Over the summer, a friend who doesn’t work in education asked me how many times I have read The Great Gatsby; as I am entering my 19th year of teaching, I did some quick math and realized that number has to be well over 50.
“Don’t you get bor--”
I interrupted her before she could finish the question.
Though many of the texts we read in English classes might be the same from year to year, the students in my classroom are different; their voices drive the focus of the conversation each day. We talk about Gatsby’s dreams and the symbolism of the green light, but the conversations are so varied from year to year that it’s like teaching it for the first time.
I have great respect for the classics (I was raised on them!), and in my Literature & Composition III: American Literature course, I make sure to hit Thoreau, Frost, Dickinson, and Douglass, among others. But what I love most about the English Department at Dana Hall is that we are constantly talking about what’s next. Who did we read over break? What new short story are you thinking about integrating into Lit Comp II? How can we use podcasts to help students connect to poetry? Why are we still reading a certain book with our 9th graders?
These questions have pushed me to rethink my book list for Literature & Composition III: American Literature many times over the 13 years I have spent at Dana Hall.
A few years ago, for example, we assigned Yaa Gyasi’s 2016 novel Homegoing as the summer reading for 11th graders. When I say it was a success, I mean two things: 1) my students reported that they had enjoyed reading it over the summer on their own and couldn’t put it down; and 2) they asked so many questions about the history it explored, the narration style, the recurring symbols, and the characters’ growth that I chose to spend an extra week with it to try to do it justice. The next year, we took it off the summer reading list and made it a part of the Trimester I curriculum.
I want texts that will make my students ask questions and texts that will push them to understand themselves and others more authentically. I want texts that make my students say, “Oh! I learned about that in my AP US History class last week!” I want texts that challenge the way they think about language and texts that make them want to go down a rabbit hole learning more about an obscure detail they noticed. In my classroom, those texts can range from Walt Whitman’s elegy for Abraham Lincoln to the contemporary poetry of Ada Limón.