There is never going to be a way to please everyone, but the Weston High School (WHS) English department does its best, trying to incorporate a diversity of books, authors, experiences, and assignments into its classes’ curriculum. While some students appreciate the English curriculum due to these efforts, others feel the department can do more to improve.
There are many factors that contribute to how the English curriculum for each grade or course is designed at WHS. Teams of teachers who teach the same course meet regularly to talk about the curriculum, such as which books to bring in or take out.
“There is a course description, so whenever we try to choose a new book it’s a book that will fit with whatever the description of the course is,” said Dr. Matthew Henry, who teaches English for grades 10 and 12. “But also personally, I try to get authors in who maybe aren’t as represented in the previous literature. Trying to get a diversity of authors is something that’s important to me, [as is] sticking with whatever the themes of the course [are].”
Many teachers share a commitment to improving diversity in the literature students read.
“There are some classic books that we want to make sure students read, but over the years I’d say we’ve had a more explicit focus on trying to get more authors of color, more representation across race and gender, et cetera,” said English teacher Claire Schomp, who teaches grades 9 and 12.
Student engagement, as well as diversity of authors, is also a large factor when incorporating new books into the curriculum.
“We’ll [usually] bring in a new book through a choice unit where it’ll be one of several options that students can choose from,” Schomp said. “If it’s received well and there’s good discussion coming out of it, then that book might be moved into a main unit that everybody reads. ‘All American Boys’ came out of a choice unit.”
Freshmen read “All American Boys,” a book that centers around issues of race and police brutality and that has been taught for the past three years.
“‘All American Boys’ is pretty popular because it mixes the narrators, it’s pretty easy to follow, [and] it feels relevant in today’s world,” Schomp said. “I think students who might not normally read or finish reading the book will finish the book because of those reasons. That’s a benefit, obviously, because we can get more students to do the reading because they want to do it.”
Just as there are many reasons behind new books being added, there are many reasons that old books are kept in the curriculum, and these choices are constantly discussed among teachers. One book that teachers and students have discussed is “The Absolute True Diary of a Part-Time Indian” (ATDPTI).
“Every year we talk about [if] we want to get a new book [or] keep [ATDPTI],” Schomp said. “It really comes down to [whether or not] we have a replacement book that is going to be as engaging [and] as literary in terms of teaching the skills we want to teach. There’s a lot we’re trying to get students to sample over the course of the four years in the high school, so it can be challenging to find books that hit all the marks.”
Students have mixed feelings about ATDPTI.
“[In freshman year] we did [ATDPTI], and that was a good book. I also really liked ‘Catcher in the Rye,’” said junior Shreya Mehta. “I really loved how mental health was portrayed in both of those books because I feel like mental health is something that a lot of authors overlook and even the school as a whole does overlook, so having mental health be a very big aspect of a book was super refreshing and super awesome to see.”
Other students have expressed quite different feelings.
“Freshman year of high school we are assigned to read ‘The Absolute True Diary of a Part-Time Indian,’ which is great because it incorporates some sort of diversity,” said sophomore Brigid Arturi. “But the worst part is that the author of ‘The Absolute True Diary of a Part-Time Indian’ has been accused of sexual harassment. We didn’t get told this until after we read the book, but it was very clear throughout the novel [because of] his… misogynistic characterization of women.”
While these books were added to bring more racial diversity into the curriculum, many students have expressed a desire to see other diverse perspectives represented in their English classes, and have even taken it upon themselves to help diversify the curriculum.
“In terms of [other types of] diversity, last year we had a couple of students who made a list of books and novellas, fiction, nonfiction, and poetry, that they would like to see incorporated for the LGBTQ+ community,” said Henry. “I was having a conversation with a student just last week about seeing more texts that represent more neurodiversity.”
Teachers have also taken steps individually to try to update and improve the curriculum.
“I just signed up for a professional development workshop where I’ll go spend a day hearing a presentation by somebody who reviews a lot of diverse books for grades 9-12,” said Schomp. “English teachers here are often reading books that they think might be good additions to the curriculum, but you can only read so many. That’s why I think this workshop will be useful for me anyway, to get a sense of what books have come out in the last five to ten years that have won awards [and] that are really well written, [along with] what the presenter can tell me about how they’ve been received in classrooms.”
Sometimes removing a particular book from the curriculum means losing an assignment teachers and students really enjoy. This occurred recently when the tenth grade team removed “Macbeth” from the syllabus as part of the teachers’ goal to incorporate more lessons on anti-racism into their classes. However, this meant that the creative project students produced based on motifs in the play was no longer part of the curriculum, a change that teachers have tried to address in other ways.
“Even though ‘Macbeth’ is gone, that same mentality has kept going in other assignments,” said Henry. “It depends on the course and it depends on the teachers, but that’s something that we’re always in conversation about: how many analytical essays do we need people writing versus these other ways that you can show your knowledge.”
Some students have also found that certain discussions and activities in English aren’t always helpful to different learning styles.
“I think that having open class discussions are important, but I think that it’s also very important for the teachers to realize that putting such an important emphasis only on students’ vocalization [of ideas] is not benefitting all the students,” said Arturi. “It’s really important to have a lot of different ways for students to express their opinions and have their needs met because not everyone is going to be able to express themselves in equal ways.”
WHS students and staff both seem to agree that the English curriculum has room for improvement, like anything else, but they’ve made a lot of progress.
“It’s an ongoing process,” said Schomp. “I don’t think you ever get to the point where you’re like, ‘Okay, we’re done now, everything’s perfect. We’ve represented every group, we’ve represented every possible perspective, every book is engaging and wonderful.’ No. If you were to talk to teachers from each year, they would all tell you that they’ve introduced more diverse voices. But there’s never enough time [and] there’s never enough space in the curriculum, so it becomes a challenge of balancing. It’s always trying to figure out what the long-term value to the student is in addition to developing their skills, which they can do in a number of ways with a number of books.”