It affects her mainly because she was the one who they didn’t help, and she doesn’t want to live near people who are like that. The author writes, “She stared fixedly at their faces, then shouted, ‘Gutless, spineless cowards! Since when has standing up for yourself ever been something to laugh about?’”(El-Charni, 4). In this particular part of the story, she has taken a massive hit to her pride after fighting for her necklace while her neighbors just watched as she got pummeled to the ground. They then almost poked fun at her only because she tried to stand up for herself when something of hers was stolen. Getting poked at makes her furious, as anyone who that happened to would be, which leads her to yell at her neighbors. The Scarlet Letter can show women breaking from the norm and being criticized for it; However, “The Street of House of Wonders” really opens up a window for others to see how women are treated. It mainly acts as a better window than The Scarlet Letter because it was written by a woman about her experience rather than a male telling about a female’s encounter. Personally, when I read the texts, it was far easier to understand or view them when they were written by someone who actually had an unpleasant struggle. When the story is written from confrontation, it gives the reader, me(also a student), exposure to a whole new side of the story. The stories, The Scarlet Letter and The Street of House of Wonders, relate to the novels, To Kill A Mockingbird and The Hate U Give in a similar way of how they act as windows and mirrors.
The novel, To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee does a good job of combating racism; However, after reading them, The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas, creates a stronger mirror and/or window to the audience. Lee writes, “‘Cry about the simple hell people give other people—without even thinking. Cry about the hell white people give colored folks, without even stopping to think that they’re people, too.’”(Lee, 274). At the time the book takes place, it is the 1900s. During that time period, racism was far more open and prevalent compared to today. In the quote, it is a white man speaking about how if people want to complain, they can complain about the way people treat each other due to race. At first, he says it in a slightly broader way, but then he directly points out that it is the racial difference. He talks about how white people, the oppressors, don’t stop to think that, although they have different skin color, they are still human. Even if the character is white, he still fights other white people for equality because he knows it isn’t right to judge someone based off of their skin color. In The Hate U Give, Thomas writes, “‘Once upon a time there was a hazel-eyed boy with dimples. I called him Khalil. The world called him a thug. He lived, but not nearly long enough, and for the rest of my life I’ll remember how he died. Fairy tale? No. But I’m not giving up on a better ending. It would be easy to quit if it was just about me, Khalil, that night, and that cop. It’s about way more than that though. It’s about Seven. Sekani. Kenya. DeVante. It’s also about Oscar. Aiyana. Trayvon. Rekia. Michael. Eric. Tamir. John. Ezell. Sandra. Freddie. Alton. Philando. It’s even about that little boy in 1955 who nobody recognized at first—Emmett. The messed up part? There are so many more.’”(Thomas, 442). She starts by talking about her friend and the situation she was involved in. In that part she goes into deep detail about her friend, but not the situation. I believe that was meant to add feeling to the text because she wants him to be individualized because he was an individual, but the situation was general because it isn’t the first person that it has happened to. She doesn’t even have to go into detail because many people already know the situation based off of a mere seven words. She knows that she will be affected by her experience for the rest of her life, but instead of choosing to forget about it, she chooses to try to find a better ending than Khalil’s short life. She goes on to talk about more than just what happened to her, but what happened with so many more African American people in America. She added something after that too, for those who understood it. It mentioned Emmett, a boy who was lynched in 1955 to the point of his corpse being unrecognizable, and how he is even part of the messed up cycle. At the end, it is clear that she is upset and wants to provoke and spread her message. I can see why one would pick To Kill A Mockingbird over The Hate U Give because of its popularity. Instead, The Hate U Give acts as more of a mirror or window because of the style and background of the author. The author comes from an ethnically black heritage, along with experiencing racism in America, first hand. In To Kill A Mockingbird the authors write about racism, but they most likely have only experienced it second hand, if that. To me, it is important to see who is giving the information. The Hate U Give also has a much more modern and relevant feel. The story itself is also in a much more relevant setting that makes the reader connected to the characters and theme.
Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet” shows that love is very important and can be very influential in teaching students; nonetheless, “This Place” by Beth Brant also teaches that love is crucially important while also teaching students about stream of consciousness and to accept who they are. Shakespeare writes, “Eyes, look your last! Arms, take your last embrace! And, lips, O you/ The doors of breath, seal with a righteous kiss/ A dateless bargain to engrossing death!—/ Come, bitter conduct, come, unsavoury guide!/ Thou desperate pilot, now at once run on/ The dashing rocks thy sea-sick weary bark! Here’s to my love! [Drinks.]—O true apothecary!/ Thy drugs are quick.—Thus with a kiss I die.”(Shakespeare, 5.3). As it says, Romeo talks about him taking his last everything as he is preparing to die. He loved Juliet so much that he was willing to die with her. At the end of the quote, Romeo compares the “drugs” to medicine, although it is poison that will kill him. He sees it as though the drugs will set him free. Romeo is able to accept death solely because he has found his true love. He feels that he can pass on and join her. As shown, the play teaches the reader about love through death, but so does “This Place”, in a different way. An example of Brant using stream of consciousness is shown when she writes “… his grandmother held out her hand and touched him are you ready are you ready his grandma touched his heart are you ready his father touched his heart are you ready the people hold out their hands are you ready he reached out for their hands his heart was beating inside the turtle a drum a drum are you ready turtle touched his heart are you ready he fell he put out his arms he held out his arms I am ready they touched him I am ready I am ready.”(Brant, 15). The ellipses at the beginning of the quote shows that his stream of consciousness is continuing without stopping. The stream of his consciousness is also shown by the way that there are no ends or starts or punctuation throughout his thoughts, there is just his thoughts. His thoughts continue all the way up until he snaps out of it and wakes up. A final way that the author shows a stream of consciousness is when she repeats various words/phrases such as, “are you ready” and “touched his heart. Using phrases in such a fashion helps the reader understand that stream of consciousness is being used and that those are his thoughts. The phrases also help because most people can visualize themselves using that type of repetition in their own thoughts. Another quote a couple sentences later reads, “Joseph held a towel to David’s mouth and touched the young man’s face. “You found your parts, your pieces.”(Brant, 15) In the text described, Joseph explained what happened, which was David finding his pieces. David never really felt the love of his family, as they did not like the fact that he was gay. He finally felt their love and their spirits reach out to him. Their spirits and their love is what completed David which allowed him to move on to accept death. Some may choose Shakespeare because of his classical show of arts but it is definitely worth considering Brant’s work. One, because her work uses stream of consciousness, while Shakespeare does not. A second reason is because she shows diverse displays of love throughout her story; Meanwhile, Shakespeare shows only straight romanticism. A final reason is because Brant’s work is a short story that shows extremely strong themes and topics using only fifteen pages. Shakespeare uses up to ninety-five to display his themes.
While a majority of english teachers may prefer Fahrenheit 451, by Ray Bradbury, because of the way it teaches censorship, it would be wise to consider educating students with the shorter, more engaging, story, “The Erasure Game”, by Yoon Ha Lee. A main reason for Yoon Ha Lee’s story being more engaging is that it is much shorter than Bradbury’s story, meaning that even if some students don’t find it engaging, they only have to read about thirty-seven full pages, in contrast to Fahrenheit 451, which is two hundred fifty-six long pages. I was forced to read the novel in English 9. I found it painfully boring, which made it hard to cognitively understand everything that was happening in it. In my class, I also had to do an assignment on the book. Having it be so boring, made it very difficult to complete the assignment since I had to get a lot of information from re-reading and the internet. Fahrenheit 451 does a good job of showing censorship, but “The Erasure Game” does the same, while also leading with a shorter, more engaging plot. Written in the novel it says, “The important thing for you to remember, Montag, is we’re the Happiness Boys… you and I and the others. We stand against the small tide of those who want to make everyone unhappy with conflicting theory and thought. We have our fingers in the dike. Hold steady. Don’t let the torrent of melancholy and drear philosophy drown our world.”