Woodson Updates Literary Curriculum

Naomi Scully-Bristol, Opinion Editor

Lord of the Flies. Frankenstein. The Odyssey. All fairly ubiquitous stories taught in high schools across the country. Yet, as Woodson and other high schools move toward more modern and diverse book selections in their English curriculum, these classics are being cut out.

The English Department has begun teaching a new selection of books this year, many of which have just recently been approved. The aim in approving these new titles is to have students read more diverse books than the previous, more traditional book selections. 

“There are a number of teachers who have been saying that it was time to do this,” said Ms. Diane Springer, a twelfth-grade English teacher, “but it was a matter of being able to get a parent reading committee and the funding to be able to do so.”

To approve a new book, first a teacher needs to write a proposal with a rationale for why the book should be taught. The department chair then takes it to a committee with about three parent readers who approve the book. The school must also have the funding to get enough copies of the books for students, so the process can take some time.

English department teachers felt that it was time to refresh the curriculum as “most of the titles in the book room were by men…dead white males,” said Ms. Springer. Many students are excited about the move toward more diverse book selections, but they are also slightly apprehensive.

“I think it depends on what you mean by diverse,” said senior and AP Literature student, Jillian Michelson. “Is it based on the color of the author’s skin, or is it based on the experience of the character?” Michelson was not unhappy with the more diverse book selections this year, but ultimately thinks “the content of the story is more important than the author.” 

Photo by Naomi Scully-Bristol.

Mary Ramada, a senior English 12 HN student, saw a lot of benefit in adding more diverse books to the curriculum. “Having more diverse books would allow students to have a more open perspective and understanding of those around them,” said Ramada, “creating a safer and more empathetic environment inside and outside school.” 

The books read in AP Literature and other courses are supposed to have literary merit, which is often based on traditional canon. However, with more diverse books entering classrooms, what is considered to have literary merit seems to be shifting from traditional books to encompass more diverse and contemporary books, which may benefit students. Charles Dickens, say hello to Toni Morrison.

“Literary merit relies on a canon established by people in power…a white male canon,” said a senior AP Literature student, Jay Beland. “[It] denies a diversity of perspective which is essential to a more equitable world and limits the stylistic range of what students are taught.” 

A hope for the more diverse book selections is that they will widen students’ worldview outside that which the older books, written largely by white men, provided. “Literature seeks to cultivate empathy, to see the world through someone else’s eyes,” said Ms. Springer. “There are very few places in life where we can do that.” 

Michelson said she felt that some books she had read in previous years, like The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, had already provided a somewhat diverse look. “[Twain] really humanizes black people… and in that period that was something that had never really happened much before,” said Michelson. “I think that was a really good book selection.” 

However, Beland felt that Huckleberry Finn wasn’t a particularly diverse viewpoint, saying, “there are so many great authors of color now who can give that perspective and don’t need it filtered through Mark Twain.” 

One of the new books selected for the English curriculum. Photo courtesy of The Medium.

Though many of the new, diverse books are in their first year of being taught at Woodson, some students, teachers, and parents already seem excited to see new books on Cavaliers’ shelves. “It is so much more beneficial to get first-hand accounts from more diverse authors to provide unique perspectives that the students may never experience,” said Ramada.

“In order to be educated, you have to learn about things through a variety of perspectives,” said Ms. Springer. “If you read a book by an African-American female author, everyone benefits.”