Lingua Franca: Reassessing the Curriculum in English

The 2019-2020 school year was the beginning of a watershed moment for Shore’s Upper School English department. The head of the division, Gustavo Carrera, had begun a review of the department’s faculty and curriculum from the perspective of diversity, equity, and inclusion—a reflection of a major strategic priority at the school that was formalized in an Equity & Inclusion Commitment approved by Shore’s Board of Trustees in the spring of 2020. “We know that Shore has a responsibility not only to take action ourselves, but also to raise our children to recognize and address systems of oppression,” the members of the Board’s Equity & Inclusion Committee wrote to families. That same spring, Carrera hired fifth grade homeroom teacher Louis Frank to fill a vacant position and serve as chair in the Upper School English Department, noting that Frank’s extensive background and training in issues related to diversity, equity, and inclusion were a significant factor in his winning the job.

By the following school year, 2020-2021, these changes were already making a visible impact on the English curriculum and the experience of Upper School students. According to Frank, “Much of my graduate work was concerned with understanding how the literary canon as we have known it for so long has been informed by and reflected systems of power and oppression. When I arrived in the department I noticed that the text selection tended to be predominantly concerned with a specific white perspective.” Given a student population that has historically been mostly white, says Frank, it appeared that most of the texts in the Upper School curriculum were “mirrors,” reflecting back to the students their own culture. “What I wanted to do,” explains Frank, “was to create more ‘windows’ in the curriculum—more opportunities to explore new worlds and new perspectives. Literature is a really wonderful way, particularly at the middle school level, to engage in conversations around certain systemic issues in a way that kids can access through characters, through narration, through a literary lens.”

Works by diverse young authors were introduced, and books that dealt with themes of racism, white supremacy, and related issues were now front and center. There is an appetite for these types of materials, says Frank. “This is the lingua franca of this generation. Because of the digital access they have to the world and the way they engage with media, the students in my classroom are already grappling with so many of these ideas in their lives—ideas like white supremacy, patriarchy, misogyny, homophobia. These are words that I might not have learned until college, but for these young people, it is how they understand the world right now.”

An example of the kind of reading that is now featured prominently in the Upper School English curriculum is Walter Dean Myers’s Monster, part of the eighth grade’s syllabus. The story of Harlem teen Steve Harmon, on trial for his alleged participation in a murder and labeled a “monster” by the prosecution, the book focuses on the racism inherent in a justice system that relies on the dehumanization of the accused, and works to humanize the character of Steve. Monster was chosen for the way in which it speaks directly to the themes in what was formerly a centerpiece of the eighth grade English curriculum, Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, now a part of the grade’s summer reading list. In that canonical work, heroic “good” whites battle racist “bad” whites while Black characters in the novel are rarely given voice. Explains Head of Upper School Gustavo Carrera, “Teaching both texts has allowed us to encourage deeper conversations about equity and race in our society. The students are not only addressing a new text but they are also approaching two texts in completely different ways.”

Louis Frank agrees, “My students and I discuss the place To Kill a Mockingbird has been assigned in the American cultural imagination with regard to race and the justice system, and we ask how might Monster broaden our understanding of the justice system and the people most commonly affected by it. Myers’s novel allows students to look at two different approaches to issues of racism and so-called justice, and we place the books in conversation with each other.” Adding Monster to the reading list has had the effect of re-centering important voices that have not historically been centered in the cultural imagination, says Frank. 

It is fortunate for Shore at this moment that middle school students are inherently interested in the idea of fairness. Because of this predisposition, Frank argues, young people can become deeply invested in themes of equity and injustice found in a book such as Just Mercy, newly introduced into the ninth grade curriculum. This non-fiction work recounts the story of its author, Bryan Stevenson, the young lawyer who founded the Equal Justice Initiative, a legal practice dedicated to defending those most desperate and in need: the poor, the wrongly condemned, and women and children trapped in the criminal justice system. “My students are already attuned to the broader idea that the system isn’t fair, but they need this book to experience the full scope of the problem and its human consequences,” says Frank. “Just Mercy sparks engaged conversations about the concrete ways that inequity operates in our society, and it allows us to explore the idea of what a more just, more compassionate society might look like.”

Increased engagement is a key benefit of the recent changes in the department. As Frank contends, “There has historically been this idea in English classrooms that texts that teachers choose are things to be endured, not enjoyed. But what if we started thinking about books not as things to be endured, but as opportunities to engage with material that feels relevant, new, and exciting? Authors are creating texts that are increasingly representative of a wider range of experiences, and these feel more relevant to students because of the world that they live in.” At the same time, these newer texts have the power to engage students more deeply in learning about traditional, theoretical elements of the English curriculum, such as character, conflict, symbolism, and figurative language. Research shows that middle school-age children learn better when they are engaged on an emotional as well as an intellectual level, and, says Frank, these newer texts do both.

He cites an eighth grade discussion inspired by another recently introduced book as an example of the engaged learning he is increasingly witnessing in the classroom. In The Marrow Thieves, a speculative fiction novel by Canadian author Cherie Dimaline, humanity has nearly destroyed the world through global warming, and the indigenous people of North America are being hunted and harvested for their bone marrow, which carries the key to recovering something the rest of the population has lost: the ability to dream. In this dark world, a group of young people struggle to survive, and one of these protagonists happens to be gay. “It’s just presented as a matter of course,” explains Frank, “and my students were struck by that. They’d been wondering why, in so many representations of gay characters that they’ve seen, the character’s sexuality is the entirety of the story. Yet in The Marrow Thieves, here is a gay character who just is; that’s not his essential humanity, and that’s not all that defines him and how he operates in the story. There is a certain power in the quotidian, and I think this character reflects that.” Students are hungry for representations that allow them to apply some of the ideas and observations they’ve acquired on their own, Frank says. “That’s what this kind of literature allows them to do.”

The academic and author Saidiya Hartman has said, “So much of the work of oppression is policing the imagination.” For Frank, who admits he is inspired by Hartman’s work, the English classroom should be a place for combating oppression and expanding the imagination. “When I think about the changes we’ve made to the curriculum, I think about how books can not only challenge the cultural imagination, but also expand the child’s imagination. By meeting young people where they are and providing texts that speak the language in which they’re already immersed, we can respond to their most urgent emotional and intellectual needs—and the needs of our society. Literature inspires us to believe that a more just world is possible.”

    • Louis Frank

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