(Bradbury, 109). The person speaking is the captain of the fire squad, as one could tell from reading the quote, he and the others are deluded into thinking that they were protecting others’ happiness; Although, in reality, they were really restricting other peoples’ views and activities. People like the captain play directly into the government’s hand which only adds on to the ignorance. They would rather protect a lie than seek out the truth of their situation, which makes them turn on each other for the sake of that lie.They truly believe that they are protecting the happiness by burning things that would most likely educate them most in that day and age: Books. While the book Fahrenheit 451 talks about ignorance and control, so does “The Erasure game”. In the story, Lee’s words read “The town kept an eye on everyone, but there were gaps in the surveillance. Fortuitously, the oak partially blocked some of the sentinels’ views. Kimmy remembered how shocked she’d been as a little when Gray explained this to her.”(Lee, 12). The quote explains multiple things that go on to Ignorance and control. It specifies that the town kept an eye on everyone which means that the people have almost no privacy which leads to some characters, and most readers are led to believe that the people running the town want to have absolute control over it, along with its people. It also shows that there are people, just like in Fahrenheit 451, that play into the government’s/town-leader’s hand by aiding them and, in this case, reporting peoples’ whereabouts at almost all times. As for the hiding spot, the reader can depict that the inhabitants are meant to be kept in the dark about most things, specifically places that can’t be monitored. Another quote from the text is, “‘Kimmy I don’t think this is such a good–’ Kimmy slammed the door. Vindictive glee swept through her at the sight of Mari’s hurt face. After a lifetime of doing her best to get along with everyone, Kimmy surprised herself.” (Lee, 23).The quote above adds a couple things to the overall story. One, it adds the element of drama to the story while, at the same time, keeping it brief and getting on with the story. It also adds character development. The development isn’t exactly normal for people in the story because Kimmy, the main character, is developing in reaction to all of the new information and mysteries she is discovering.
Both books, Hatchet by Gary Paulsen, and “The Plague Doctor” by Karen Lord, display a genuinely noteworthy theme of perseverance for survival and love, but “The Plague Doctors” shows other themes that are also very distinguished. A short section from Hatchet reads, “He had to keep thinking of them because if he forgot them and did not think of them they might forget about him. And he had to keep hoping.”(Paulsen, 145) The main character, Brian, has been stranded in the woods, but he refuses to give up hope because if he does, he’ll never make it back. Brian has to keep fighting to survive no matter what comes his way, so his parents wouldn’t forget about him. If Brian gave up hope there would be nothing to fight for, nothing to live for, nothing to come home to. In the end, it boils down to Brian’s love for his parents that fueled his determination. Lord writes, “Was Dagmar dead, or dying? Imprisoned? How had they silenced her? Was the network at risk? She began to pull drawers open, scrambling for old physical backup disks and storage cards to plug into her main and save the messages.”(Lord 24) Even though Audra thinks that her good friend may very well have just died, she still has to work to download the new data. She knows that the data has to be saved because all of her work, colleagues’ work, and friend’s work will have been for nothing if it isn’t. Audra also thought about how her beloved niece could die if she, and her colleagues, don’t find a cure, which the data is for. She bashes on, trying to ignore her mixed feelings, to find a cure for her very sickly niece. An additional theme displayed in “The Plague Doctors” is: Sometimes caring for the people you love is more important than your job. Lord remarks, “‘Leaving out those two vials, was that oversight or intention?’… ‘I would like to suggest that you take a leave of absence.’”(Lord, 42) The quote describes what measures Audra took that lead to her losing her job. She left out two vials of the “in-progress” cure because she knew her niece didn’t have long to live. Audra disregarded her job as a scientist in order to save her family that she cared so much about. To wind up, I can recognise why some may see that the story, Hatchet is a good story that has strong themes, even so, I would implore you(English Teachers today) to consider using or replacing it for “The Plague Doctors” in a modern classroom because of its various use of strong themes and strong messages. The author, Karen Lord, puts full attention to different themes by using big events throughout the story to really point out the messages and themes, making her story a cut above in-terms of teaching.
