Are classic high school novels becoming outdated?

Are classic high school novels becoming outdated?

Nothing gold can stay.

The classic line from the Robert Frost poem means all good things come to an end, and was made famous in S.E. Hinton's novel, The Outsiders as Johnny Cade tragically urged his best friend to "stay gold."

The novel is widely considered to be a literary jewel, but after 50 years on the bookshelves of Canadian high schools, is it safe to say that Ponyboy — and the rest of the beloved greaser gang — have finally bronzed?

"Our students are reading the same books that I read in the 70s — The Outsiders, The Chrysalids, The Lord of the Flies." said former Vancouver English teacher Marnie Maretic, adding that many of her students have had trouble relating to characters in older books. 

"It's not that these aren't great books — but there have been great books written since then. Why can't we update the material our kids are reading?"

Research suggests that injecting contemporary books from diverse worldviews can enhance learning in Canadian classrooms.

But budget constraints — and a reluctance from teachers — hasn't made it easy for new books to find their way into English class.

The comfort zone

In B.C., teachers aren't required to teach classics. But studies suggest that many teachers prefer to assign the same books each year, due in large part to their familiarity with the texts.

"It's hard for teachers to make a change," said Dr. Ingrid Johnston, a retired English education professor from the University of Alberta.

Johnston says the reluctance of teachers to move out of their comfort zones can come at a cost as Canadian classrooms experience a growth in cultural and ethnic diversity.

"The texts that are being taught at the moment — even though we all love the classics — they're very much Eurocentric, mainly male-authoried, written at a particular time that is very different from the students' world experience," she said.

Johnston is part of a group of federally-funded researchers exploring the educational benefits of diversifying classroom reading in Canada. The project equips teachers with classroom sets of contemporary novels, many written from the perspectives of marginalized communities.

The team introduced Indigenous author Richard Wagamese's novel Indian Horse to a class of secondary school students, which Johnston says enriched their understanding of the atrocities endured by First Nations during the residential school era.

"It gives them a much more empathetic understanding," she said. "They felt like it was the first time they understood something about the residential school system."

Reluctance to 'take a chance'

B.C. Teachers' Federation president Glen Hansman says there's a need to increase the diversity of books and explore the perspectives of First Nations, LGBT, and immigrant communities — but admits there's reluctance.

"There's all sorts of amazing books out there that might resonate with learners ... but if no one's been using them in schools before, a school might not be willing to take a chance on it," said Hansman.

Finding the money

But some schools have been able to buck the trend. Ray Guraliuk, English teacher and department head at Vancouver's Gladstone Secondary School, says over the years, his school has been able to amass classroom sets of a variety of contemporary novels written by Canadian authors.

"Funding does limit the choices we have ... [but] there's always ways to get money for books," said Guraliuk. "Instead of buying sets of short stories and poetry books, we buy novels."

"We may not be able to buy 120 at a time, but we start with 30, then we get 40, then we get 50. Eventually, we'll have a few classroom sets."

Guraliuk says the school plans to assign the recently released The Marrow Thieves by First Nations author Cherie Dimaline — a story set in a dystopian future where Indigenous North Americans are being hunted and harvested for their bone marrow.

He said allocating funds to new books can mean making some hard decisions — like not buying new copies of old books.

"Instead of buying additional copies of Lord of the Flies, stick those in the cupboard and get something new."