by Daniel Wang, Staff Writer, April 2021
Having spent three years in the Upper School, one academic question always seems to occupy the (dusty) recesses of my mind: why am I reading the books I am in English class? Although I have always been curious about the subject, the significant changes made to the English IV curriculum in recent years have advanced my question from the dormant shelves of curious quandaries to the center of my journalistic frame of reference. Before I delve into any more specifics, I must first outline the purpose of this article. This piece aims to clarify the process of curriculum review for the English Department, particularly in regards to the core classes required for freshmen, sophomores, and juniors.
Before explaining the process of curriculum development, it is important to clarify what “curriculum” actually means. Curriculum can be considered in terms of the list of required readings, the general themes and essential questions which guide the “narrative” of the course throughout the year, and the writing assignments which are developed to augment literary discourse. All three of these elements interact to create the general “scope” of a course. Each of the core English curricula has one unifying theme. Jessica Brennan, the English Department Chair, elaborated, “The ninth grade year is centered around questions of identity. The tenth grade year is focused around U.S. literature. The eleventh grade year is focused around world literature.”
With this in mind, it is much easier to understand how the course development process works. First of all, because of the complexity of how each of the three elements of curriculum interact, the course development is always an evolutionary process. “We think about curriculum as an iterative process, something that is kind of constantly evolving. I never see curriculum as done. It’s not like oh, okay, now we got it. It is constantly something that we are thinking about, tweaking, and figuring out where we can make changes,” Brennan said.
Moreover, each course is developed solely by the department members who teach that particular class, as they have the most understanding of the courses’ themes, guiding questions, and texts. Brennan said, “Understanding this framework, the curriculum is developed within the groups of teachers that teach a core. For example, I teach in the tenth grade core along with Ms. Batty, Mr. Mauck, and Ms. Guerrero, and we talk constantly about the tenth grade, what it is, what we can change, and how to do that. Each core has a core leader teacher who is responsible for some logistical things, like book ordering, but is also responsible for helping to lead and guide curriculum development.”
In the case of the English IV course development process, Ms. Blake, a member of the English faculty, is leading the current curriculum revision. She approached the task of text selection in a semi-quantitative fashion, asking each core teacher to rank a number of titles including past required readings for the course and other suggested compositions. Blake said, “In terms of making the decision on the text, I threw all of the text titles on a Google Form to all the English IV teachers and asked them to rank each one and explain why, whether in terms of accessibility, quality of discussion, or the written work which comes out of the text. We came together, brought our own numbers, and numerically ranked every book. And then we had some conversations amongst the five of us and made some decisions in a sort of quantifiable process.”
One of the most important criteria evaluated during the course design process is a particular text’s relationship to the essential questions posed by a course. Blake elaborated, “We emphasize the following questions when reviewing texts: what is this text doing, is it doing what we want it to do, and is there a better text out there?” Brennan emphasized that a text does not necessarily have to “answer” any one of these thematic questions to be an impactful element of a course. She said, “It’s not so much about answering those questions, but complicating them. For me, in a really good curriculum, you have a question which you think you really know through one book, and then you read another book and you have to look at it a different way… and you keep coming back to different perspectives that really complicate your initial idea.”
Other important factors which are considered during the course review process include the diversity of voice and narrative structure presented within a particular curriculum. Brennan said, “We are looking for a balance of voices. We think about time periods…both in terms of the writer’s voice and the character’s voice.” She added, “We also think about introducing students to different forms of storytelling. For example, in the winter in the tenth grade, we teach A Mercy, and one of my favorite things about teaching that book is that it is a completely new way of structuring a story. Exposure to that kind of art is also really important.” In conclusion, a variety of factors influence the curriculum design process, ranging from the diversity of voices and narrative styles within a particular course to a text’s ability to contribute to the general themes of a class. The topic of literary curation is one which inevitably ignites personal sensibilities; I encourage anyone who has read this article and finds the words within it particularly misplaced to please contact me directly at firstname.lastname@example.org. I would love to talk to you and discuss the ideas presented within this piece. However, for those who immediately feel the need to object to all the material covered in this article, please consider the following observation by Nietzsche: “We often refuse to accept an idea merely because the tone of voice in which it has been expressed is unsympathetic to us.”