A New Vision for High School ELA

March 04, 2021
Ebony Moses

As I began my work as Fishtank Learning's newest curriculum director, the first task on my to-do list was to develop a new vision for our high school ELA curriculum. I had done this work before at a previous employer, but this time was different. Some of my beliefs about general teaching and learning had shifted. My literacy philosophy, specifically my perspective about what teenagers should experience through the texts, projects, and assessments given to them in their ELA classes too had evolved. So, the task of creating a vision that did not have to be influenced by bureaucracy or politics, and could solely focus on teachers and students was like a dream come true for me. 

As I crafted the vision, I asked myself the question: What does the perfect 9–12 ELA curriculum look, sound, and feel like? In my attempt to answer it, I considered the role that text selection, writing and grammar, academic discourse, and assessments should play in our curriculum. 

After I completed an initial draft of the new approach, I reviewed and analyzed the current high school ELA curriculum. I wanted to see what was there, but most importantly I wanted to see what wasn’t.

I read and probed:

  • What genres of texts are currently included in our curriculum? 
  • What authors and voices are represented in our curriculum? 
  • What perspectives are included? 
  • Whose stories are we allowing to be told? Which stories need to be told but are missing? 
  • What does our current curriculum reveal about our high school English Language Arts vision and priorities? 
  • To what extent does our curriculum provide students a plethora of opportunities to hone writing skills, to write to learn, to engage in research, to develop nuanced written arguments, and to share their writing with peers? 
  • To what extent does our curriculum provide students opportunities to engage in deeper learning via performance tasks and unit projects, and collaborate with others to present, defend, and argue?

While refining and editing the curricular vision, I was reminded of Toni Morrison’s essay “Things Unspoken: The Afro-American Presence in American Literature,” in which she explains that “invisible things are not necessarily ‘not there;’ … a void may be empty, but is not a vacuum.” This quote in large part inspired the lens through which I thought about text selection and course themes for grades 9–12. 

With this in mind, I sought to create a high school curriculum that makes what is invisible in literature—black, brown, Asian, and indigenous characters, authors, and perspectives—visible. More specifically, it became my goal to pay particular attention to people, cultures, voices, and perspectives that are typically neglected and absent from the traditional literary canon while coupling them with texts from the canon. This approach is significant because it can provide students with mirrors and windows — mirrors that allow them to see their own identities, experiences, and motivations, and windows that allow them to gain insight to build empathy for the identities, experiences, and motivations of others.

It is my goal to create a curriculum that exposes students to novels, drama, poetry, nonfiction, art, and multimedia that will will allow them to “encounter possible persons, versions of [themselves] that [they] would never see, never permit [themselves] to become, in places [they] can never go and might not care to, while assuring that [they] get to return home again” (from Thomas C. Foster’s How to Read Novels Like a Professor).

Reflecting on all of these considerations, I created the following tenets to guide my redesign and redevelopment of the Fishtank ELA high school curriculum:

  1. We believe in the power of diverse, relevant, and rigorous texts. 
  2. We believe in reading and experiencing whole texts (novels, nonfiction books, and dramas) authentically before unpacking them. 
  3. We believe in using writing as a means for brainstorming, processing, explaining, synthesizing, and arguing ideas.
  4. We believe in discussing what we read, write, and think. 
  5. We believe that grammar including rhetorical skills and syntax structures should be taught in context and used to develop a writer’s unique style. 
  6. We believe that assessments should be performative, authentic, varied, and applicable to the real world whenever possible.

I’m excited to share the tentative scope and sequence that I have developed for the courses and units of 9–12 ELA. These text choices may evolve as I move through writing these courses, but this is a good representation of the approach I will be taking with theme and text selection.

We will begin publishing new units for 9th and 10th grade ELA in Summer 2021. The units in the current Fishtank High School ELA curriculum will continue to be available during the 2021-22 school year, as a part of our ELA archive.


9th Grade ELA - Invisible Humans: Literature of the Marginalized and Othered 

Essential Questions

  • What does it mean to be invisible?
  • How are people or groups made to feel “invisible” or marginalized by society, social institutions, and the “majority"?
  • In what ways do invisible people become visible?

