Want a Project?

So, here’s the story; I’ve been given 100% free rein to do whatever I want in building, from scratch, an entire English department.  From scratch, People; I have absolutely no constraints – I can pick whatever books I want and teach them in whatever order I want using any projects and assessments I want and….

You get the idea.

While I’m in love with the idea that this is entirely mine to create – how many of my colleagues fantasize about being able to teach the books they love instead of the books they’re ordered to read by the administration or the state? – I’m also here to tell you that absolute freedom isn’t necessarily conducive to creativity.

I need edges.  I need guideposts.  I need something.

When I met with Mike the other day to talk about getting the planning started, I told him that I was almost paralyzed by all my freedom; I had no place to put in, I said, and I found myself staring at a blank computer screen, wondering just where the hell to start.

That’s when he suggested that we create a canon.  We’ll compose a list of books that we feel deserve a quasi-permanent place in the various curricula.  The idea is that we’ll have a list of books that we go to whenever we’re teaching, say, a freshman core class, and choose some anchoring texts from among that list that fit with whatever the school-wide theme is for that year (as opposed to teaching the same books every year – if it’s freshman, it must be Romeo and Juliet! – which, frankly, we teachers just don’t want to do).  That way, we figure, we’ll never teach a book to a junior class that already read it as freshmen and, in the process, we make sure we hit at least some of the more widely-read novels that colleges expect students will have some passing familiarity with (and that we either love or never got to ourselves in our own educations).

So, I’ve got this list.  It is by no means a complete list, and I’m leaving it entirely open to revision and/or suggestion, so that’s the first part of your project; if you see something on the list that shouldn’t be there – or there’s a book that is dear to you that you think should – speak up.

The second part of my request is a bit more involved, though; I’m going to ask you (especially you English teachers) where in the course of four years you’d place a book.  It’s pretty much decided that freshmen will get To Kill a Mockingbird and The Book Thief, and that seniors will get Frankenstein and Beloved – and there are a couple of other novels that will sort themselves out simply because of their subject matter or their voice – but I’m really interested in finding out what you all think about where the books should go.  You don’t even have to take on the whole four years; if you teach sophomores, for instance, tell me what books you either teach or wish you could teach to that bunch.  If you teach college, tell me which books you want your incoming freshman to know in order to have discourse about the novels that you teach at your level.  I’ll take any and all input any of you wants to offer up… and thanks!

To Kill a Mockingbird
The Book Thief
Native Son
Invisible Man
The Sunflower
Ender’s Game
The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian
King Lear
Much Ado About Nothing
The Taming of the Shrew
The Great Gatsby
The Things They Carried
The Kite Runner
Watership Down
Fahrenheit 451
The Giver
The Color Purple
A Christmas Carol
This Boy’s Life
The House on Mango Street
Oliver Twist
Catcher in the Rye
I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings
Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde
Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time
As I Lay Dying
A Farewell to Arms
Brave New World
A Member of the Wedding
The Bluest Eye
Cry the Beloved Country
Things Fall Apart
Pride and Prejudice
The Scarlet Letter
Lord of the Flies
A Clockwork Orange



Filed under colleagues, compassion and cooperation, critical thinking, Dream Course, great writing, I love my boss, I love my job, lesson planning, Literature, reading, Teaching, winging it

25 responses to “Want a Project?

  1. Terry

    I always liked the idea of linking English to History. At our school, sophmores get world history (so, world literature would be nice) and juniors get American history (and so, “American” “classics” would be nice)–or just some way to key what students are reading (like Lord of the Flies) to what they’re studying in history (fascism, etc.).

    • Terry, I would LOVE – LOVE, I tell you!! – to do that. The problem is that my history teacher (yeah, there’s only one – we’re a small school) is a fly by the seat of his pants kinda guy and can’t tell me, from week to week, what they’ll be studying. It works for him, though, so I’m going to let it go, but I can’t tell you how badly I want to connect my classes to his; IMAGINE how much richer the students’ experiences would be!

