We are currently seeking our 9th grade novel for next year.
When I came to the school ten years ago, the 9th grade novels were Potok’s The Chosen, Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God, and Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. As our instruction has shifted more from covering so much content to imparting skills on students, our focus on the novel has diminished a bit. Our current curriculum includes one short graphic novel, a modern play, a Shakespearean play, an epic, and two novels – one ‘classic’ and one more contemporary.
I got rid of Potok right away, and Their Eyes Were Watching God got moved up to the 10th grade, and in the past few years, we have done To Kill a Mockingbird, then A Lesson Before Dying, and, last year, The Catcher in the Rye. However, all three of these novels are taught in middle schools in the city - so much so that nearly 100 kids will have read one or more of them by the time they reach us. I love all these books, but 9th grade kids made to read the same book again sometimes do things to hurt themselves -- things like try to remember things from the previous year, for example, and not re-read. And, since our curriculum also includes Romeo and Juliet and The Odyssey, I want the "classic novel" section of our curriculum to be as fresh as possible.
The curriculum looks like this (all built around the theme of 'Coming of Age in an Unjust Society'):
I. Persepolis (Satrapi)
II. Fences (Wilson)
III. The Odyssey
IV. (insert classic novel)
V. Literary Circles Novel (students choose from a list of 6-8 international novels tha the teacher generates - this past year, I did Zak Mda's Ways of Dying, Julia Alvarez's In the Time of the Butterflies, Yann Martel's Life of Pi, Natsuo Kirino's Real World, Alina Bronsky's Broken Glass Park, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's Purple Hibiscus, Tsitsi Dangarembga's Nervous Conditions, Naomi Shihab Nye's Habibi. The idea here is that they've learned to read a novel critically in the previous unit, and now they read it with a bit more independence in a small group.
VI. Romeo & Juliet
So it’s that fourth slot that needs a book.
My colleague who I’m teaching the class with is a bit more of a classicist than I am. She believes that our students are put at a disadvantage on some national tests – such as the open-ended literature question on the AP Lit exam – because they don’t have enough ‘classic books’ taught to them. Now, I feel like our curriculum has three confirmed classics on it already – R&J, The Odyssey, and Fences. I know the latter might be debatable, but it’s appeared on the AP open-ended question a few times in recent years. Still, I see what she’s saying, and, while I don’t want to be a gatekeeper in my career as an English teacher, I see some value in the cultural capital that comes with reading class books. At the same time, though, the single most important thing that I believe my job as an English teacher is to give some books that they will love, that will make them lifelong readers. Sorry, but The Odyssey (especially our crummy Fitzgerald translation) just doesn’t do that. So it’s a balance.
We’ve also become big fans of the Common Core Standards. Personally, I love it – it’s higher level thinking, unlike what we go for with the kids passing the HSA – and I’ve spent some considerable time already aligning my big writing assessments with the Writing Standards of the Core. I look forward to working more and more with it.
The Common Core offers some suggested “exemplars” for the curriculum for each of the grade levels, and here are the texts they suggest for Grades 9 & 10:
Homer. The Odyssey
Gogol, Nikolai. “The Nose.”
De Voltaire, F. A. M. Candide, Or The Optimist
Turgenev, Ivan. Fathers and Sons
Henry, O. “The Gift of the Magi.”
Kafka, Franz. The Metamorphosis SubjeCtS
Steinbeck, John. The Grapes of Wrath
Bradbury, Ray. Fahrenheit 451
Olsen, Tillie. “I Stand Here Ironing.”
Achebe, Chinua. Things Fall Apart
Lee, Harper. To Kill A Mockingbird
Shaara, Michael. The Killer Angels
Tan, Amy. The Joy Luck Club
Álvarez, Julia. In the Time of the Butterflies
Zusak, Marcus. The Book Thief
Now, I think this is a great list, one that combines classics from the canon (The Odyssey, Steinbeck) with superb more modern texts (Alvarez, Zusak).
The one that jumped out the most at me is the latter, The Book Thief by Marcus Zusak. It’s one of the most powerful reads I’ve experienced in the last few years, and I’d love to teach it to 9th graders. I don’t think my classics-loving colleagues would be very excited about it, but then I thought that it might be a great idea to combine it with the short classic Fahrenheit 451. I read it in an afternoon this summer (I love summer vacation…) already, and it seems to fit right alongside The Book Thief, in both obvious ways (the book burning), to more important thematic ideas (resistance to injustice, the importance of literature, dealing with censorship). Wow, this was pretty amazing to me, and I got really excited.
Then I realized The Book Thief was 500 pages. Even though some of it is pictures and it reads quickly, that’s still a long book. Doable, though? Maybe. As we’ve become more focused on skills, though, it seems harder to fit stuff in. I mean, you would think that Perspolis would fit in September, Fences in October, The Odyssey in November, Fahrenheit 451 in December, The Book Thief in January, Literary Circles in February, and Romeo and Juliet in March, but that’s almost the schedule we planned for this year, and stuff happened, and we ended up getting just 14 class periods on Romeo and Juliet when we wanted quite a bit more. Things never seem to go as planned, time wise.
I haven’t presented the idea to my colleague yet, which is part of the reason for the blog entry – I wanted to think it out in writing. Maybe something like The Joy Luck Club would be better.
I’m not sure. Bottom line, though, I wish The Color Purple didn’t have the word “pussy” on the first page. That would be a great choice.
Mets Acquire Eric Young Jr., Designate Collin Cowgill - The Mets announced that they have acquired Eric Young Jr. from the Rockies in exchange for right-hander Collin McHugh. In a related move, the Mets have also ...
59 minutes ago