Dear English Teacher,
As a sophomore student in high school, I’ve read a pretty fair amount of canonical texts within the high school English curriculum. I’ve read a lot, yet I noticed that the English curriculum could use a few upgrades. So, I mustered up all my courage and have decided to speak up about it. As you may know, the canon is a collection of works that are considered authentic and are assumed to be ‘good’. This group of works however are not diverse and provides a limited view in literature for students such as myself. There are some pretty good stories in the canon, but the stories left out of it are just as good, all the while creating a new vision and perspective. The number of literature pieces high school students read within the classrooms compared to those they chose themselves has got a lot of differences with diversity. In other words, I believe that you should have more diversity within the high school curriculum so that students can feel like they are being represented whenever they read an author’s work who comes from the same background as them. This can also inspire them to maybe follow in the same footsteps as them.
Romeo and Juliet serves as a great example as one of the most commonly taught stories to high school students to explore the themes of love and the conflict that comes with it, however, The Hunchback of Notre Dame by Victor Hugo can also portray the very same themes to students all the while representing the perspective of a French poet involved in the romantic movement. Romeo and Juliet might be the first choice for teachers because it takes students out of their comfort zone and teaches complex pieces of literature in life. Since Romeo and Juliet is a work of old English, it may be hard for students to understand it. For instance, in act 2 Shakespeare writes, “Tempering extremities with extreme sweet” (Shakespeare). He goes from using mono-syllables to tri-syllables, which confuses students most of the time. On the contrary, it is beneficial because it helps students improve their vocabulary while they try to break down and understand difficult texts. In the same manner, The Hunchback of Notre Dame is of old Ffrench in gothic structure. It is important that students expand their knowledge and not just limit it to old English texts. Reading The Hunchback of Notre Dame will help students appreciate old gothic structures and get to learn about the history of it. Students will also explore each character’s struggle, along with their depression and lack of support, which may relate to modern teenagers struggling with the same issues. Another thing is that Hugo explains the meaning of love symbolically while using complex figurative language. In his text, Victor writes, “Love is like a tree: it grows by itself, roots itself deeply in our being and continues to flourish over a heart in ruin. The inexplicable fact is that the blinder it is, the more tenacious it is. It is never stronger than when it is completely unreasonable” (Victor). He uses complex figurative language to convey the true meaning of love, and it’s complicated- like old English texts, all the while exploring a more relative ideology. To put it simply, he uses analogies to deepen the meaning of his texts, rivaling it to Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet because they are similar in that aspect. Nevertheless, since Romeo and Juliet is a widely known work of his, it’s a less interesting read because most people hear about the theme at a very young age.
“Brahma”, another commonly taught piece of poetry to high school students to explore the structure of formal verse in poetry, whereas, “If we must die” by Claude Mckay also portrays this while representing the perspective of a Jamaican man who was a key figure in the Harlem Renaissance. In the poem “Brahma”, the author writes in the format of formal verse, which can be helpful in providing students with challenges to their vocabulary by invoking rhyme schemes. In his poem, Emerson writes, “Far or forgot to me is near; Shadow and sunlight are the same; The vanished gods to me appear; And one to me are shame and fame” (Emerson). He uses the a-b-a-b rhyme scheme, and each line has a number of eight syllables. Similarly, in McKay’s “If we must die” poem, he uses the format of formal verse, which expands students’ knowledge and understanding of the different types of poetry. McKay writes, “If we must die, let it not be like hogs, Hunted and penned in an inglorious spot, While round us bark the mad and hungry dogs, Making their mock at our accursèd lot” (McKay). McKay also uses the a-b-a-b rhyme scheme, however each line doesn’t have the same number of syllables. This shows the uniqueness of poetry and the many ways it can be expressed, which I think students can learn from, hence improving their ability to break down and understand a diverse selection of poems. In “Brahma”, the theme conveys that the human soul is immortal and focuses on the significance of the spiritual world. It’s truly an interesting and unique topic for students to briefly touch up on, however, Mckays proves to be of more importance, as its theme is about surviving.