The book Animal Farm by George Orwell and the short story “The Book of Martha” by Octavia E. Butler have the same theme, which is, that a perfect utopia does not and can not exist. The words taken from Animal Farm, “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.”(Orwell, 2). In themselves, the words pretty much destroy the thought of having a perfect utopia. By stating that the animals are equal, then saying some are more of really anything diminishes the fact that they are all the same. Not only do the animals state that some are more, they add the comparison that they more than the others. Even in the animals’ “perfect ” utopia, there are some animals that are lesser than others. In “The Book of Martha” one quote reads, “And she went from being elated to—once again—being terrified. ‘What if I say something wrong, make a mistake?’/ ‘You will.’/ ‘But … people could get hurt. People could die.’”(Booker, 5). In the context of the movie the quote says that Martha isn’t perfect and God isn’t perfect, but if the reader were to analyze and look deeper into it, it means that no matter how good, smart, or kind of a person, they will always make mistakes. It also means that no one, not even God, can create or manage a perfect utopia. While a majority of people may prefer Animal Farm because of the credited author who wrote, George Orwell, it may be wise to consider using “The Book of Martha” by Octavia E. Butler because she not only expresses the theme, but also teaches the life lesson, that no one is perfect or can always make the perfect choices. In my experience of reading both stories, I preferred “The Book of Martha” due to the fact that it grabs the reader’s attention and teaches them something, as it did for me.
The theme that some people can find love in a place is displayed by both narratives, Walden by Henry David Thoreau and “Blazing Sun” by Tatiana Salem Levy, but “Blazing Sun” opens up a window to how living life in Rio De Janeiro is. In Thoreau’s text, it says, “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.”(Thoreau, 99). In the quote, he says he wanted to live “deliberately” what could be taken from that is, he wanted to do something that was his and only his idea. Thoreau wanted to get away from all of the unnecessary things in life, even the things other people in society may consider to be something they can’t live without. He also wanted to grasp the things that he could only learn through solitude and nature, rather than the society around him. In the end, Thoreau mentions dying, but by that, he means that by living with far more than necessary he had lost his sense of fulfillment and by living in the woods, he found out that he was never truly happy in the first place. Levy states, “Finally and immediately, I understand why I have returned. My body understands; the same body that always protested against Europe’s harsh air with dry legs, straw-like hair, nausea, dizziness, difficulty breathing.”(Levy, 1). The words in the first sentence represent that there is a lot of history between the main character and Rio De Janeiro, the place she has returned to. It also says that her body, not just her mind, recognises and cherishes the place she has finally returned to. The author pulls a contrast from her past that helps the reader understand two things. One of those things being that she is most comfortable even in just the climate, and the other being that she has a reason to love the place where she came home to. Another quote from the text reads, “I thought everyone was rude…” “…bodies that collide, slide, cross, brush up against others. They greet one another and say excuse me, sorry or thank you with their lethargic, flexible bodies, with their flesh and hair that rub against one another…” “…Today, comparing the two places, I’d say: Words don’t always contain the truth, but the body never lies.”(Levy, 2) The main character, the author, when returning to Rio at first, thought that everyone was rude; However, soon after she determined that the people of the city use body language rather than using words and phrases like, “excuse me” or “I’m sorry”. She uses a large amount of imagery throughout the text while describing her home. The imagery creates a sense of personalization and knowledge. That feeling helps create a better window for other people who don’t know what it’s like. The reader gets to see what it feels like to be there in that very moment just by reading the short story. She also slides in a comparison at the end to show that her city is really different from others. To sum up, the two stories represent a similar theme of how some people can fall in love with places rather than people; Despite that, “Blazing Sun” opens up a better mirror by using figurative language like imagery. Reading Walden, felt like it was mainly just his experience in isolation at the lake. In contrast, reading “Blazing Sun” was quite the opposite. She helped the reader feel as if they were experiencing Rio De Janeiro with her, instead of just reading the book.
In the end, it is clear to see that it is important to teach different types of texts. Teaching texts from ethnic authors, like the ones above, not only can replace the current indifferent list of stories from The Canon, but because of their background, create mirrors for students who are also ethnically blessed. Furthermore, it produces windows for students who either don’t come from ethnic backgrounds or don’t relate, which gives opportunity to be exposed to new experiences. In addition, it happens with sex, one may get to peer on the experiences of the opposite sex, which causes far less ignorance. Replacing them doesn’t only have to do with exposure, I chose to replace some of them because of different plot elements and/or figurative language.