Selecting Core Texts for the High School ELA Classroom

March 31, 2021
Ebony Moses

The first tenet guiding the redesign of Fishtank’s High School ELA curriculum is: We believe in the power of diverse, relevant, and rigorous texts. This belief is at the core of our HS ELA curriculum development because complex texts with diverse characters, perspectives, and authors are the catalysts for critical thinking, rich discourse, and student engagement.

For the purposes of this blog post, I use the word rigorous and complex interchangeably. Text complexity is determined by qualitative factors and quantitative factors. Qualitative factors refer to syntax, knowledge demands, levels of meaning, and structure. Quantitative factors refer to word length, sentence length and text cohesion. Throughout this blog, I will explore qualitative factors that make a text complex, as well as other considerations that I believe should influence text selection.
 

Auditing Our Existing Text Selections

Before deciding which texts to add or remove from our current curriculum, I considered the following:

  • Complexity: What texts in our curriculum yield a plethora of themes, offer rich and multiple experiences for interpretation and analysis? What texts in our curriculum expose students to different literary and argument structures? 
  • Diverse Genres: Are there a variety of genres including literary nonfiction, nonfiction treatise, memoir, novel, poetry, multimedia, and drama represented in each grade level and across the curriculum 9–12? 
  • Representation & Experiences: What texts in our curriculum are written by men? By women? By Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) authors? By LGBTQIA authors? Of the texts in our curriculum that are by BIPOC writers or feature BIPOC characters, which ones display the complexity of identity and highlight positive attributes and experiences of people of color? What texts in our curriculum can mirror the identities, perspectives and experiences of students? What texts in our curriculum can be a window into the identities, perspectives and experiences of others with whom students are less familiar? 
  • Relevance: To what extent are the texts in this curriculum culturally, historically, and socially relevant to students now? If they are not relevant, are there opportunities to make connections to contemporary cultural, historical, and social contexts? 
  • Criticality: What texts in the curriculum create opportunities for students to be critical of systems, institutions, and the status quo? What texts in the curriculum help students to unpack and digest identity, power, equity, and anti-oppression?

After conducting the review of the texts in our 9–12 curriculum, I discovered that there were many places we needed to improve, especially in regards to the number of books written by and featuring women, BIPOC, and queer authors and characters. 

While there are texts in the current curriculum like Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye and Sula, both of which give some insight into the experiences of Black people, the endings are rather tragic—Pecola, literally, loses her mind as a result of her inability to reach a white standard of beauty, and in Sula almost every character dies by the novel’s ending except for Nel who finds herself alone and realizes it was Sula she missed all along. 

Let’s be clear—I absolutely love Toni Morrison’s complex narrative style, with her vivid descriptions, striking characters, authentic Black speech, and unique take on postmodernism. She is my literary godmother. However, there is an inherent danger in including texts like The Bluest Eye and Sula without including texts that offer different and varied perspectives of the experiences of Black (or any other BIPOC) people living ordinary lives and doing ordinary things. While The Bluest Eye will be taken out of the curriculum, Sula will remain in the new 10th grade sequence and Beloved is slated to join our 12th grade course.

Only including one type of text overemphasizes the trauma that some people of color experience, producing what Chiamanda Ngozi Adichie describes in her TED Talk as “the single story.” The single story is created as a result of “[showing] a people as one thing, as only one thing, over and over again.” When selecting texts, teachers and curriculum developers need to be conscious of power structures and “how [stories] are told, who tells them, when they're told, [and] how many [...] are told.” 

As a curriculum director, it is my responsibility to ensure that the texts students read elevate the totality of people‘s rich and diverse lived experiences through the lens of various racial, gender, religious, and socioeconomic identities.

For example, the texts below offer counternarratives to texts like The Bluest Eye and Sula that are worthy of study but only show one perspective of Black experience. 

  • Born a Crime by Trevor Noah: This collection of autobiographical stories by Trevor Noah uses comedy to portray the various experiences of a South African biracial boy coming of age under apartheid. 
  • Red at the Bone at Jacqueline Woodson: Through constant shifts in time, this novel explores the relationships between two families who come together when two teenagers have a baby, and in doing so it explores sexuality, race, and class. 
  • Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward: Through multiple narrators and flashbacks, this novel tells the story of a family’s relationship with the past as they embark on a road trip through Mississippi to infamous Parchman Farm, the Mississippi State Penitentiary. In the end, Ward leaves us with hope as we watch Jojo mature and reconcile with his grandfather’s past. 
     

