A Glossy New Surface: Looking Back on What’s Changed in High School English Class
In the fall of 2005 I was a young high school sophomore and an active athlete competing in football, wrestling, and track and field. I was never the avid reader I am today, one decade later; you could even say I was your stereotypical jock. One late October day my high school wrestling team got together just before the season started to do a little charity work for Habitat for Humanity. I won’t bore you with the details, but on our way back to the school, I noticed a book my coach was reading.
“What are you reading?” I asked him, remembering that he was an English teacher.
“This? Oh, don’t tell me you’ve never read Animal Farm before, have you?” he replied looking at the book and then at me.
“No, what’s it about?” I said staring at the cover noticing the two pigs facing off from one another.
“Here, you read it and tell me,” he said handing it to me. That night I started reading it and couldn’t put it down until I had finished it the next day. I was inspired; I wanted more. I began researching more about this George Orwell and his writings. It was not until I read his infamous 1984 my senior year of high school that I realized that I had begun a bromance with Orwell and the classics. So now, one decade later and three years of college under my belt, I got to thinking. What has changed in English classes? Are the classics like Animal Farm, 1984, and The Grapes of Wrath still being taught? What new “classics” are being taught inside high school English classes?
I recently sat down with Marshall Jordan, husband to WIU English Professor Jacque Wilson-Jordan, to discuss these questions. Jordan has been teaching English at Macomb High school for the last thirteen years, and teaching for a total of twenty-three years. It was a warm night that Jordan invited me to his home, and I was greeted not only by him, but also their dogs at the door. A warm smile stretched the length of his face as he offered his hand. After getting settled, we got down to business, discussing how the high school English curriculum has changed over the years.
“It used to be cafeteria style where students had the option of taking modern and/or early American literature, or they could take modern or early British literature. We found a lot of students were taking dual credit in their senior year but they weren’t reading literature. So when we re-designed the course, we kept freshmen reading Romeo and Juliet and sophomores reading A Separate Peace, but also made sure they’re reading Macbeth and Hamlet their sophomore year as well. Freshmen also now do To Kill a Mockingbird to replace Fahrenheit 451,” Jordan explained.
Indeed, it seems a lot has changed since I was a high school freshman and sophomore, at least in the literature being read. My freshman year we read Romeo and Juliet and A Separate Peace but never read any formal literature my sophomore year. We did a lot of poetry and wrote a research paper by going to the library every day for weeks on end. Sure, 2005 was still technically the twenty first century, but we were forced to use the card catalog. High school English classes have come a long way since those humble days. John Knowles, author of A Separate Peace wrote it best: “I didn’t entirely like this glossy new surface, because it made the school look like a museum, and that’s exactly what it was to me, and what I did not want it to be. In the deep, tacit way in which feeling becomes stronger than thought…”