The poetry “This World is not Conclusion” by Emily Dickinson is a well known and commonly taught piece of literature among the highschool curriculum to learn about and cope with the different styles of poetry , however, Abduraqibbs “None of my black friends want to listen to don’t stop believin’ ” also presents a unique style of peotry while presenting the perspective of a muslim man. In “This World is not Conclusion”, the author uses short and straightforward sentences to convey her words. She also puts hyphens after every sentence, which is not so common in poetry. She writes, “A Species stands beyond- Invisible, as music-”, (Dickinson). Nevertheless, Abduraqib has the unique style of putting an “&” after almost every sentence, with the combination of a period. He writes, “It’s going to feel like summer all year & then what will we make of winter & the way nighttime gallops”, (Abduraqib). His style of using “&” after almost every sentence solidifies the dark themes he has into his poems. In Dickinson’s poem, it seems really simple and straightforward without an interesting theme, but in Abdurraqib’s poem, he adds the theme of how he and his friends struggle to make it through their environment because of their race, yet despite it all he wants to smile through it and look past the sad times.
The short story “The Most Dangerous Game” by Richard Connel has also been brought up quite a lot through the freshmen English curriculum of high school students to teach the use of literary devices and irony, even though “Once Upon a Time” by Nadine Gordimer also teaches this while showing the perspective of a Southern African woman who speaks of her experiences with the apartheid. In “The Most Dangerous Game”, Connel uses countless literary devices, which help introduce the world of more complex literary devices and irony to students just entering highschool. While using personification to describe the dark night, Connel writes, “…pressed its thick warm blackness against the yacht” (Connel). His way of writing it makes it seem like every object is against Rainsford and conveys a clear picture, while giving readers a sense of danger of the objects around the yacht. In the same manner, Nadine does this while also exploring the sense of imagery using a fair share of situational irony. Towards the end of her story, she writes, “He pretended to be the Prince who braves the terrible thicket of thorns to enter the palace and kiss the Sleeping Beauty back to life” (Gordimer). At this point, the readers were tricked. Nadine is describing this boy as a prince in a fairytale, seconds before the tragic ending. We expected an ending where everyone would’ve been happy but then were struck with a tragic ending, which makes this part ironic. I can see why teachers may be prompted to teach “The Most Dangerous Game” as it has a unique theme. Nonetheless, they should teach “Once Upon a Time” as it explores physiological and mysterious themes.
“Father and Son” by Langston Hughes is a commonly taught piece of literature to high school students to show the importance of characters and what they symbolize throughout the story, likewise, “Street of the House of Wonders” by Rachida el-Charni also does this while adding the perspective of a Tunisian woman. In “Father and Son”, we are presented with a number of characters- each symbolizing their own thing. An example of this is the character Cora. During the time Colonel Tom dies and the white men come in to question her, she undermines gender roles by acting deranged in order to help her son escape. El-Charni, however, does the same. In her story, the bystanders who don’t help the woman symbolize the act of silence. She writes, “’The people crowded round her, comforting her yet avoiding her gaze. ‘You shouldn’t have put yourself in danger’ ‘You should keep your possessions concealed, not put them on display’ (El-Charni). They did nothing to help when she was fighting for her necklace back but then dared to criticize her afterwards. The woman, however, symbolizes a powerful fighter who sees the truth while the other characters have lost theirs. El-Charni writes, “She stared fixedly at their faces, then shouted, ‘Gutless, spineless cowards! Since when has standing up for yourself ever been something to laugh about?’…” (El-Charni). This indicates that the bystanders have stopped even trying to help people in need, simply because they’ve grown tired of it. In just five pages, students get a look at the unfairness of the society within the story, which serves as a useful aspect in deeping their understanding of society’s principles.
