Curating a Classic Curriculum

A tale as old as time — classic literature taught in high schools is often criticized as outdated and obsolete. The Falconer takes a look at various factors that go into changing English curricula and students’ views on the need for new material.page2image16542400

Among the array of book genres — like fiction, or nonfiction, or fantasy — there is also a distinct, unofficial one: the classic literature staples on any high schooler’s reading list.

So prevalent is this genre that practically anyone can hear it mentioned and know the books it includes. There’s Romeo and Juliet; there’s Of Mice and Men; there’s The Great Gatsby. Books such as these have been taught to generations of students — and they are still being taught at schools around the U.S. and at TPHS.

Those titles are embedded into English curricula, but a positive opinion of them is not quite as embedded into the students who read them. Some think that changes need to be made to English classes — more modern, applicable and inclusive novels should be taught. Still others think there are merits to reading the classics. The process of redefining and reshaping the high school literary canon is an arduous one, but one that is worth considering.

At TPHS, English classes from ninth to twelfth grade focus on many of these traditional works. English Department Chair Lisa Callender teaches classics like Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and Shakespeare’s Hamlet in her AP English Literature and Composition classes.

“I definitely see value in my students reading classic literature, as it challenges students in their reading level and comprehension, as well as teaches universal themes and ideas that humans struggle with,” Calendar said.

Part of that value of classic literature is the fact that even books that seem as removed as Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen or 1984 by George Orwell can be moving and relatable to high school students, according to Callender.

“It seems crazy that [Hamlet] would have any compatibility or similarities with today’s teenager,” Callender said, but Hamlet, like many modern teens, “struggles with his existence” and deals with mental health issues.

Not all students, though, see the classics they read in school as particularly relatable or interesting.

Although Kate Johnson (12) relates to a couple of novels she has read in English classes at TPHS, she said some are really “out there.” She has never had to “avenge her father’s murder” like Hamlet did, or “stalk a married woman” like Jay Gatsby.

Lucie Babcock (12) agreed. Reading The Catcher in the Rye as a sophomore, she said she wondered why teachers called the novel a “universal teenage experience.”

“It certainly wasn’t my teenage experience, and it probably wasn’t anyone’s who wasn’t another straight rich white boy like the main character in the novel,” Babcock said.

Beyond feeling disconnected from characters in classic literature, Johnson said having to read Shakespeare is tedious — calling it “criminal.”

“It’s a waste to dedicate so much time to just Shakespeare, especially [an author] who is so dull,” Johnson said.

While personal opinions on the books read in English classes differ from person to person and from novel to novel, there seems to be a degree of dissatisfaction from students with the traditional curriculum.

Given that these books have been taught in classrooms for decades, it is not wholly unsurprising that students can find them tired and irrelevant. The last significant change to the high school canon of books was in the 1960s and 1970s, according to The Conversation — when novels like The Catcher in the Rye and The Lord of the Flies were then new and untraditional.

Over the past decade that Anna Hubbard — an English 12 and AP English Language and Composition teacher — has worked at TPHS, she said she has seen almost no change in the English curriculum.

“We are limited in what we can do. In terms of the novels we have, our curriculum really hasn’t changed all that much … ” Hubbard said. “To be honest, many of the books that we study in high school today are the same books that — back in the Stone Age when I was in high school — we also studied.”

It may be clear that it is time to reexamine the works we teach in English classes and time to introduce fresher works that resonate more with students. What is not so clear is exactly how that change should be enacted.

A significant factor in changing curricula is the finances of the process.

According to Callender, “it’s a huge investment” to buy 500 or so novels so that each English student can have a copy.

“It’s just hard because of the approval process and the amount of time it takes, even though we still like to bring it up at our English department meetings. Unfortunately, it always comes down to money.”

English teachers in SDUHSD are allowed to choose what books to teach in their respective classes, as long as said books are on the district approved list. To be approved, books have to “be vetted through teachers and parents, as well as district board members,” according to Callender.

This further complicates the process of selecting new novels to teach, as there are many facets to consider in approving them, such as whether certain newer novels will stay relevant and speak to students in a decade from now.

“As a department chair, I’m part of the process that’s looking at how we [can] vet novels in a faster way, as it’s currently very cumbersome,” Callender said.

Though the process is slow and intricate, some change is slowly trickling into the TPHS English literature curriculum.

In Oct. 2021, the California legislature passed Assembly Bill 101, a law requiring students, beginning with the graduating class of 2030, to take a semester of an Ethnic Studies class in high school.

While this requirement can be implemented in a number of ways, SDUHSD plans to incorporate it into the current English curriculum — which will influence what novels are being read in these classes, and curriculum will presumably start to stray, in part, from traditional works.

“As the district moves forward in introducing Ethnic Studies through the English department, we are going to shed ourselves of the old curriculums that we do currently each year,” Callender said. “[It] is pushing us forward to move faster in changing our curriculum.”

A change to highlighting more diverse, modern points of view is welcomed by some students.

“I think that a lot of people assume that the really great books were written hundreds of years ago, but authors are still producing incredible works of fiction that could absolutely be studied in a classroom today,” Babcock said.

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