      • Jaqui Wilson

        Really? How can he do that? I say that because as a World History teacher I have a set of objectives that I have to cover in a course, whether it is one semester or two semesters in length. To get it done in the right amount of time we have a pacing guide that allows us to pinpoint, within about two weeks, what we are teaching. Although newer teacher has trouble completing all the objectives by the end of the course. Is your charter school private or public? If its private, that may be why he doesn’t have a list of objectives but in order to be accredited your school should have a list of objectives on file to show evidence that your school is providing an education worth accreditation. Just a thought.

        BTW-I used to work link up with our English teachers to supplement each other. In GA all 10th graders take World History and the 10th Lit focuses on world literature. Eleventh Grade is US History and US Literature so they really work well together.

  2. Rowan

    The Giver is great! I’d include the sequels though, Gathering Blue and The Messenger. Read together they are quite thought provoking.

  3. I don’t really need to offer my book suggestions, do I ? 🙂

  4. I am going to run down the list and only comment on the ones that I’ve actually read. Then, I marked the ones I think of as the tops.

    To Kill a Mockingbird – 9th *
    The Book Thief – 9th *
    Native Son – 10/11th (I prefer Black Boy by same author)

    Ender’s Game – 11/12 **(really readable by any age group, but I think the notion of genocide for survival’s sake is best tackled by older thinkers)

    Frankenstein – 11/ 12 *
    King Lear – 11/12
    MacBeth – 11/12
    Much Ado About Nothing – 9 (love this one, and I love love love As You Like It, too)

    The Kite Runner – 11/12
    Night – 9
    Watership Down – 9 *
    1984 – any grade **
    Fahrenheit 451 – any grade
    The Giver – 9 *
    The Color Purple – 10/11
    Adventures of Huckleberry Finn – 9
    The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time – 10
    As I Lay Dying – 12
    Brave New World – 11/12
    The Bluest Eye – 10/11
    Cry the Beloved Country – 10
    Pride and Prejudice – 10 *
    The Scarlet Letter – 10 (of all the books on this list, this is the only that I hated with a passion, with a capital P!)
    A Clockwork Orange – 12

    • You are awesome. Thank you. I am realizing that my perspective on things like this is heavily skewed by the fact that I’ve been teaching at the college level for so long that I’m quick to dismiss things as being “too easy.” I have to remember that part of the point of freshman year is to ease kids into the idea of thinking for themselves, and tossing something like Frankenstein at them when they’re not ready is a great way to kill kids’ curiosity and willingness to read and write. Maybe that’s why you hated (with a capital Passion) The Scarlet Letter? I know that’s why *I* hated (with an all-caps PASSION!) The Grapes of Wrath; I was nowhere NEAR ready for that novel when I got it, and I hated it so much that I’ve staunchly refused to give it (or Steinbeck in general) another try to this day…

      • I haven’t given Steinbeck another try yet either …

        I read Scarlet Letter freshman year, and I loved it. On the other hand, we also read The Lottery that year, which I definitely wasn’t ready for.

    • You’re so right, As You Like It is a better choice for HS age group.

  5. Ohhh! So much fun for you! And stress.

    My suggestions:
    Their Eyes Were Watching God
    Fight Club
    Slaughterhouse Five
    The God of Small Things
    The Handmaid’s Tale
    Alas, Babylon
    A Thousand Splendid Suns
    The Monk

    The Children’s Hour
    Raisin in the Sun

    • Ooo, tangentially you make an interesting point. The only plays on the given list are by Shakespeare.

      • Yeah, I noticed that. In my defense (or, perhaps, as an excuse), I’m most familiar with Shakespeare’s work and, seeing that I teach in a school where theatre plays a HEAVY role, I know that the kids (and I!) are going to get a good dose of non-Bard theatre in their time at the school, so I’m less worried about teaching stuff I don’t really know, anyway, you know?

  6. I’m going to do what Saintseester did only qualify it a little further and probably stick only to the ones I know and like/value.

