The English department revamps the curriculum with love for their students at the forefront of the process


The shelf of books that constitute the nationwide English curriculum is filled with works that some call classics. To Kill a Mockingbird: 1960. Adventures of Huckleberry Finn: 1884. The Great Gatsby: 1924. Hamlet: 1599. However, this noteworthy list is also a list of books whose story first met the world nearly sixty years ago at the earliest. 

While the themes are timeless—the repeatedly noted trademark of these works—they often lack in an abundance of diversity, especially when it comes down to their famed authors. 

This problem is especially prevalent in the English 10 curriculum as Honors English 10 teacher and Chair of the English department Ken George views it. 

“I’ve always thought that the English 10 curriculum could use some different voices,” George said. “We read a whole lot of literature written by dead, white men. So, we’re working hard to add literature that represents all cultures and diversifies the messages, the authors, and the content.” 

George and the English department have reached a consensus on the need for, specifically, more racially diverse authors and more literature written within the last ten to twenty years. 

Long Way Down by Jason Reynolds was brought to their attention by Honors English 9 and regular English 10 teacher Kelli Potts. 

She suggested that it be paired with the Harlem Renaissance unit in English 10 as it is written as an anthology of poems by an African-American author. Potts is excited by the pairing of Harlem Renaissance poetry with modern poetry as a unique learning opportunity for students to compare the two. 

“Celebrating African American authors is really important,” Potts said. “And Jason Reynolds is amazing. He talks about a lot of not-just-racial things.” 

The opportunity to teach relevant, real-life lessons is one of the key aspects of teaching that Potts loves.

She’s almost sad that she didn’t reserve the book for her own English 9 students, but George is also eager to incorporate the book into his own curriculum. As a sort of transaction, he has implemented a book that he believes will be of enormous benefit to Potts’s students: The Seven Habits of Highly Effective Teens.

The lessons this book teaches—while not the same—are akin in value to the lessons Long Way Down teaches. Having not even finished the book herself yet, Potts can already see the myriad of lessons it will impart on her students and is gratified that she will be the one to commandeer the process. 

She is confident that reading The Seven Habits of Highly Effective Teens will elicit salient discussions and imbue her students with a skill set that will set them up for success in their remaining years of high school. It’s a level of maturity that is hard to achieve in the early years of high school, and she is hopeful the time spent reading the book will expedite that process. 

“I’m all about trying new things and doing different stuff, and I think this would be great,” Potts said. “I have not read the whole thing, but I like it so far. I just think anytime we can tangibly teach kids some skills and things for life instead of just content, I think that’s valuable.” 

Potts couldn’t be the teacher she is without always being up for adding something new and unique to her curriculum. The most recent addition is that of the “exit interview” her freshmen students will be partaking in at the end of the year. 

All year long, her students have been diligently creating portfolios of their writing, partially as an exercise to better their prowess, and partially in preparation towards their end-of-the-year interview with their tenth grade English teacher. 

With their portfolio and possibly a resume of activities and interests from middle school and freshman year, they will showcase their talent and personality to their tenth-grade teacher and receive a partial exam grade. 

Not only is the English department optimistic this will improve students’ ability to one-on-one converse with teachers, but they intend for students to understand the importance of their education being a fluid and continuous experience. 

“The reason we’re doing that is just to make the stakes a little higher, I guess—hold kids accountable and not to think that their learning doesn’t matter continually,” Potts said. “I hope a lot of the stuff that I taught [my kids] last year [they’re] utilizing in Honors 10—that’s the hope.” 

The undertaking of continual learning and growth is one that the English department has similarly embarked on. As they evolve with their students, they have discovered the need for another change to their curriculum—this time with English 11. 

While English 11 used to be formatted in a way where students would pick multiple classes based on the region of the literature they would analyze in that class and change teachers half-way through the year, they have decided to transition back to a year-long English 11 class for the 2020-2021 school year.

“Many factors come into play when determining how a class is organized,” George said. “We looked at as many components as possible—building teacher/student relationships, scheduling conflicts for students, content, and others—and think that a year-long English 11 class will benefit the students more than the current semester-long selections.”

