Changing the mix of the English curriculum

Many English books have been read for decades. Should they be changed or should we stick to the classics?

Recently, I had a discussion with my mother about the books we read and have read in my English classes compared to the books she read many years ago. We found out that most of the books were the same, and even some of the ways the books were taught were incredibly similar. In fact, she remembered her mother telling her about reading some of the same books when she was in school. This brought a question to mind: Should we pick new books for English classes? If these are the same books that have been read for generations, is it time to find something new?

The first person I asked about this topic was Senior Matthew Mahon. Mahon has been known to do well in his English classes and is considering majoring in Journalism in college. Speaking about the books he’s read over the years here at Elder, Mahon commented, “I think we should stick with them because about 70% of the books are good. There’s gonna be a few you don’t like, but those aren’t next?” How many of the assigned books have you actually read, and how many have you liked?

To get some perspective on why Matt feels this way, I had to find out how many of the books Mahon actually read. “I’ve read a good majority of them. Overall, I liked them.” Mahon claimed that his favorite book he read for class was The Kite Runner, a story about a Pakistani refugee in the 1980’s.  If he could add something new into the curriculum, Mahon stated, “[I’d put in] something about history. That’s what we’re doing in Mr. James’ class now.”

Sam Kayse is a bit of an everyman when it comes to English classes. He likes his English classes quite a bit and enjoys the material they cover, especially the literature aspects. However, like many others, he’s not always the biggest fan of the books he’s given to read. “I think there are some really good ones and, likewise, some pretty bad and outdated ones.” To truly gauge Sam’s experience with English classes, we had to check out his record of reading. “I’ve read a little bit of all of [the assigned books], but I’ve only actually read two because I got really into them.” That’s a more typical response than people would assume, as most students don’t fully read most books, either out of boredom or lack of personal time for reading. Kayse likes reading, but he just doesn’t usually have the time or energy to finish a book he doesn’t really enjoy or find interesting. However, Sam was very passionate about the book he would put in the classrooms if he was in charge. “I really like Old Yeller. It’s a good book with a good story line, and a great message that students would enjoy. I really liked it.”

The people in control of novel selection, the English teachers, had a similar opinion to Kayse. Mr. Weinheimer, Senior English teacher, stated that “typically, they should be updated when they can.” He stated that some books are classics that don’t have much in the way of modern contemporaries, and thus they’re still read for their lessons. Some of the books he teaches are the same that he read when he was in high school. “(I read) some, but not all (of the books he currently teaches). (For example,) The Road didn’t exist when I was a student.” He likes the idea of working to integrate newer novels into his curriculum, but he also has to teach the classics, like Shakespeare and Steinbeck. If he could add one book to the list, he would choose “Native Son by Richard Wright. It’s about an African American kid moving north to Chicago. It talks about racism and communism, and it’s quite a good tale.” Mr. Weinheimer had to get back to creating a test for Macbeth, so I moved on to another English teacher down the hall from him.

a selection of some of the novels featured in Elder’s English classes

Mr. Reiring teaches Sophomore English in the north wing. He graduated from Elder in 1985 and has been teaching at Elder for several years. Even back then, he was reading some of the books he teaches today. “I probably read about half of the books I teach. They were the traditional canon (books that are part of every English curriculum).” He likes to teach new books when he can, but he knows that he also has to teach the classics. He stated, “If you work in the traditional canon, also work in contemporary works. I’ve put in new stuff over the years as I read it.” He’s been working especially hard to work in a book he read recently that he feels would be great reading material for his students. “(The book’s called) Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. It’s about a kid dealing with PTSD related to 9/11.” Sounds like an interesting read.

Having heard from students and teachers alike, I think we can all agree that a balance of new and old is good for everyone. The students become invested in the material and the subject does not get too stagnant for the teacher this way. If you want to read more about this, Charlie Mazza just recently published an article on the best and worst of Elder English novels.

After hearing about teachers’ efforts to work in new material, I am excited to see the changes that will be coming in the future to the English program. I guess we’ll just have to wait and see, or in this case, wait and read.