How books are chosen for English classes

November 22, 2019 — by Esther Luan and Oliver Ye

A closer look into how English teachers create and revise their curriculum


While all sophomore English classes last year learned about propaganda and political persuasion techniques, not all teachers opted to use the same books for the unit. 

Some classes read “All Quiet on the Western Front,” while others read “1984.” 

What accounts for the difference? Mostly it boils down to teacher preference as long as the same skills are being taught, English teachers say.

English teacher Sarah Thermond said she mainly chose “All Quiet” because she had previously prepared the materials for it. “I've only taught ‘1984’ once before — since I was out for most of that unit on medical leave last year, I went with the book that I had the most ready-to-go resources for,” she said.

While Thermond’s decision was different from some of the other English 10 classes, both “1984” and “All Quiet on the Western Front” emphasize some similar themes.

Changing books in the English curriculum is not uncommon; English teachers tend to slightly alter their curriculum  according to their own teaching styles, often choosing between two or more novels that allow students to gain the same skills. 

For example, in the English 10 unit on identity, some classes read “The Namesake,” others read “The Joy Luck Club,” while still others, like Thermond’s, are split into small groups, each reading a different one. 

“The idea is that all three of those books are a similar level of difficulty, have similar themes, and all of them will lend themselves to major writing projects,” Thermond explained. “[We can choose] as long as the book that the teacher is covering fits with the overall topic and the standard assignments.”

In fact, English teachers sometimes drop texts entirely in favor of more relevant, educational or interesting material. For example,  English 11 Honors teachers Amy Keys and Natasha Ritchie decided to replace “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” by Mark Twain with “Beloved” by Toni Morrison five years ago. The reason:  It was a richer book thematically and a better fit for an Honors class unit on slavery.

Switching books isn’t always easy, however. Switching or adding novels means spending money on new books and budgets are limited.  At Saratoga High, departments operate on a book buying cycle that rotates every few years. This makes large, sudden changes in the curriculum difficult. 

For example, a few years ago, the English department wanted to add “The Kite Runner,” “Joy Luck Club” and “The Namesake,” which resonated with the student population at Saratoga because of their cultural connections, Ritchie said. Luckily, it was the English department’s rotation at the time, so they were able to get all the books approved and purchased by the board — had it been one year later, the English department would have needed to wait around four years for the cycle to repeat.

In addition to making adjustments based on units within a single grade level, each English department team must ensure that there is a steady progression between grade levels. 

Each year of English hones particular skills that develop upon those established during the previous year, Ritchie said. For example, freshmen synthesize from more accessible sources like short stories and are introduced to basic analysis with simple plays like “Cyrano de Bergerac.” As sophomores, students analyze more difficult books and plays, like “Lord of the Flies” and “Julius Caesar,” from which they learn to pull from different sources to look at motifs and symbols. 

“Last year, Ms. Keys kept pushing us to be analytical but concise,” said junior Wilson Fung. “The close reading we focused on helps me a lot this year with understanding the material we read.”

In English 11 Honors, students read harder material such as “Beloved” and “Hamlet,” while also gaining more advanced close reading skills, such as analyzing how authors use various writing techniques to evoke different emotions in readers and convey a message about humanity. 

The English department also makes modifications to the curriculum depending on whether the class is honors or regular. For example, both regular and Honors English 11 classes have a unit on slavery, but the Honors class reads “Beloved” while the regular class reads “Kindred.” 

“‘Beloved’ is an amazing book, and it’s incredibly difficult, given the level of rigor and depth,” Ritchie said. “That said, I think ‘Kindred,’ which basically uses time travel as its medium, has essentially all of the same themes but the text itself is less challenging, less dense.” 

Depending on whether they take regular English 12, AP Language and Composition or AP Literature, seniors will branch out and utilize their foundations in English to discuss philosophy or analyze rhetoric in books like “Macbeth” and “A Doll's House.” 

While English teachers hope to expose students to a breadth of perspectives and writing styles, Thermond said that most of English teachers ultimately approach their curriculum in terms of the writing, reading and speaking skills they want their students to have and design their courses  around them.

“Core curriculum is important, but [teachers] focus more on having core skills,” Ritchie said. “For instance, every English 10 teacher has to teach a book that they can teach close reading with. Whether it’s ‘1984’, or ‘All Quiet on the Western Front,’ [they] need to have a text that fits the skill they want the students to acquire.” 



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