Student choice emphasized in HS English curriculum rewrite

Unit on novels tries to engage students
Schenectady High student Jacob Dillenbeck goes over the book "Legend" with English teacher Andrew Davis Friday.
Schenectady High student Jacob Dillenbeck goes over the book "Legend" with English teacher Andrew Davis Friday.

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SCHENECTADY — Schenectady High School 10th-grade English teachers are trying something new this year: letting the students pick what they read.

As part of a curriculum rewrite this summer, the high school’s 10th-grade English teachers developed a new novel-study unit that lets students choose from a teacher-curated list of about 10 contemporary books. Rather than battling to get students to read the same teacher-assigned novels, teachers are introducing students to a variety of books and giving them independence over what they choose.

“It feels more like a privilege to be able to choose your own book,” said sophomore Jayden Williams, as he read “Unwind” in Andrew Davis’ English class last week. “You’re more into it than if you were assigned – everyone has different tastes and interests and likes.”

Schenectady teachers and administrators don’t want students’ different tastes and interests to get in the way of their common need to learn literary devices, develop skills to analyze both fiction and nonfiction texts and adopt a lifelong love for reading.

An essential part of novel study in 10th-grade class is getting students to understand character development, foreshadowing, narrative arc and literary elements – not the content of a particular book. So, the strategy goes, by giving students a choice over what they read, teachers aren’t assigning books they just won’t read.

“We shouldn’t also have to sell them on liking Julius Caesar,” said Kerri Messler, the district’s English language arts coordinator.  “We should put books in front of kids they want to read.”

Over the summer, a group of 10th-grade English teachers reworked the grade’s ELA plans. For the new novel-study units, students spent the first couple of weeks getting to know various young adult fiction books before choosing a story to commit to. The introductory time also taught students about ways to evaluate and select books. Each student cited a different reason for picking his or her book.

“I liked a lot of the books, but this one seemed to stick with me the most,” said sophomore MyAsya Mayotte, who also chose “Unwind,” a novel set in a dystopian future where abortion is outlawed and some teens are harvested for their organs. “It just seemed interesting. I had never heard of anything like that before.”

She said giving students a choice over their reading “assignments” makes them more likely to keep up with homework and lessons that go with the novel study.

“When you choose a book, you already have that drive to read it, rather than the teacher saying we are all going to read the same book,” MyAsya said. “That’s kind of boring.”

Donald Wilson, who chose to read “Legend,” another dsytopian young adult novel about a bleak near-future, was already on the second book of the trilogy.

“It’s weird, I can’t explain it,” he said of the novel’s plot. “It was a good book.”

Teachers who developed the list of books aimed for diverse stories. The novels covered everything from the life of a closeted gay teen to Civil War-era zombies. Many of the books touch on account of post-apocalypitc futures whiles other delved into fictionalized historical worlds. Throughout the district, administrators have sought to infuse more diverse books into classroom libraries and the reading curriculum.

Students still have to read various assigned texts like speeches, poems and other material, but the novel study unit, with student choice at its core, makes up one of the longest units of the year and one of the few chances the students get to take on a full-length novel.

“Why not have texts students find more interesting and engaging and especially more representative of them?” said Oriana Miles, a 10th-grade English teacher in her first year on the job.

Miles, who attended Schenectady schools, said that, for many years, she didn’t encounter nuanced, black characters in the stories she read for school. She ticked off novels like “Of Mice and Men,” “Grapes of Wrath,” “To Kill a Mockingbird” and others. That turned her off from literature, she said, until she started reading a wider variety of texts in college, when she “bought into this world of English.”

Messler said the traditional Western literary canon that has underpinned high school reading lists for generations skews heavily toward old, white men.

What’s left off the reading list sends a message, too, the teachers said. So when students don’t read stories that represent their lives or perspectives, they begin to think their own stories are not worth writing.

“What you don’t see and learn in school can be more powerful for how you develop as a person than what you do,” said Ethan Brooks-McDonald, also a new teacher. “If [the traditional canon] is all you’re seeing — all you’re learning — then that sends a message.”

The English teachers also decided to drop Macbeth from the year’s reading program — a Shakespeare classic all students had read in previous years. 

“I was spending as much time trying to get kids to like Macbeth as I was teaching kids what kind of [literary] work Shakespeare is doing inside of this text,” Davis said. “You had to be a car salesman first and a teacher second.”

It’s not that the classics don’t have a place, Messler said, but the first goal for educators should be to help students find a love of reading – a love of reading Shakespeare can come later.

“At the end of the day, for English teachers K-12, everything they do with reading is in service of independent reading. That’s how they grow as readers: by literally reading,” Messler said. “It’s not that our kids don’t want to read. I feel in my soul kids want to read. They absolutely do. What we forget is their voices and their perspectives matter.”

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