Student Voice and Choice Inform English Curricular Review

Over the course of the 2019-2020 school year, the English department conducted a formal review of their Middle and Upper School curriculum. A central aim of this review was to ensure that the literature and assignments in Ellis’ classrooms represented students’ diverse lived experiences, voices, and skills. By approaching text selection and pedagogy through this culturally responsive lens, English faculty members encourage students to think critically about their own identities, engaging in learning that validates their view of the world while also expanding their knowledge of others’ perspectives. 
In the Middle School, English teachers are offering more choices to students beginning with the fifth grade summer reading. Instead of reading one book as a class, students are given the option of selecting one of five different novels to read. The choices—The Other Half of Happy by Rebecca Balcárcel, Amina's Voice by Hena Khan, Just Like Jackie by Lindsey Stoddard, Blended by Sharon M. Draper, and The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis—are written by diverse authors and feature a wide-range of plucky protagonists and cultural themes, speaking to the importance of representation and inclusion. 

This “choose your own adventure” assignment is the first of its kind in Middle School and allows students to relate to stories and characters that mirror their own lives, identities, and/or interests. This empowers them to engage with the material at a deeper level, grow a clearer sense of their own values, and use their voices to lead conversations about various culturally-relevant issues that are broached in the books. 

“I find the girls are more invested in what they're reading because many of them can personally identify with the novels,” said Amy Sidari, Grade 5 Dean and Teacher. “They’re invested in the plotlines and characters because they’ve put themselves in their shoes. Oftentimes, this makes them more excited about reading in general and leads to them reading more on their own outside of school.”

New assignments and texts have also been welcome additions in grades 6, 7, and 8. Natalie Dixon Bell, English and History Teacher, has introduced the novel Refugee by Alan Gratz and has implemented a variety of innovative assignments for students to present their understanding of the novels they read. For Refugee, students research different products and services that are aimed at refugees (both in America and abroad) and then brainstorm their own. Once they've settled on an idea, they are tasked with making their own commercial and print advertisement to "sell" it. The project urges students to use words and images in a purposefully persuasive manner, drawing upon skills that would not be visible in a more traditional assignment.

For grades 7 and 8, English Teacher Amy Rigsby has introduced multiple new texts including the summer reading assignments, Harbor Me by Jacqueline Woodson and This Side of Home by Renée Watson, that deal with gender, social, and cultural issues. Through class discussion, written reflections, response journals, and cooperative learning, students are encouraged to examine their individual responses as readers and to explore the influences of social norms on their reading.

In the Upper School, the curricular review brought about structural changes as well as academic ones. The ninth grade English class that was previously Western Literature is now World Literature 1. And while Gina Kilpela, English and Academic Support Teacher, is not changing the novels, she is reframing discussions from a cultural reference and storytelling standpoint. Her students still read The Odyssey by Homer, but now they are reading it alongside excerpts from Circe by Madeline Miller to garner a female-driven point of view of the Greek epic.

“The focus has been on teaching this classic text with a new perspective. We’re examining the female stereotypes depicted in The Odyssey and considering the weight they hold with a man as the storyteller,” shared Ms. Kilpela. “I’ve been asking my students to consider who is telling the story and if the depictions of women ring true to them. It’s interesting to discuss how easy it can be for readers to consume these concepts without questioning them.”

Student voice is at the center of the Upper School English curriculum as Ellis’ young writers explore literature from their own unique perspectives. In World Literature 2 in tenth grade, English Teacher Leah Brennan has intentionally selected authors whose work speaks to both individual and universal human experiences and supports the development of cultural sensitivity and empathy. In her Poetics of Social Justice class, senior students seek to understand how they can raise awareness and bring about social change through writing. Students hone their voices and engage with topics of personal and political significance as they grapple with themes that range from the complexities of identity to prison reform.   

Across the Upper School grades, English faculty are diversifying their assignments to maximize student engagement and invite student perspective. In addition to writing argumentative essays, students deliver oral presentations, pen creative fiction, and share personal literary analysis and criticism. For instance, when eleventh grade students in American Literature read The Great Gatsby, Dr. Anna Redcay, English Department Chair, has students write an op-ed about an issue they identify in present-day America that resonates with a theme in the novel. 

“Our students are being challenged to think about how the literature they read plays a role in their lives,” shared Dr. Redcay. “How is a 100-year-old novel like The Great Gatsby still offering metaphors or motifs that underpin our society’s current ideas about class, race, and gender? Through assignments and discussion, we encourage students to examine their own identities and cultural influences and consider how their experiences—including their experiences of literature—have uniquely shaped them and their thoughts on the world.”
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