Having dipped her toes in the waters of many different English classes, AP Literature and AP Seminar teacher Lisa Penninga agrees with the decision. 

She has seen the English department through many changes, and she finds the year-long English 11 classes to be the most advantageous for students on the whole. 

While the semester-long classes gave students the opportunity to choose, Penninga doesn’t believe students were making decisions with the right factors in mind. 

In this format, teachers will have the freedom to choose which regions they would like to cover in the English 11 curriculum and settle on what they find will be most gratifying and paramount for the students. 

“It’s had its positives and its negatives, but I really think it’s been more beneficial for students if we are their teacher all year long,” Penninga said. “For English 11 to be, ‘you have this teacher but also this teacher,’ it’s just been more challenging, especially because it’s SAT year.”

And Penninga is a strong supporter of a different method that gives students choice within their English classes: Book Love.

A development that has occurred in recent years, Book Love gives students in most of the building’s English classes an opportunity for independent reading time. Since it has taken off, Penninga has heard from copious teachers across the school that they have seen students carrying around books and noticed a newfound passion for reading across the student body. 

“I think it’s really fostered a love for reading that we know happens in elementary school and in middle school,” Penninga said. “Then something seems to happen at the high school level, and when I first came here, I’m like ‘it’s because it’s all assigned reading,’ and there’s not that love for what you want to read.” 

Having been in situations where she was expected to read a book she wasn’t excited about, Penninga deeply understands the struggle that arises for students. It’s inspired her to implement more choice into the texts her students are reading. To her, it’s the perfect balance of increased rigor in assigning books and increased enjoyment in allowing students to choose.

While English teachers are often avid fans of the books they teach, Penninga recognizes the importance of not allowing that to be the only competing factor in book choice. Putting students first is the ultimate goal within the English department, and Penninga strives to find the right ways to foster that. 

“English teachers are usually really passionate about the books that they teach, which is awesome,” Penninga said. “But also you need to make sure that there’s a ‘why’ behind the teaching, not just that you love it but it’s beneficial for kids.” 

That why behind the teaching is what Penninga constantly searches for, and she firmly believes that the English department is always supportive of finding the reason. The ultimate goal is to create lifelong readers of the students who pass through the building for a brief epoch, and that’s simply not possible “by only assigning an anchor text once a semester.”

The English department doesn’t take the easy way out by sticking with the same old year after year. This bunch is one that wants to impart their own love for reading upon the students whose lives they leave a passing significance on. 

“I think that we’ve all really looked at curriculum in terms of trying to make it relevant to students but to also see books as windows and mirrors—that they can be both,” Penninga said. “And I think that’s really the beautiful part about the English department is that we really get that and want to make sure that we constantly instill that in students.” 

However, this requires constant innovation from the English department. They must tirelessly work to make sure they still know why they’re teaching what they teach. They search to find books that will leave students invested and eager to read. They strive for improvement in their teaching methods. They refuse to create a static learning environment. 

“Students are always changing,” Penninga said. “When I first came here, it was very different than it is today. Fifteen years ago compared to now, things have changed so much. I mean, even just with 9/11, most of you weren’t born. Times change, and I think it’s important that we revisit why we teach what we do.” 

Changing students means ever-evolving teachers and curriculums. And the teachers have no qualms about the extra work that will come alongside updating the curriculum—particularly George. 

In his position as Chair of the department, he gives his full commitment to assuring the lessons they are imparting on their students are the most vital ones. Constantly improving the curriculum isn’t just beneficial; George believes it’s an absolute necessity. And he harbors amaranthine gratitude for the department he is blessed to work alongside—one of the best he’s ever worked with. 

“They truly have only one overriding goal, and that is to do what is best for our students,” said George of his colleagues in the English department. “That one goal drives everything we do. If that means some extra work to rewrite the curriculum, then so be it. We’re committed to giving FHC students the most up-to-date, relevant, and intriguing experience in our classes.”