Thus far we have considered the teaching of literature in terms of goals and methods, but what is the content of the literature curriculum? What should we be asking students to read?
The choice of any text is important—so important that its implications go beyond schools themselves. When teachers assign books in school, they place a value on them, promoting and promulgating them, thus helping create or reinforce what has come to be known as the literary canon, that is, the body of literature deemed worthy of being taught in schools. And because what we teach influences what people know and how they look at the world, the canon has come to represent—at least in the public imagination—something about the culture we live in. For many people today, changes in the canon reflect changes in the culture at large, changes that may be viewed as either progressive or dangerous, depending on one's politics. In the end, what we teach in the English classroom is a political issue.
Even within the reading workshop approach, the question of what to teach remains relevant. It is true that if students are afforded a choice of texts, then they share with teachers the responsibility of shaping the canon for that class. But questions regarding that canon are still relevant, and teachers continue to exert considerable influence. Moreover, as we have seen, reading workshop does not necessarily mean free choice for students all the time. Teachers who adapt Nancie Atwell's approach, and Atwell herself in her recent work, seem more and more insistent on the value of having students read together. It is important to remember, too, that the workshop approach is more common on the middle school level than in the upper grades, where coverage of a certain body of literature is usually a