    To Kill a Mockingbird – 7/8
    Frankenstein – 11/12
    Hamlet – 11
    King Lear – college
    MacBeth – 9/10
    Much Ado About Nothing – 12
    The Taming of the Shrew – 10/11
    Othello – 10/11
    The Great Gatsby – 11
    The Things They Carried – 10
    Night – 10/11
    1984 – 10/11
    The Giver – 9
    The Color Purple – 9/10
    Beloved – 12+
    A Christmas Carol – anywhere
    Oliver Twist – 11
    Catcher in the Rye – 10
    I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings – 9
    Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde – er…..
    Adventures of Huckleberry Finn – 10
    The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time – 9
    As I Lay Dying – 10
    A Farewell to Arms – 12+
    Brave New World – 11
    A Member of the Wedding – 9/10
    The Bluest Eye – 9/10
    Pride and Prejudice – 10/11/12
    The Scarlet Letter – 10
    Lord of the Flies – 9
    A Clockwork Orange – 12

  7. While I’m not an English teacher, I have an English major from University. Does that count?

    Theoretically you can place each book on any part of the four year timeline. You just have to decide how much deconstructing you would like your students to do with each title. Otherwise, may I offer this suggestion: organise them by catergory.

    You could group the children’s stories together: The Giver, Huck Finn, Lord of the Flies, etc.

    Female heroines: Taming of the Shrew, Pride and Prejudice, Beloved, etc.

    Monsters: Frankenstein, A Clockwork Orange, King Lear, etc.

    Americana: The Color Purple, Great Gatsby, Mockingbird, etc.

    Utopian/Distopian: Fahrenheit 451, 1984, The Giver, etc.

    Obviously, some titles are interchangable, but it could give you a start on organising them similarly to university/college courses. One thing I remember fondly from my senior English class in high school: my teacher said that by the end of the year we would have a room filled with dead bodies. We covered Shakespeare, some Canadiana, the “classics,” and more. Keeping your students’ interest is crucial and themes help tie stories together for them.

    • It ABSOLUTELY counts, and your suggestion is a good one. One of the reasons Mike and I wanted to have as many books as we do (and we’ll likely add more to this list) is so that we don’t have to teach the same books every term, and so that we can arrange them by the theme the school has chosen in any given year. I like your idea of organizing them by category, but I have to be careful that I don’t end up teaching the same book to the same kids in different years; while I can eloquently argue the merits of reading the same book over and over again and getting different things from each experience, I also know that’s a tough sell for teenagers.

      • Anonymous

        I teach sophomores, and some of my favorites for that age are on your list: Kite Runner, Night, F451, The Things They Carried and To Kill A Mockingbird.

  8. Terry

    Me again! I love fermat69’s idea too (though I see your point as well)–it reminds me a bit of how I liked the way you grouped your literature this year by “Mental Health Awareness Month” etc.

    Have you read anything by Donalyn Miller? She has some great ideas for getting her students to read…A. LOT.

    Maybe there’s some way to offer ALL the books to your students and just require that they read, say, five, and do independent projects on them, while you read certain books together as a group?

    Or something like a book club idea where the class reads a book together as a giant book club, then individual groups read the same book, and/or subsequent groups read different books and then everyone meets to share… I dunno. Probably too ambitious/complicated!

    On the other hand–I have to say I’m tired (not with YOU!) of seeing the same books year after year after year. Can’t we all mix it up a little bit? Can’t they read more widely? More young adult lit, more multicultural lit, more graphic art books, etc. Do we really need to read the exact same books we’ve all read for DECADES? (Just throwing that out there…)

  9. Mike Sacken

    Can I observe that this dialog is one that so often occurs but not as part of a formal policy process – teachers discussing things/ways they use to execute their duties and support others’ ideas, w/out excluding or judging other possibilities. A flood of ideas, ie.

    I know this is a distraction to a focused and enthusiastic discussion. But it saddens me that such dialogs are not constantly sponsored or utilized in schools and systems – I love listening to teachers talk teaching in terms so positive and empowered. It is both stimulating and encouraging. Thnx for letting me lurk in

  10. What an incredible task! I am like you–I need some boundaries or guidance, or else I get overwhelmed.

    I have taught ninth and eleventh, and here is what I’ve taught and what I think about it:

    English 9

    Fences (deceptively tricky, students had trouble empathizing with Troy, better for older students)
    Macbeth (always a big hit!)
    Their Eyes Were Watching God (love this book, could work for 10/11 too)
    Catcher in the Rye (always a hit)
    Bible as Literature (a worthwhile text if only because so much of Western culture references it)

    English 11

    This year is an AmLit year, but we teach Shakespeare every year

    The Things They Carried (always a hit)
    Great Gatsby (students fall in love)
    Beloved (tough but great–could be good for 12 too)
    Hamlet (wonderful and challenging)
    Shakespeare’s Sonnets (great intro to Hamlet)
    Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson (poetry unit)

    Good luck! Where will teaching poetry fall in your project?