The story To kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee is a commonly taught piece of literature to elaborate the topics of race and identity, however “Everyday Use” by Alice Walker does the same while presenting the perspective of an African American woman. In To kill a Mockingbird, the story centers around the life of an American girl therefore limiting the things students could potentially learn about society in a more realistic front. Although the story does teach life changing lessons such as “The one thing that doesn’t abide by majority rule is a person’s conscience,” (Lee). In Walker’s “Everyday Use”, the main character is an African American woman who is struggling with defining her identity in cultural terms. Since they lived during the time where the word “negro” was recently banished from the dictionary, they felt out of place and wanted to rediscover their African roots, ultimately rejecting their American ones. In the story, the author writes, “She wrote me once that no matter where we ‘choose’ to live, she will manage to come see us,” (Walker). In this part, she is trying to show the way Dee fights out her African side by taking pride in her American side while rejecting the other. I can see why teachers might be tempted to teach To Kill a Mockingbird, as it is a magnificent example of showing injustice and racial inequality. However, I believe the better choice would be Walker’s “Everyday Use” because students could relate to society acceptedness as well as finding your identity.
William Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily” is a commonly taught piece of literature included in high school student curriculums to explore a nonlinear plot structure and a memorable theme, on the contrary, “Now I Need a Place To Hide Away” by Ann Hood does the same while also presenting a more insightful perspective. of storytelling. In “A Rose For Emily”, everyone starts judging Miss. Emily and quickly believe whatever rumors are going around. Then in the end, they learn not to jump to conclusions. Faulkner writes, “… we noticed that in the second pillow was the indentation of a head. One of us lifted something from it, and leaning forward, that faint and invisible dust dry and acrid in the nostrils, we saw a long strand of iron-gray hair” (Faulkner). During this last part, they realize their biggest mistake- jumping to conclusions, which they’ve been doing throughout the story. We know this because you can practically feel it from their tone when stating this. In the short story “Now I Need a Place To Hide Away”, Hood doesn’t follow the usual chronological order but instead contains the story as a tiny segment of a greater puzzle. Hood writes, “How foolish I was to have fallen so easily for Paul while overlooking John and George, to have believed that everything I could ever want was right there in that family room of my childhood” (Hood). The way she writes makes it seem like the Beatles are actual characters within the story, which signifies the bond she had with her daughter more and opens a new view of storytelling, which would be beneficial to students.
Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar has been brought up in high school classrooms many times to show how character differences and adversity play a key role within change, similarly, “Olingiris” by Samanta Schweblin does the very same thing while also being more relatable to students in a more modern view and shows that everyone has their own story. In Julius Caesar, most, if not all, of the characters have something they each believe in and act accordingly- whether good or bad. We also get a sense of the complexity in the character’s relationships. However in Samanta Schewlbin’s “Olingirs”, without knowing any of the characters’ names, we are brought into a world of perspective and see their personal stories. For instance, during the woman on the gourney’s part, Schweblin writes, “She was crying. This was the first time something like this had happened, and the assistant didn’t quite know what to do” (Schewlbin). From here, we see that the assistant is quite bad at dealing with relationships. Furthermore, she writes, “back to the image of those books on the pine table, the pictures of the two Olingiris, one next to the other, and, as if this were a new opportunity, she looked desperately for some difference, in the eyes, in the scales, in the fins, in the colours” (Schweblin). This shows how deluded she is from society because she doesn’t understand others, but when she does, it’s not in a normal way at all. From this, we can see that the author properly conveyed the woman’s discomfort and experience in dealing with other humans.
All in all, the current high school curriculum strains students’ ability to further their vision and provides them with nothing but a broad view of literature as a whole. As each day passes, students become more aware of the lack of diversity and representation within the high school curriculum which are setbacks to finally being rid of separation. Think of the many students you have taught within your career as a teacher. Try to imagine how they feel, learning a new tradition other than theirs over and over again, but not seeing there’s anywhere. Well, I know that feeling and it sucks. You would feel the same as well. Anyone would. So, I ask- could you be the starting point? Could you change the high school curriculum and its lack of diversity?