Frustrating adventures in literature

Here’s something I’m struggling with right now:

In my grade 12 online English course, the students are at the stage in their independent studies where they are developing thesis statements.

Problem: All the thesis statements read something like:

In the novel the author shows that history repeats itself.


Life experience is more valuable than formal education.


Love will conquer any obstacle.

Here’s how I’ve prepared them:

  1. They’ve prepared an annotated bibliography of  a variety of secondary sources connected to their novel so they can get a sense of how scholars write about literature.
  2. They’ve written a series of blog posts about their novels on specific topics: character development, symbols and imagery, themes, and finally potential thesis statements.
  3. I’ve given them a How to Generate a Good Thesis Statement handout.

If they were in a face to face class I would have done more modelling of developing a thesis statement but that’s a bit tough to do online.

Some of my students seemed confused, and downright angry that I was expecting them to consider literary devices in their thesis statements. So I created this little video that comes complete with a science analogy:

The problem as I see it is this: My students read literature without being conscious of the fact that novels are constructions. That all media are constructions (Save that for another post)! It’s like they think of the novel as something that just spontaneously came into being. They don’t consider that someone wrote their novel and that he or she made conscious choices about how to convey their ideas using a variety of techniques.

So what do you think? Have you encountered similar problems. Do you have any tricks or tips to share?

Canon Fodder


I considered giving this post the title “So like…why do we have to read this anyway?” but I’ve been waiting to use the title “canon fodder” for a while because I heart puns. I get it from my dad. I also heart my dad.

At this time of year, we start discussing changes we want to make to next year’s courses, which I love. I had a great conversation with a colleague about the role of literature in the secondary English classroom. How do we decide which texts we use to teach with? (Texts with which we teach…. ack! This is informal writing)

When I first started teaching I would have said “Well I teach Hamlet and Life of Pi in grade 12.” I would never say that now.

Well I might, but I wouldn’t mean it.

Look at the curriculum documents that form the foundation of what we teach in Ontario. There is nothing in the document that says “Thou shalt study the English Canon.” It also never says “Thou shalt study Shakespeare.” It does mention Shakespeare as an example, but that doesn’t mean a teacher is obligated to teach Shakespeare. Still I think you’d be hard-pressed to find an English teacher who says that (at least at the academic level) students should never study Shakespeare.

Over the years I’ve learned to rethink the way I approach my teaching and I’ve come to realize that there are multiple entry points for getting at the curriculum expectations. This is especially important when it comes to thinking about how we can provide more opportunities to include differentiated instruction and assessment. I think sometimes as English teachers, we get it in our heads that we MUST teach________, without stopping to ask ourselves why. What is it that text A allows us to get at that text B doesn’t?

In my ENG4U class, one of the core texts is Life of Pi. In the past, The Stone Angel has also been an option but both my colleague and I agreed that we prefer Life of Pi (our department head wants us to use the same texts, and we weren’t ready for literature circles yet). That being said, I’m not a big fan of Pi. To me it feels like a great concept for a short story. I’ll leave it at that. But I don’t need to love the book to use it to teach with. Now we’re talking about bringing in Three Day Road, The Stone Carvers, and Yann Martel’s new novel Beatrice and Virgil so that we can have literature circles and provide more choice. I think this is fabulous in so many ways (don’t get me started on my Joseph Boyden crush). josephboyden

My teaching partner is totally on board but initially we talked about the possibility of getting rid of Pi in the 4U course and she was very concerned because she felt that Pi allowed us to teach tolerance for world religions and appreciation of other cultures. Now I would argue, and I did, that Three Day Road certainly allows us to do the same thing. On the other hand, is that the right criteria to use when selecting texts?

I refuse to be some sort of authority on “literahtchah…” (say it out loud… again… there you go, see what I did there?), even though some may argue that that’s part of my job as an English teacher. And I don’t think I should force my students to adopt my taste in books. I think we should expose them to as many different texts (and TYPES OF TEXTS…. we’re getting there) as possible. So I think this is a step in the right direction. Expose the students to new ideas, give them some guidance,  and let them decide.