I'm teaching half of the 9th-graders next year, just as I did this year. Three sections of a single course is a lot, and, dadgumit, it can be boring. It's especially boring because the 9th-grade books have been exactly the same ever since I've been at FGS. They're fine books, ones that I've enjoyed teaching, but the thought of doing the exact same thing for the fifth time through was getting me down. (Those are the books on the right; click to embiggen.)
Plus, I read Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe's Understanding by Design with a group of teachers this spring, and I'm going to take it seriously in my planning for next year. Wiggins and McTighe are really big on "essential questions" (here's a nice set of examples, and here's another, if you go to the "additional essential questions" file at the bottom of the page), and I was realizing that the books we were using in the 9th-grade class really didn't hang together for me in terms of an overarching set of questions. I'm sure they did for the two teachers who came up with the list of books a decade ago, but I've honestly never heard either of them say anything substantive about the big picture for the course, so I don't know what they were thinking. Mostly we talk about the skills we want students to learn in 9th grade, which we're all on the same page about, but I think I could teach those same skills well with any number of books!
At the same time, I've finally realized (and it took me long enough) that my desire for things to stay fresh and challenging is pretty much diametrically opposed to most of the department, which prefers to keep things mostly as they are. Certainly my colleagues are always rethinking assignments and how to work best with students, so I'm not casting any stones at all here; I'm just somehow more restless than anyone else seems to be. This makes my longed-for goal of alternating the courses I teach every couple of years mostly doomed to failure, but there's another possibility: changing up the books I teach within any given course. I was talking with a public school teacher friend this spring, and she told me that her department has a list of books for each year (i.e., the 9th-grade list, the 10th-grade list, etc.), and that the deal is that teachers can teach any combination of books from the respective list for their courses. Aha!
So this spring I proposed that our department do the same thing -- choose a set of books for grades 9 through 11 that we could choose from, structured so that we're not treading on one another's toes in different grades. (And then the various 12th grade electives can teach anything that the students won't have read in previous years.) And the department said "yes"! Hurrah! So now I can change up books, and other people can keep exactly the same books, and everyone's happy.
Of course, it turns out that I'm pretty much the only person who is changing anything, which is undoubtedly because (a) the 9th-grade curriculum was always the most structured, with more room for teachers' individual choices already built into the later courses, and (b) as already noted, I'm the most restless member of the department.
So here are the new books for my 9th-grade Lit for next year. You'll notice that we're still starting with The Count of Monte Cristo, since that's the required summer reading for all incoming 9th graders. (It's a novel I'd never read until I started teaching the freshmen, and it's actually a darned good novel that the students really like. We teach an abridged version.)
I'm also keeping The Catcher in the Rye. It's a wonderful, important novel, but I want to teach it later in the year, when the students and I have developed a rapport and a trust. There's a lot about grief and identity and not fitting in, and I always felt like it was pushing things too fast to teach it in the first term, sort of like meeting someone for the first time and asking them within five minutes about their deepest fears and secrets. Sure, that happens occasionally, and it's fabulous when it does, but it's too much to expect that this will work well with all 45 14-year-olds.
And the other books are all new, and I'm so excited! I love teaching graphic novels, and I think Persepolis is going to be a good choice for our first book to read together. And then My Antonia; I'm already verklempt, just thinking about teaching this beloved novel that I haven't gotten to teach in years and years.
Those two new books are made possible because I've dropped The Odyssey, which I actually enjoyed teaching very much but which is incredibly long. The two main goals in teaching it were always (a) it's traditional and canonical, damn it, and (b) to coincide with their Western Civ course's emphasis on ancient Greece and Rome. So I'm swapping it out for Antigone, which is also traditional and canonical, also about ancient Greece, but wow, so much shorter! And I like the idea of giving 9th-graders a few more literary voices in their course than the four they have had in past years. Plus, here's a wacky idea: instead of four male authors, how about four men and two women, one of whom is a woman of color? It's still not a great example of diversity, but at least it's getting better.
Plus, I'm subbing in The Tempest for Macbeth. And there will be short stories and poems around the edges. And if my sense of timing is correct (which it may not be), there will be a little time at the end of the year for some free-choice reading, which I'm excited about.
Here's my idea about how all of this fits together: I'm calling the course "Coming of Age, Coming to Wisdom." And here's my first stab at coming up with essential questions for the course:
- How do we form and shape our mature, authentic identities? How does what we know of the world shape the way we view ourselves?
- What turning points determine our individual pathways to adulthood? What does it mean to “grow up”? How does the meaning of adulthood change or remain the same as one moves between cultures and times?
- How do people navigate the relationship between society’s values and their own individual values within that society?
- How can literature help us to grapple with these questions? How does literature reveal the values of a given culture or time period? What is the role of art?
Indeed, this is my first stab at writing essential questions ever (how is that possible?), so I'm going to have to sit with these and think on them before I commit to them. And I'm totally open to feedback about them! It's possible that I've got too many of them, or that they're too broad (especially that last bullet point). I also know that they won't be immediately engaging to 9th-graders, so I'm going to need a hook to pull them in.
Can we also just have a moment to recognize that this is the first time ever that I've done any real planning for the year ahead in early June?! I mean, the old school year isn't even over yet! This is what happens when I finish my comments early, as I did this year, and I have the excitement of new books to look forward to! (Plus, this afternoon I was trying not to fall asleep, so it was either this or clean out the fridge.)