The Ontario Book Publishers Organization has released a study assessing how much Canadian literature is being taught in the province’s classrooms. The survey was conducted by researcher and education specialist Catherine Bates on behalf of the OBPO, and included data provided by 307 teachers in both public and Catholic school boards in Ontario.
OBPO executive director Holly Kent says the organization decided to conduct research on the topic after hearing a number of parents and teachers express concern that students are exposed to very few Canadian books in school. “We knew from earlier studies and anecdotal evidence that students are reading the same decades-old American and British books in classrooms that they have been for, well, decades,” Kent says. “We’ve been advocating for Canadian books to be included in the Ontario curriculum for years and we wanted a baseline to hopefully show how things will improve.”
The survey of books taught in Grades 7–12 yielded 695 distinct titles. Of the top 10 – which include familiar works like Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird and William Golding’s Lord of the Flies – none were by Canadian writers. Fully six of the top 20 titles cited comprised plays by Shakespeare.
And though homegrown authors Margaret Atwood, William Bell, Joseph Boyden, Yann Martel, Richard Wagamese, and Eric Walters accounted for six of the top 20 most-frequently cited writers, only 23 per cent of overall mentions referred to a Canadian work, and only three Canadian-authored titles appear among the top 20 books. Breaking down the number of times each of the top 20 books was cited, the three Canadian titles – Bell’s Crabbe, Boyden’s Three Day Road, and Martel’s The Life of Pi – accounted for only 10 per cent of mentions.
A large number of teachers surveyed select books to teach based on recommendations from colleagues (29 per cent), or by going through books the school already owns (20 per cent), so the same titles remain in lesson plans year after year. “And it won’t surprise anyone to learn that a lack of funding in schools is the main impediment. Almost half of teachers who responded reported that they don’t have the funds to purchase new books, Canadian or otherwise,” Kent says.
She adds that though there is value in teaching classic works, it’s also vital for young people to see themselves in the media and literature they’re taught. “A lot has been written lately about the importance of representation,” Kent says. “And it’s important that students don’t think about great literature as something that is written hundreds or thousands of miles away.”
The OBPO is hopeful that drawing attention to findings like these will bolster the case for adding more Canadian titles to Ontario syllabi. The provincial government’s new Canadian Books in Ontario Schools Fund – through which the OBPO hopes to secure funding for two new marketing initiatives to help Canadian publishers get their books into schools – may also offer a potential avenue.