Re-examining the English Curriculum at College Prep

Through many emails, social media, and candid conversations this past summer, we heard from our current students and parents, faculty, staff, and alumni about the need to audit and make changes to the School’s culture and curriculum. Read on to see how Jhoanna Infante, English Department Chair, collaborated with fellow teachers to review and adjust the English curriculum.

Q: How has the English department responded to the recent call for changes to its curriculum in terms of Equity and Inclusion?
JHOANNA: Most teachers in the English Department followed the @blackatcollegeprep Instagram site days after its creation this summer, absorbing the collected stories and paying particular attention to ones that involved English classes. We made significant changes to the  English I fall curriculum and the year-long English II curriculum that include the following: Rather than centering on The Odyssey in the fall, as the School had done since its founding, the English I team will teach short stories and poems from a multi-voiced reader, including stories by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Sherman Alexie, James Baldwin, Toni Cade Bambara, Louise Erdrich, Toni Morrison, Zadie Smith, and Amy Tan. In English II, the team that I teach on, we decided to focus on Black authors in the fall, moving up Nella Larsen's Passing (formerly taught in the spring) and contextualizing that complex novel with essays and poems by Black authors. We decided to drop Fathers and Sons, a nineteenth-century Russian novel we had taught for many years, to make space for a contemporary novel by a woman of color, text still to be decided, for the late spring. That said, it is important to guard against complacency and self-congratulation. We are just beginning this long-term work, which will be driven by empathy, connection, and purpose. Next summer, English teachers will collaborate to redesign the English I and II curriculum, making anti-racism central to the department’s learning goals.
Q: In thinking about broadening the content of certain classes, how do you decide which texts to let go of?

JHOANNA: It has taken until now for the English Department to let go of some long-taught texts, which had become beloved (by some, certainly not all) as part of College Prep tradition. I think "decentering" is an important concept, whenever we think about space in a curriculum or space in a room or a conversation. For English II, for example, we teachers can still "love" Fathers and Sons as a novel, allude to it or recommend it as additional reading for our students, but we need to place other narratives at the center, to hear other voices and counter the dominance of white narrative that has been the default of American culture.

Q: How do you choose new material to add to the curriculum?

JHOANNA: So far, we have added texts by authors of color that we know and can teach well, such as works by James Baldwin, Helen María Viramontes, Zadie Smith, Sherman Alexie, and Toni Morrison. But many of my colleagues and I are newly drawn to contemporary writing, and see the value of teaching very recently published texts, particularly in this time of the Covid epidemic and BLM. Just like History--Literature hasn't "ended"! We will be discovering the voices of right now too. 

Q: Why do you feel it's important for students to see themselves reflected in the texts they read at school?

JHOANNA: Well, let me give you an example. This past week, I was discussing with sophomores the opening of Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by the Chicano author Benjamin Saenz, which alludes to The Lone Ranger tv show. In the 1950s, ten-year-old boys of every skin color watched that show, its image of the Lone Ranger meant to empower them to be heros. But the text got us to wonder: how would the Mexican-American main character, Ari, have felt as a boy watching 1980s reruns of the Lone Ranger? He might have wanted to identify with the Lone Ranger, but he might have felt a personal discomfort about Tonto, the hero's "faithful Indian companion," a human being with his skin color and Native origin, kept in a subordinate position. Aristotle and Dante places two Mexican-American boys at the center of the story, and that works against the way that white-centered narratives (blatantly or not) perpetuate a sense of BIPOC inferiority.

Q: How do you view the role of core classes and the changes that might happen as compared to the role of new elective courses?

JHOANNA: In the past, our seminars have tended to be more inclusive, in terms of text selections, than our 9th and 10th grade curriculum. While English is core/required across four years, we have come to realize that all students should receive an introduction to literature that is de-centered. We have for many years taught diverse texts in the upper level (juniors and seniors could elect to take courses such as The Harlem Renaissance, Hyphen: Asian-American Literature, Up from Slavery, or Transformers (a course on gender, sexuality, and intersectionality). But we want all students to have exposure and access to these topics and voices in their first two years.

The College Preparatory School

mens conscia recti

a mind aware of what is right