Examining the 9th Grade Course

Let’s take a closer look at the texts in the original 9th grade Fishtank ELA curriculum to understand the text changes in the course redesign. The existing course includes Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men, Chiamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Purple Hibiscus, William Golding’s Lord of the Flies, and William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. When considering what to keep, remove, or add, here is what I thought about:

  • Complexity: While the texts in the current 9th grade curriculum yield a plethora of themes, and offer rich and multiple experiences for interpretation and analysis, they don’t expose students to a variety of literary and argument structures. When selecting new texts, I looked for literary texts with circular endings, shifts in time, multiple narrators, and magical realism, and I sought out nonfiction texts with problem solutions, cause and effect, comparison and contrast, and other essay structures.
  • Diverse Genres: In the 9th grade course, students read one drama and four novels but do not currently have the opportunity to read and digest any literary nonfiction, nonfiction treatise, memoir, or sufficient poetry. 
  • Representation & Experiences: Based on this scope, across 9th grade English, students read core texts written by three men and two women. Additionally, this current scope lacks core texts that include perspectives, characters, and voices from Indigenous people, other people of color, LGBTQIA communities. While students do read The Bluest Eye and Purple Hibiscus, one written by an African American woman and the other written by a Nigerian woman, they are both trauma-heavy. One explores the impact of white standards of beauty on a young Black girl and the other explores a wealthy family in postcolonial Nigeria that disintegrates as a result of paternal violence and psychological and physical abuse. This scope could benefit from adding texts that display the complexity of identity and highlight positive attributes and experiences of people of color.
  • Relevance: Texts such as Of Mice and Men and Lord of the Flies, seem less culturally, historically, and socially relevant to students now, but the central thematic idea of power that runs throughout Of Mice and Men offers multiple opportunities to make connections to contemporary cultural, historical, and social contexts. Romeo and Juliet, while published in 1597, has themes that are timeless and is still being modernized or alluded to in contemporary texts and films. Although standards of beauty have changed for women of color, specifically Black women, since the publishing of The Bluest Eye, there’s an opportunity to make connections to current standards and explore how and why they have changed. 
  • Criticality: The Bluest Eye, Of Mice and Men, and Purple Hibiscus all offer students the opportunity to be critical of systems such as race, colorism, and sexism that defend and protect class, and simultaneously help students to discuss power, equity, and anti-oppression. 
     

A New Sequence for 9th Grade

After deciding that the theme of 9th Grade English would be “Invisible Humans: Literature of the Marginalized and Othered,” I decided that Lord of the Flies and Romeo and Juliet wouldn’t offer students the opportunities to explore nuances and complexities of the year-long course theme. Additionally, while I think The Bluest Eye and Purple Hibiscus are great texts for students to read, by themselves they offer rather bleak and hopeless perspectives. 

In the redesign, Of Mice and Men will remain in the core curriculum because it’s a great text to introduce high schools to novel study and the central thematic idea of power provides an opportunity for students to explore power in a more contemporary text. Thus, the unit will pair excerpts of Ava Duvernay’s When They See Us and chapters from Sarah Burn’s book The Central Park Five with the novella. 

I have decided to add Angie Cruz’s Dominicana to the course because it offers students opportunities to read about Latinx and immigrant perspectives. Additionally, it will be the first time that students encounter a coming of age text in this course and adds interesting literary elements for students to study such as multiple settings, multiple languages, and interwoven historical context.

Because we believe that students should read Shakespeare at least once in their high school careers, I am swapping out Romeo and Juliet for Taming of the Shrew, as it includes elements of comedy while offering students the opportunity to question gender expectations and the institution of marriage. 

To incorporate a nonfiction core text, a genre that was previously missing, I am adding Trevor Noah’s Born a Crime which provides students the opportunity to engage in literary nonfiction through their reading of hilarious autobiographical stories and critique of an oppressive system of apartheid. 
 

The Challenge and Goal of Selecting Core Texts 

Selecting core texts for a course or grade level can be an overwhelming task for any teacher, curriculum director, or school leader. There are simply too many texts out there, both contemporary and canonical, to choose from. However, what should always remain at the forefront of text selection is the following: How can we liberate students to see themselves and others in their fullness through intentional text selection? What grade-level texts help students to understand the complexity of the human experience and develop a social justice lens?

See the full proposed scope and sequence for Fishtank High School ELA. 

 

Ebony Moses is the ELA Curriculum Director for grades 9-12. She began her career at KIPP Academy Lynn Middle School, where she taught 7th grade Reading for two years. She then went on to teach high school ELA in New York and New Jersey at Harlem Village Academies High School and KIPP: Newark Collegiate Academy for 5 years. Prior to working at Fishtank, she served as the Director of Secondary Literacy Curriculum, grades 5-12 at KIPP NJ and an Assistant Principal at Dream Charter High School. She has a Bachelor of Arts in English and a Masters of Education in Curriculum and Instruction from Boston College.