A New Page: Changes in the English Curriculum
The Packer tradition of the rising tenth graders begrudgingly ending their summers by reading E.L. Doctorow’s Ragtime has come to an end. Packer’s curricula are ever-changing, as teachers seek to improve and expand on what students are learning, but these changes do not come without questions and criticisms. The English department, in particular, has made many changes this year. There have been removals, such as Ragtime in the tenth grade and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest in ninth, and additions, like The Laramie Project and How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accent.
A majority of these changes have been within the ninth and tenth-grade curricula. Jonathan Wang, Upper School English Teacher, explains that one of the reasons that these courses tend to be subject to more changes is that they are the only ones that students are required to take, with all other English classes being electives. This distinction means that what is chosen to be included in these curricula have more weight.
In addition to the textual changes, the layout of the curriculum over the course of the year is also shifting. This year, the ninth grade is starting with the graphic novel Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi.
As Ms. Whitehouse, Upper School English Teacher, said, “It is an easier segue into teaching analytical writing. [The ninth grade curriculum] still is a genre study, so we have a graphic novel, poetry, short fiction, a novel, a play, and that’s the focus. For the novel we were thinking one of our goals is to try and have the writer and narrative be non-American because the focus of tenth grade is American.”
One of the more controversial changes to be made to the freshman curriculum has been the removal of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey. This book, which many students enjoy, has been taught for the past five years. It offered an opportunity to discuss topics not commonly talked about in Packer curriculums, such as mental health. One anonymous student shared, “I have an uncle who is bipolar, and I never really understood the full extent of what it is like to be isolated in that way. I feel that [One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest] lent itself to help me understand him and understand that he’s still a person and struggling too.”
Although the book worked for the past five years, it was not without its problems. “It is [written by] a white, male, American author, and that is the primary text—the long text—of ninth grade,” explained Ms. Krebs. “If we are rethinking the text, why not capitalize on the opportunity to bring in an international voice and an international experience, and possibly a female author.”
The English department is currently working on selecting the new text for the ninth grade novel, which is no easy feat. Ms. Whitehouse and Ms. Krebs named reading level, pitch, and length as some of the issues. While talking about the process, Ms. Krebs shared that, “We want to be able to do deep literary analysis, so the text can’t be too dense; it can’t be too long… I think we are teachers who want the majority of our students to enjoy the reading of the text, but also we ideally want our students to see themselves at some point in a year, in the literature, in the author, in the experience.”
The English department has been improving the diversity of texts this year in other classes, too. One of the new additions to the tenth grade curriculum is the The Laramie Project. The Laramie Project is a documentary theater set in and around Laramie, Wyoming in the aftermath of the murder of tha gay, 21-year-old, Matthew Shepard.
“There’s opportunities obviously for performance, for readings, and for diversity. We really didn’t have any kind of a contemporary midwestern story, so it also provides that,” said Ms. Krebs.
Outside of the ninth and tenth grade changes, there are many exciting developments in the English electives and Advanced Topics classes. Electives such as Queer Voices in Literature have been added, and AT Unconventional Narratives has been split into two courses, one which adopts the same name and the other which is entitled Time and Memory. Having ethnic-specific electives, such as Asian American Literature and African and Caribean Literature, can pose challenges for the English department. “those voices should be heard in ninth and tenth, and not just saved for an elective, and that’s very useful for us to think about too,” says Ms. Krebs.
The changes made to the ninth and tenth grade curricula have been an attempt to at least partially remedy this problem. Although finding a solution is an ongoing process, steps are being taken to listen to the student feedback and push for everyone to have the chance to see themselves represented in classes