Toy Canon

by Robert Pondiscio
October 10th, 2012

Just days after Mark Bauerlein’s assertion that Common Core State Standards makes high school English class safe once more for Dead White Males, along comes living white male Mike Petrilli with a proposed “Kindergarten Canon” — a collection of 100 “must-read picture books for preschoolers.”

Mike’s list  draws substantially on Core Knowledge’s list of recommended books for preschool and kindergarten, so there will be few quibbles from this blog.   Its principal strength is that every time I find myself thinking, “I bet he overlooked (A Chair for My Mother, Ferdinand, Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel)….”  I find, nope, it’s in there.

A few selections feel like filler. One Morning in Maine is one too many Robert McCloskey books, after Make Way for Ducklings and Blueberries for Sal.  No room for Rumpelstiltzkin but George and Martha make the list?  The Tale of King Midas is out but Knuffle Bunny, is in?   Teachers will surely mourn the omission of Miss Nelson is Missing!   Everyone is sure to have absent favorites:  My canon would have to include  Tar Beach; Come Along, Daisy; Go Away, Big Green Monster!  Lilly’s Purple Plastic Purse and How Do Dinosaurs Say Goodnightif only to get at least one book on the list with illustrations by Mark Teague, the best  children’s book illustrator currently drawing breath.

One big difference between a kindergarten canon and shelf of major works of literature to read in high school or college: there really IS time to read every single book on Mike’s Kindergarten Canon while a child is in preschool, and then some.  Repeatedly.  Lots of parents can still recite Goodnight Moon by heart, years after their kids are off to college.

That should keep the gnashing of teeth to a minimum.






  1. I do occasionally recite “Goodnight Moon” – my youngest is 21. I’m glad to know I’m not the only one.

    Comment by Mia — October 11, 2012 @ 11:55 am

  2. It may not be great literature but my boys would beg for Sheep in a Jeep – night after night!

    Comment by skillseditor — October 11, 2012 @ 12:23 pm

  3. Great titles all, but I find that I’m able to acquaint my granddaughter with more of the classics and fewer of the modern titles simply because the classics are available for free or inexpensively in the public domain. As for the modern titles, if they aren’t available on Kindle, I’m not buying, unlsess it is at a yard sale or I find it at our ONE used bookstore. Remember authors, people in remote locations have great reasons for preferring e-books over paper. Where Granny goes, goes her kid’s library.

    Comment by Cindy — October 12, 2012 @ 6:39 pm

  4. What about oral literature? Poetry, folk and fairy tales. Oral literature is arguably more important than greeting-card-like illustrated picture books — not that these are not all right now and again.

    Waldorf schools have long had lists of stories they have found appropriate according to the ages of the children.
    They do the same with music, even paying attention to musical intervals, as does the Kodaly method.

    Comment by Harold — October 16, 2012 @ 6:51 am

  5. Defining a curriculum around any sort of canon–fiction, non-fiction, classic literature, multi-cultural literature; whatever–requires curriculum designers to include or leave out. Since there is no canon of any kind that does not have vociferous proponents as well as opponents, this means there is always going to be dissent.

    I am of the opinion that the pieces you teach are far less important than what you ask students to do with the material they study. If you focus on surface-level comprehension and evaluate students using methods that reward recall of facts, the result will be students who have a shallow grasp on that piece.

    Can teachers, school administrators, and school boards use some guidance on selecting appropriate selections? Sure. There should be ongoing and widespread discussions about age-, topic-, and substance-appropriate reading selections.

    The key, though is the nature of the assessments at classroom, district, state, and national levels. Multiple-choice tests may play a part, but if we think students should learn to think deeply and critically about what they read, we must commit to including assessments that require students to write. It’s the only way to truly find out how well they are thinking.

    Comment by Marshall Doris — October 18, 2012 @ 5:43 pm

  6. While I have often found myself disparging the “dead white guy” canoon, I also have to acknowledge the power behind teahing selext texts out of this canoon.
    I am a high school English teacher specializing in freshmen. I can tell you that the two main texts taught, with Common Core curriculum in the state of Colorado, are from two very, very dead white guys (Shakespeare and Homer).
    Yes, it is a desservice for teachers to ignore the voices of others but teaching to the classic canoon is not in deference to other voices.
    I have been suprised at the number of educators who say they don’t teach to the canoon but how can I claim to have educated a graduate from high school who has never studied the “masters” of the very language we use?

    Comment by Stephanie LaCount — November 14, 2012 @ 11:08 pm

  7. Let me make a couple of addendums to my previous posting. Number one, my spelling in this is horrible. How embarrassing to be an English teacher with such poor proof-reading done in a public post! I would like to blame it on the time of night but honestly it was just laziness.
    Finally, I would also like to clarify that I didn’t mean to imply that Homer is the “master” of English as his work is a translation. However, his culture is part of the very one that has shaped English language.

    Comment by Stephanie LaCount — November 15, 2012 @ 11:51 am

  8. Hey, things happen, Don’t beat yourself up.

    I think, though, that you are inappropriately conflating “educated” and “high school graduate.” For all of recorded history, only a small number of privileged members of society have been familiar with the “Dead White Guy Canon.” American education has, perhaps, overreached itself with our expectation that wide swaths of society should, or even can, develop fluency in what has always been esoteric knowledge. It is a noble idea, but perhaps impractical.

    Shakespeare knew his audience, realizing that he needed to throw some sops to the crowd in in the pit along with the loftier ideas he wrote so eloquently about. Yet we spend hours attempting to explicate very dated and distant language via the written word rather than presenting the material as the author intended: dramatically. And the notion that students reading parts out loud somehow dramatizes the play is wishful thinking.

    While teaching the historical canon has some value, we need to know our audience much as Shakespeare did. We need to be realistic about how much of that body of work has current relevance for students who will be unlikely to appreciate it or ever use the knowledge in any meaningul way.

    The traditional view of the educated individual as familiar with an established body of material was never widespread, nor is it likely to be in the future.

    Comment by Marshall Doris — November 16, 2012 @ 3:06 pm

  9. I truly do appreciate your views on education and the idea of a widespread “established body of material” being idealistic but impractical. However, I often find some of the most direct growth I can foster in students began with idealistic or noble views.
    At the same time I defend the idea, I also share reservations. I guess it truly depends on the authentic purpose for using the dead white guys. While I can never teach anyone to appreciate the idiosyncrasies of Shakespeare I can model for them the values that have helped develop human existence even from 400 years ago.

    Comment by Stephanie LaCount — November 18, 2012 @ 12:51 pm

  10. You are right about teaching values, otherwise why teach literature (see my blog post, “The Storytelling Animal”). If you can teach Shakespeare with passion and make it come alive for students, go for it.

    But, go back to my original comment on this. I would contend that there are vast numbers of works that can more or less can serve the same instructional purpose. While you can argue that one is a better this or a better that, they all share the trait of being about values, and though social permissiveness has waxed or waned with the times, the core human values are relatively consistent. So for me, the issue is a pragmatic one. Why not use the material that makes it the easiest to engage the students and push them to think critically about what it means to be human? Exposing students to Shakespeare has some value, but it also comes with barriers to student engagement. Since you can’t teach every worthwhile piece of literature, you have to make practical decisions and choose the most effective tools.

    Comment by Marshall Doris — November 18, 2012 @ 5:12 pm

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