  11. Okay, here are my thoughts on the ones from your list I know (asterisks are ones I’ve actually taught):

    9th grade – To Kill a Mockingbird, The Book Thief, Ender’s Game*, Watership Down, The Giver, A Christmas Carol, The House on Mango Street, Oliver Twist

    10th grade – Much Ado About Nothing*, The Taming of the Shrew, Othello, Night*, Fahrenheit 451*, Cry the Beloved Country*, Things Fall Apart*, Lord of the Flies*

    11th grade – Native Son, Invisible Man, The Great Gatsby*, The Kite Runner, Catcher in the Rye*, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn*, A Farewell to Arms, The Scarlet Letter*

    12th grade – Frankenstein, Hamlet, King Lear, MacBeth, 1984, The Color Purple, Beloved, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, As I Lay Dying, Brave New World, The Bluest Eye, Pride and Prejudice, A Clockwork Orange

    Personally, a book I loved when I read it in high school and still love now is Jane Eyre, and I’d put that around 10th grade. I also enjoyed doing Anthem (Ayn Rand) with my 10th graders last year as part of a dystopia unit.

  12. Without going over the whole list, I’d substitute “Bleak House” for “Oliver Twist.”

  13. Consider exploring gaming the classroom with me at ruthlessdiastemagames.wordpress.com.

    I think there is real potential in this area.

  14. I think also that by having so much Shakespeare, you are leaving out some good stuff.

    I see no Steinbeck (The Grapes of Wrath), Hemingway (The Sun Also Rises), Joseph Conrad (Heart of Darkness), or Gabriel Garcia Marquez (One Hundred Years of Solitude), for example (unless I missed seeing them). Notable by its absence is Moby Dick (which, as you know, I refer to as the most famous book nobody you know ever read). I also think John Knowles’s A Separate Peace is worth considering.

    There is also a distinct absence of modern stuff.

    I recognize that teaching goals may differ from reading goals.

  15. Unsure of whether the authors are only intended to be American or not, I’ll suggest the following:

    Tortilla Flat, by John Steinbeck,
    Bless me Ultima, by Rudolfo Anaya
    Chronicle of a Death Foretold, by Gabriel garcia-Marquez
    Ragtime, by E.L. Doctorow
    Reasons to Live, by Amy Hempel
    The Stranger, by Albert Camus,
    Woman Hollering Creek And Other Stories, by Sandra Cisneros

    I second Scott Card’s Ender’s Game and Beloved, by Toni Morrison. I do want to point out that I read this work as a sophomore in high school. Although a challenging reading, it was not inaccessible. I, thus, will extrapolate to say that such a work is not necessarily reserved for older readers. What it means to be a reader changes, and if they struggle with it as a sophomore or junior, the next time they read it it will be a whole different experience.

    Thanks for opening this up for comments.

    • Thanks for replying.

      I am IN NO WAY limiting this list to anything in particular; the works that you see on it are simply those that my colleague and I either love or at least feel familiar enough to teach effectively. I’m saving all these comments and using them to broaden my own reading experience, so that I’ll have a greater repertoire to work from. I’m certainly not opposed to teaching something I’ve never read before (in fact, I try to do exactly that every once in a while to show my students how experienced readers approach new material), but I tend to use as anchors the things with which I am most familiar.

      One of the reasons I put this to the blog is because I’m desperately interested in the perspectives of others – educators or otherwise. I recognize that I have a pretty narrow field of vision (I live in a very homogeneous part of the world), and having others suggest works that I would otherwise not encounter is exactly what I’m after. Thanks for the suggestions.

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