Current Reading in the HHS English Curriculum


Declan McConnell, Contributing Writer

If you’ve ever asked a friend about the books they’re reading in their English class, you may have found that their answers differ depending on what teacher they have. Even among the same courses, the content being taught can vary wildly based on a number of factors. The year, teacher, or even specific class can make a difference in what books are incorporated into the curriculum. I was curious as to why this was, so I decided to investigate the process of how English teachers choose books for their classrooms. In doing so, I hoped to gain a deeper understanding of both the process, as well as how English teachers feel about the current texts within their curriculum.

The first thing that became clear almost immediately in speaking to faculty members was the sheer amount of flexibility that individual teachers have in terms of the books they teach in their classrooms. Going into my research, I had been under the assumption that the reading taught within the classroom was, to some degree, at the behest of both the state and the school administration. But I soon found out that this couldn’t be farther from the truth. 

For my first interview, I spoke to Mr. Peter Scotch, who teaches HASP 11th and 12th grade as well as SUPA English. He gave me a rundown of how books are chosen for the curriculum, stating, “We focus more on ideas and experiences rather than actual texts.” To him, a variety of texts could be used to explore similar topics, making the process of choosing books a very open and creative process. Hastings has no requirements that a single text be introduced into the classroom. While there is discussion among the English department about the books that individual teachers would like to include in a given year, Scotch described the process as much more of an open conversation between the department members about what would be most beneficial to the students. 

I also spoke to the Chair of the English department, Mr. Josh Blum, who described a very similar process. He added that, although most classes end up incorporating very similar material, there is always room for teachers to individualize their texts. “I don’t think teachers across the area and certainly across the country have that same kind of flexibility,” he said. “It’s one of the best things about being here.” He went on to say that his involvement in choosing texts as Chair of the department does not differ from that of the other English teachers, describing the same climate of open discussion among all English teachers that Mr. Scotch had detailed, regardless of job description. 

In my conversation with Ms. Sarah Stern, a newer English teacher at Hastings High School, she also spoke about the immense level of flexibility in Hastings. “You can bring in all sorts of material,” she told me. “Since I’ve been in multiple schools, I’ve seen it done in many ways.” In her experience, many schools she had worked at had either less or equal flexibility in terms of the reading. 

I was also interested in what teachers thought about the current texts within the curriculum. While the answers for how the books were chosen were fairly unanimous, there was a bit more variation among the personal perspectives of the teachers on the reading taught within the curriculum, specifically when it came to whether or not they had any criticisms of the current texts or things they would like to see changed in the future.

Mr. Scotch seemed very satisfied with the current texts in the curriculum, stating that he had no criticisms of them. He did not detail any specific changes he would like to see made, but specified that the department is always looking to bring new books in. “I hope that never disappears,” he said.

Mr. Blum took the time to describe some of the hardships that many teachers experience in choosing books for the curriculum. “One of the worst things about teaching a syllabus is knowing all the things I can’t teach,” he said. Speaking to him, it became clear that one of the main difficulties in choosing texts for the curriculum is often being forced to exclude texts for the sake of time. He did have a few thoughts about changes to the current texts in the curriculum. “I’d like to see us continue to integrate contemporary texts. Contemporary stuff often speaks to issues and concerns in a way that older things don’t.”

When I asked Ms. Stern about her thoughts regarding the current texts in the High School, she also spoke about how overwhelming the process of choosing books can be with so much content to cover. “I’m always asking myself how I can include more voices,” she told me regarding ways the department could potentially expand the current texts. “In my own curriculum, I’d like to incorporate more Asian-American and Native American voices.”

After speaking with a number of faculty members, I was interested in the perspectives of my fellow students. Through these conversations with the teachers, I became aware of just how communicative and receptive the English department is as a whole. The level of openness and flexibility to discussions about the current texts offered throughout the school was both admirable and inspiring. It led me to wonder if we, as students, could foster the same type of open communication about the material we read within our classrooms. Not through choosing the books ourselves, of course, but by working towards an environment in which students feel open and comfortable to share their own perspectives with their teachers about specific material within the classroom.

To get a better understanding of how my peers in Hastings view their experience with the novels taught in the English curriculum, I created a survey with the help of Ms. Rudolph, a Hastings High School English teacher and Buzzer Advisor. It included questions in which students could rank their experiences on a scale of strongly agree to strongly disagree, as well as a free response section to write out more specific responses. 

Out of approximately 100 responses, most considered themselves to be “English students” in that they enjoyed studying literature, writing, and discussing ideas in class. However, whether or not they enjoyed reading outside of the classroom was extremely varied, with only a slight preference towards disagree. Almost equally as mixed in terms of responses was whether or not students enjoyed the books they read in English class, with answers overwhelmingly favoring the neutral option. 

What the bulk of the survey pertained to, however, was whether or not students would like to see changes within the current texts in the English curriculum, as well as if they thought teachers would be receptive to critique or discussion pertaining to potential changes. We split the questions about potential changes into three categories: major, moderate, minor, and no changes. This helped us get a sense about the degree to which some students enjoy with the current texts.

Most of those surveyed thought that some changes should be made to the curriculum. Minor changes were more favorable than moderate and major respectively, but the number of those who favored no changes was only around 15.1%.

We received a lot of thoughtful feedback in the free response section as well. When asked to detail some of these changes they would like to see implemented, student’s most common response was overwhelmingly an increase in diversity. Responders noted a wish for more texts with a focus on marginalized groups, specifically stories which do not exclusively center on the suffering of those groups. In addition, many students desired a system in which they could choose which books they wanted to read out of a set list given by their teacher at the beginning of the year.

However, it seems as though the number of students who desire changes to the current texts in the curriculum is disproportionate to the amount who actually speak to teachers about those changes. When asked if they would feel comfortable approaching a teacher to discuss potential changes, the answers were extremely varied, with a very slight favor towards not feeling comfortable. But when asked if they had ever, in the past, approached a teacher about this, 85% said no.

The English department at Hastings High School is an environment of tremendous flexibility and openness to discussion. In my interviews with various teachers, I found that the department is always looking for new books to bring in. The curriculum, ever changing, is one that has been built upon a climate of open-mindedness and conversation, which is why I feel that it is so important to foster the same open climate between teachers and students.

With such little time in the school year, it is virtually impossible to create a curriculum that meets the desires of every student. But I hope that we can, at the very least, work to build an atmosphere within the classroom that is open to conversation: one in which students can discuss not only the intricacies of the books we have read, but the merits of those we have not; one where we can have open dialogues with our educators about whose voices are being left out and work together to build a curriculum that reflects the diversity of our ever evolving body of literature; and one in which the answer to whether or not you would feel comfortable approaching a teacher to have these dialogues is a resounding “strongly agree.”