Loading up the Canon: How Stuyvesant English Teachers Pick Books

You have burning questions: “How do English teachers choose books to teach? Why do all sophomores have to read The Odyssey?” Find out here.

Reading Time: 5 minutes

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By Lillian Zou

Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo? And while we’re at it, Romeo, wherefore art thou on so many Freshman Composition syllabi? As for you, Oedipus Rex and Odysseus, you two kingly Greeks, how is it that you came to dominate the European Literature syllabus for so many years in a row? The same question could be asked of Holden Caulfield, Waverly Jong, and Frederick Douglass, all in their respective courses. How did you come to be on the syllabus? When? Wherefore? Why?

Stuyvesant English teachers have a lot of flexibility to choose what books they want to teach. There are no books that the DOE or Stuyvesant requires the English department to include in their curriculum, nor is there any set of banned books that English teachers cannot touch. Usually the DOE provides copies of certain books to schools, but for lesser-known novels, the Parent’s Association sets up the funds to buy them. Assistant Principal of English Eric Grossman explained, “There's no one outside of the English department at Stuyvesant who tells us or tells me what books English teachers can and cannot teach. The choices are often guided by the course name and course description and guiding questions of the course.”

Teachers plan out the books they will teach at the beginning of the year. At times books are chosen for practical reasons, such as scheduling (teachers need to coordinate in order to make sure the books they want to teach are available) or to practice particular writing, reading, and analysis skills. “We have to make compromises. So, sort of, that's the moment when I have to sit down at the very beginning of the year and plan out the year,” Freshman Composition teacher Mark Henderson said.

Freshman Composition teacher Emilio Nieves appreciates this freedom. “The beauty of working at Stuyvesant is that each English teacher gets to choose whatever books he or she feels can best accomplish his or her writing and thinking objectives for each course, which, of course, vary,” he said. He explained that the process of not having set books every teacher must use is the reason many teachers might enjoy teaching here. This freedom allows for the creativity and flexibility that is needed in an English course. “I think students need to understand, at least from my perspective, that in an English class, the use of language is studied. I choose books not because I want my students to read for plot or to enjoy them, but because of what [my students] can learn about language use,” Nieves continued. This assignment-first mentality is shared by a number of teachers, including Henderson. “I think of the assignment before the book. So for freshman composition, we like to teach standard thesis writing. I have to try to choose books that have a clear question that could be a thesis answer or thesis essay,” he said.

Other teachers teach purely from the love for a certain book. For example, Judd Staley, the teacher for the Science Fiction and Fantasy elective, explained, “I often teach books I love, but also books my colleagues recommend, books I think students will be interested in, books that fit a certain niche in the curriculum that other books I'm teaching don’t.” Because of his love for many different genres, Staley tends to teach a variety of books, from classics like “Hamlet” (1609) and “The Left Hand of Darkness” (1969) to modern classics like “The Hate U Give,” (2017) which bring more diverse and current perspectives to class discussions. Certain recent books, including “The Hate U Give(2017) and “The Sellout” (2015), that deal with current events and themes joined Stuyvesant syllabi only within the last year or two.

Many teachers teach certain novels because of their relevance to their students’ lives. Freshman Composition and Asian American Literature teacher Sophie Oberfield wants to teach books that both she and her students feel passionately about. In her Asian American Literature class, Oberfield teaches Jiehae Park’s “Peerless” (2017), a play about two Asian American twins who are desperate to get into The College, but when a classmate who is 1/16th Native American takes their spot, they have no choice but to murder him. “I've now taught it a number of times and some of the students were like, ‘This is too much,’ [my] juniors and seniors. They're in the middle of the college process, and some of them are like, it's so funny until it's not,” Oberfield explained.

But at the same time, with great freedom comes great responsibility. English teachers are constantly striving to find books that fit into the curriculum but also tell stories from all different perspectives. Oberfield describes a time where she changed her choice book because she felt that she wanted to share a different, more uplifting racial story for her class. Rather than teach Octavia E. Butler’s “Kindred” (1979), a book about a Black woman who travels back in time to see the violence that her ancestors faced on a plantation, she decided to teach Jamaica Kincaid’s “Annie John” (1985), a coming-of-age story about a Black girl growing up in Antigua. “I think the English education in general, in a lot of the books that we read, or the works we think of as serious literature, have characters dealing with a lot of trauma, and I am always looking for things that are well made but funny or life affirming or give marginalized people agency in some way,” Oberfield explained.

The world of literature is constantly changing and expanding, and every year there are more books that are published to read and choose from. While many students still read Shakespeare and “The Odyssey” in European Literature, many beloved books are killed off simply because there are too many new things in store. Grossman likes to use the writer’s phrase “Kill your darlings” whenever he replaces his typical curriculum with a new book. “The curriculum shouldn't be static. The idea that there is some platonic ideal that once you've achieved it, you're just going to teach that for the rest of eternity. I don't really buy that […] The world changes. New things are being written all the time. Teaching should reflect that,” Grossman stressed.

In some cases, English teachers’ call for diversity can be controversial. Grossman recalls a story from over a decade ago about teachers teaching Allison Bechdel’s graphic novel “Fun Home” (2006), which contained a couple of frames of a gay couple having sex. The groundbreaking book has won multiple awards, detailing the author’s coming-out and relationships with her partner. However, a particular non-English teacher was upset over the details of the book, prompting the then-principal to ban the book. While “Fun Home” has since been unbanned, the situation set a tone for banning literature. Grossman believes that Stuyvesant students are up for controversial and challenging reads. “We are always taking a risk, we are always one complaint away from some type of issue. But overwhelmingly, our students are overwhelmingly open-minded [and] capable of seeing the value in the works that we read,” Grossman said. Oberfield added, “We don't teach things that have controversial things in them because of those controversial things, but because they're parts of the works of art that we're interested in.”

The truth is Hamlet and Odyseus will probably always remain a part of all teachers’ curricula, but slowly, new, modern books are creeping their way into English classrooms. On some days, you might be analyzing Shakespearean sonnets, but on others, you might find yourself discussing contemporary immigrant identity. Whatever it may be, English teachers believe that all different kinds of books belong on their classroom shelves, and hope that Stuyvesant students feel the same.