Behind The Scenes: Developing the English Curriculum

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Lucy Loes

Most English courses at BSM have classic novels embedded in the curriculum.

The stereotype: all people do in English class is read long, boring books written by dead people. The truth: the English curriculum is filled with novels that are chosen to help students grow in their understanding of the world and what it means to be human, all through a variety of authors, viewpoints, and lessons.

At BSM, the English classes for each grade increase in complexity. In ninth grade, the curriculum starts with a social justice unit including core books to read. Senior students get to choose between electives for their English credit, ranging from AP classes with a large amount of reading material to classes like journalism, mythology, and creative writing. “Seniors all take more of an elective for senior year… the idea is, we get to that point where they’re more sophisticated readers and writers, and so they can have more choices. But between ninth and 11th grade, it’s scaffolded… getting more and more complex,” English teacher Tiffany Joseph said.

While the curriculum was established a while ago with core books that have remained, changes are commonly proposed to the English department. Though there isn’t an official vote, the department has ongoing discussions to decide whether different changes would add to the curriculum. “So how [changes] come about is through conversation with English teachers. That’s where it starts. We’re always reading ourselves… and then we say, ‘Oh, I think this book would really pair nicely with this text.’ And then we have a conversation as a department to see if it would make sense,” English teacher Anne Marie Dominguez said.

We want to make sure that they’re reading books that they can connect to on real levels… [it’s] always important to kind of bring in the human condition element which applies to everybody,”

— Anne Marie Dominguez

Though some books have faded out of the curriculum because there wasn’t enough time to teach them, novels like Jane Eyre, Romeo and Juliet, and 1984 have stood the test of time. Not only are they fundamental texts in American literature, but they also remain because students continuously relate to the topics presented through the novels. “We want to make sure that they’re reading books that they can connect to on real levels… [it’s] always important to kind of bring in the human condition element which applies to everybody,” Dominguez said.

As English classes are meant to help students understand the world, the curriculum adjusts to address topics they may encounter in real life. Teachers think it’s important to connect to current issues and awarenesses. For example, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, despite its literary merit, was removed from the curriculum. Increasing awareness of the effects of the racist slurs common throughout the novel has made teachers realize that the novel may do more harm than good. “We’re responding to what’s going on in the world, not that it can be centered on certain events but more of like increasing awareness… within society, those types of things,” Dominguez said.

However, books like To Kill a Mockingbird and Between the World and Me continue to be taught. These novels are relevant in understanding questions that surround hard topics, such as racism and police brutality. “I think outside world events always just shed a new light on the books that we’re teaching,” English teacher Katie Belanger said.

Though both are very different in writing style, the balance between classic and more modern novels allows a variety of viewpoints from authors with a wider array of experiences. “It’s important to expose students to a wide variety of languages and styles and points of view. You know, we don’t want too narrow of a vision of what the world is like,” Joseph said.

It’s important to expose students to a wide variety of languages and styles and points of view. You know, we don’t want too narrow of a vision of what the world is like,”

— Tiffany Joseph

Students believe that the diversity in the curriculum is important in teaching students to analyze literature and learn about the world around them. “It’s definitely to create a deeper understanding of the things you read and how to analyze things, but a lot of it is just learning a lot of different things from different perspectives, especially in a class like AP Comp and Language. Because it’s a lot of… thought provoking books that we read,” junior Maria Krotz said.

On the surface, English classes are meant to enhance a student’s reading and writing abilities. However, the stories and viewpoints the books portray are also meant to help students better understand what it means to be human. “The aim of English classes at BSM is to enhance reading and writing skills, to allow students to better see, understand, and relate to the world around them. Ultimately, the study of literature is the study of humanity, and we hope to foster the love of story and community through the written word,” Belanger said.