If you stepped foot into an Upper Division English classroom twenty years ago, students would not be invested in their copy of a modern novel like “Purple Hibiscus” by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie; rather, each would be dutifully working their way through classics such as Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre or Great Expectations by Charles Dickens.
“We had the worst kind of tokenism: only one book per year by a non-white author, as if to say that’s enough for actually addressing other voices,” English teacher Adam Casdin said.
“When I [became] chair, my first order of business was to change the curriculum.”
When Casdin stepped into the position a decade ago, the Department spent a year and a half talking about ways to change the curriculum so that it would reflect a variety of voices. Ultimately, they concluded that standardizing a curriculum of such perspectives would be impossible, he said.
“It would really look like [one author] from Category A and one from Category B,” Casdin said. “There would always be someone left out, and the English Department would be seen as ratifying a certain set of texts as if those were the only ones.”
Thus the current model was born: each faculty member in the department would be deeply invested in their own curriculum, and each curriculum would reflect a different set of voices from various time periods, Casdin said. Since the redesign he spearheaded as Head of the Department, he believes the English department has worked to help students negotiate a much more sophisticated view of race, class, gender and sexuality, he said.
Despite the freedom granted to English teachers, certain requirements for the course still remain. A few books, though not required, are “frozen” at one grade level: Frankenstein is a book for freshmen, The Great Gatsby a book for sophomores, and Hamlet a book for juniors, Head of the English Department Vernon Wilson said. A few more general requirements include the teaching of grammar for the ninth and 10th grades and Junior Research Papers (JRPs) and an eight week long study of poetry for the 11th grade.
Moreover, the first semester of every ninth grade English class must be graded as pass/fail. Alex Nagin (10), a new student as of ninth grade, thinks that this semester helps freshmen adjust to to adjust to the rigor of the Upper Division. “It also allowed me to experiment with what I wanted my writing to be,” he said. When Nagin entered 10th grade, he felt he could build upon the foundation he formed and apply lessons from risks he learned during that first trimester, he said.
“At the beginning of ninth grade, a lot of students don’t really have their bearings,” Corey Brooks (10) said. “[The pass/fail semester] is an opportunity to participate in class and give it your all without a focus on the grade.”
Throughout the remodelling of the curriculum, English has remained the only subject in the Upper Division required for four years, as mandated by the New York State Education Department. According to their website, all nonpublic New York schools must include a four-year course of study in English or the equivalent.
For the school specifically, the current purpose behind the four-year program is to expose students to a wide array of literary texts to help them become critical readers, writers, and thinkers, Wilson said. “Beyond that, we’re trying to bring them to an understanding of the ways in which their own lived experiences are paralleled in literature,” Wilson said. “Almost no matter what line of work you go into, there’s an importance of empathy. Being able to speak and write empathically is of real consequence.”
Leonora Gogos (12) supports the decision to require the class for four years, since it is the most applicable subject to everyday life, she said. “We speak in words, and being able to understand what’s meant behind words, how they form together to make a coherent narrative, and how that affects the way we view life—I think those are skills everyone needs to have.”
However, the choice is not unanimously supported. “Given that no other subject is required for four years, I don’t see why English should be,” Helena Kopans-Johnson (12) said. “I feel like for consistency’s sake, it’s unnecessary. That’s not to say English isn’t important, but I don’t understand why other classes wouldn’t be required for four years if English is.”
Gabby Fischberg (11) sees the skills English provides—namely, critical thinking and appreciation of art—as intrinsic values to build within students. She nevertheless wishes she could drop the class in favor of science, which interests her more, she said.
Even though the school offers many high level courses, it’s often difficult to fit them into her schedule, Fischberg said. “I think being able to be selective when you’re older and have a better idea of what you’re interested in just makes more sense,” she said.
Like Gogos, Jordan Ferdman (11) believes that English should be required for all four years. “No class is more essential than English,” she said. “It teaches compassion, it teaches understanding, and I’ve found that I’ve grown most as a person in my English classroom.”