Proposed Units/Texts

  • Unit 1: Short Fiction, Nonfiction and Poetry
    • Short Story: “Imitation” from The Things Around Your Neck by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie  
    • Short Story: “How to date a brown girl (black girl, white girl, or halfie)” by Junot Díaz 
    • Essay: “The Joy of Reading and Writing: Superman and Me” by Sherman Alexie
    • Letter: “Thank You, Frank Ocean” by Dream Hampton
    • Letter: “Frank Ocean’s Open Letter” on Tumblr
    • Book Excerpt: Nobody: Casualties of America’s War on the Vulnerable, from Ferguson to Flint and Beyond by Marc Lamont Hill 
    • Poem: “(citizen) (illegal)” by Jose Olivarez
    • Poem: “Super Orphan” by Fatimah Asghar
    • Poem: “I’m Nobody! Who are you?” by Emily Dickinson
  • Unit 2: Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck
  • Unit 3: Dominicana by Angie Cruz 
  • Unit 4: Born a Crime by Trevor Noah 
  • Unit 5: Taming of the Shrew by William Shakespeare 

10th Grade - Freedom and Social Responsibility: Literature of Society 

Essential Questions

  • What is the individual’s responsibility to society?
  • To what do we owe society and the world?
  • To what do we owe individuals?

Proposed Units/Texts

  • Unit 1: Short Fiction, Nonfiction & Poetry
    • Short Story: “A&P” by John Updike
    • Letter: “Letter from Birmingham Jail” by Martin Luther King Jr. 
    • Letter: “A Call for Unity” by Eight White Clergyman 
    • Book Excerpt: Superfreakonomics by Stephen J. Dubner and Steven Levitt
    • Book Excerpt: Justice by Michael J. Sandel
    • Poem: "The World is Too Much With Us" by William Wordsworth
    • Essay: “Together, You Can Redeem the Soul of Our Nation” by John Lewis
  • Unit 2: Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury 
  • Unit 3: Sula by Toni Morrison
  • Unit 4: Men We Reaped by Jesmyn Ward 
  • Unit 5: Angels in America by Tony Kushner 

11th Grade - Speaking Truth to Power: Literature of Resistance, Hope, and Agency 

Essential Questions

  • How do you speak truth to power?
  • How can we fight injustice?
  • What has worked?
  • What do stories from opposing perspectives or lived experiences tell us about being able to shape the world for the better?
  • How do people seek justice, order, and redemption in a society that denies them recognition?

Proposed Units/Texts

  • Unit 1: Intro to Rhetorical Analysis 
    • Texts TBD
  • Unit 2: A Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood and excerpts from Everybody’s a Feminist by bell hooks, Bad Feminist by Roxanne Gay, and other supplemental texts
  • Unit 3: Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates and If Beale Street Could Talk by James Baldwin
  • Unit 4: Clybourne Park by Bruce Norris, The Color of Law by Richard Rothstein, and The Case for Reparations by Ta-Nehisi Coates

12th Grade - In Response to the Canon

Essential Questions

  • Who or what gets to decide what authors and which texts are placed in the canon?
  • How do we respond to the canon?
  • What makes a text worthy or valuable?

Proposed Units/Texts

  • Unit 1: Short Stories + Poetry
    • “Where Are We Going Where Have You Been” by Joyce Carol Oates 
    • “Hills like White Elephants” by Ernest Hemingway
    • “I Stand Here Ironing” by Tillie Olsen
    • “Lust” by Susan Minot 
    • “How to Date a Brown Girl, Black Girl, White Girl, or Halfie” by Junot Díaz
    • “The Husband Stitch” by Carmen Maria Machado 
  • Unit 2: A Streetcar Named Desire by Tennessee Williams or The Glass Menagerie by Tenneesee Williams
  • Unit 3: Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen and Pride by Ibi Zoboi 
  • Unit 4: Beloved by Toni Morrison and Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward
  • Unit 5: The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald 
  • Unit 6: Hamlet by William Shakespeare


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.