The following post can also be found on the teacher group blog Equality 101.
Six years ago, my three English department colleagues and I replaced an outgoing department of two women who had left for career and life changes. Sensing an exciting opportunity for innovation, we felt that we were on the ground floor for making sweeping changes to the high school English program that could be shaped by our vision.
To design a new program, we needed a shared experience that would bring us to a generative space of thinking creatively with each other. We wanted our experience of redesigning the program to be one that had a “curriculum” of its own with writing, reading, research, and reflection. In essence, we wanted the same intellectual engagement as collaborators that eventually our students would experience and (hopefully) enjoy as learners.
To help us shape our journey, we invited Nicole Wallack, Acting Director of the Undergraduate Writing Program at Columbia and associate at Bard College’s Institute for Writing and Thinking, to engage us in our yearlong redesign. One of my colleagues and I had participated in Nicole’s workshops at Bard’s IWT and believed that her important work and research on rhetoric and composition, writing-to-learn practices, and writing across the curriculum would drive and inspire our own practices.
During our ten sessions with Nicole, she gave us prompts for reflecting on not only our values as teachers of writing and literature but also on how we saw ourselves as writers and readers. Integral to this writing was how to connect our redesign to the school’s progressive mission of social justice, human rights, equity and inclusion. We had all worked in schools where texts by women, writers of color, queer authors, and even so-called “banned books” were marginal. In our redesign, these texts became integral. In addition, we were intent on making sure that students also felt that they too could be a part of designing assignments, projects, as well as select course texts.
As a small school that was growing in size and yearning to sustain the closeness between students, we eliminated yearlong English courses for juniors and seniors to teach instead mixed grade electives that reflected student interest and teacher expertise in fields such as African American literature, comparative literature, Latina/o literature, and LGBT literature. For students interested in studying particular authors, we designed courses on Dante, Shakespeare, and Toni Morrison. As a school dedicated to the creative arts, we felt it important to offer writing workshop courses on fiction, memoir, playwriting, journalism and the essay.
Some of the most innovative courses we designed were and continue to be interdisciplinary, merging literature, history, politics, theory, art, film, media, and current events. These courses also lend themselves to collaborations both within the school and outside of it.
For example, one colleague of mine and I have created offerings focusing on gender studies. I teach a course titled Fierce and Fabulous: Feminist Women Writers, Artists, and Activists, which engages students not only in reading about feminism but doing feminist activism with GEMS (Girls Educational and Mentoring Services) in New York. Her course titled Oh Boy! Exploring Masculinity in Contemporary American Culture has gained the attention of New York University professor Niobe Way, who has included our students’ work in her research.
Another colleague who teaches a course on the literature of war and homecoming collaborates with a history teacher who offers a class on the global war on terror, ultimately merging literary and historical perspectives on the American soldier’s return, including those coming home from Iraq.
The pairing of unlikely and yet generative texts has also been central to our work. Our banned books course explores constitutional law alongside Lolita, The Color Purple, and the children’s book And Tango Makes Three. The same teacher who offers a course on masculinity also teaches a course which explores essays on animal rights, Yann Martel’s Life of Pi, and Meatpaper, a print magazine of art and ideas about meat.
Our work with the redesign is not over. Throughout these last six years, we continue to revise, reshape, and rethink this work with each other in exciting ways. Just last year, we sensed a need in our sophomore American literature course to connect Hawthorne’s depiction of corruption and hypocrisy to today’s legacy of institutional oppression, and decided to pair The Scarlet Letter with Suzan Lori-Parks’ In the Blood, which has a contemporary Hester battling against social services, the healthcare system, and illiteracy.
What has sustained our work is our commitment to reflection and our commitment to each other as professionals. We dislike entrenched teaching practices as much as we dislike holding on to sacred texts just for the sake of it—and sacred at our school does not necessarily mean canonical.
Every choice we make is informed by a collaborative journey that requires empowered decision-making, reflective practice, and mutual trust in a process that creates an inspired and inspiring program both for teachers and students. We feel lucky that we have the perfect storm of a department, but we also recognize that not all English departments have the support or even, at times, the chemistry, to do this kind of work.
But our model should not be some rare exception. All teachers need the professional development support in the form of time, funding, and space not only to design but ultimately to dream, create, and make change.
Future posts in this series on innovative curriculum design will feature the work of elective courses I teach such as: Fierce and Fabulous: Feminist Women Writers, Artists, and Activists; Queer Voices: LGBT Literature and Film; Memoir Writing; Toni Morrison; as well as yearlong courses for freshmen on world literature and for sophomores on American literature.