Within the four years, the faculty strive to consider the growth of each individual student engaged with the text and with their own growing identity, English teacher Sarah McIntyre said. However, the way teachers try to help students cultivate those different points of engagement can vary greatly depending on the texts, assignments, and class dynamic, she said.
“We want there to be some kind of shared experience for ninth through 11th grade, but within that, we really all have different teaching styles,” Wilson said.
Fischberg has noticed a lack of consistency in her English classes across years, and is often irritated by it, she said. “The curriculum will be widely different, and the level of difficulty will be widely different as well,” she said. Fischberg believes that her English experience has depended on her teacher, and by this reasoning, the grades she receives in English are less of a distinction of her competency and more of a general marker, she said.
Ferdman has picked up on these same fluctuations, though she sees them in a positive light. “I’ve taken away lessons [from English 9, 10, and 11] that have varied greatly, and I think that in large part had to do with my teacher and my relationship with [them],” she said. “Depending on the texts a class is engaging with, the teacher and students are vulnerable in a different kind of way, and I think that has in large part informed my English experience.”
According to Wilson, the variety is a part of the identity of the English department, and a quality which the teachers pride themselves on. The goal of the curriculum is not to have each senior be able to mark off books from a checklist but rather for them to leave with a set of skills and an outlook on reading, writing, and their place in the world, he said.
Despite this lofty goal, both students and teachers have observed a tendency to undervalue the subject.
“Most of us are native English speakers, so understanding the nuances of our own English languages sometimes seems to not be of priority,” Wilson said. “But the fact that we are surrounded by this language makes it easier to not understand its inner workings, to just swim in it.”
“I’ve heard people say that you can do whatever you want without being wrong in English; it’s this easy-A mentality,” Gogos said. She perceives this mindset as more of a mentality than a truth, and also as quite problematic because it devalues students’ efforts. For this reason, she appreciates the experience she’s had in her AP English class all the more; the class is full of people who are passionate about English and are actively trying to push themselves to understand other people’s points of view, she said.
Kopans-Johnson said that senior year electives generally promote engagement in class discussions. “English is a broad context, so the nice thing about electives is that you can choose which area you want to focus on,” she said.
Roey Nornberg (12) believes that choosing an area of interest is an opportunity all students should have in their high school careers, he said. Personally, Nornberg decided to enroll in AP English because he wanted to read and discuss texts he otherwise probably wouldn’t. “The fast pace and level of discussions is what really drove me to take it.”
However, because essential aspects of the curriculum such as the concentrated focus of poetry and JRPs are situated in English 11, electives are only available to students beginning their senior year, or as juniors who wish to double on English, McIntyre said.
Nagin has never heard anyone say English is their favorite class, he said. “I’ve said that before, but I feel like English feels like a burden to some people.”
Nagin predicts that this perspective could be changed with a heavier emphasis on creative writing, he said. “I think when students are given a little bit more freedom, they might not view English as a requirement, but something they can enjoy.”
The department is aware that there are more opportunities for critical writing than for creative, and is currently trying to expand the creative aspect of the curriculum, Wilson said.
Dora Woodruff (12) said that in her English class last year, she had equal opportunities for creative and analytical assessments. “[Dr. Kassel] let us express a theme from a book or a poem that we had read in any medium that we wanted,” she said. “I really liked music, and that’s not something I’m often able to express in my academic classes. I ended up writing a piece [of music about Mrs. Dalloway].”
Ultimately, Woodruff felt proud of her work because she thought she had been able to put more of her own personality into it, she said.
Ferdman said that as a whole, she believes English is often seen as a secondary to STEM courses, which holds more weight both in college applications and in the real world. There is a perception that English is the class you can put the least effort in and still receive the highest grades from, she said.
Despite these perceptions, English is still very much a necessary course, Ferdman said. “I think that the takeaways of English, if you’re willing to engage with the texts and engage with your class are incredibly beneficial, not just on an academic level but on a human level.”