A Closer Look at the English Department’s Process of Choosing Books


Book Posters in Ms. Breen’s room

In the midst of a year full of change, one aspect of life at Hammond School stays relatively constant: the book selections of the Upper School Literature teachers. It’s clear from their syllabi that the Literature department puts a great amount of thought into which books to introduce to their students. When asked about their process in deciding which books to teach, answers varied from one grade level to the next.

“I’d say it’s a combination of things that appeal to a wide variety of students, and things that are canonical works, but also things I have had success with in the past, as much as anything else,” said Dr. Ragan, who teaches tenth grade American Literature. “[I try] to get a breadth of different kinds of experiences for reading, and that certainly involves selections of poetry, as well as pieces of short fiction, as well as the novels that we read in class.” Dr. Ragan also commented on the versatility of subject matter that an English teacher contends with when choosing a syllabus. “I am currently teaching a very tiny percentage of the books that I have taught in various classes through the years.”

Junior English teacher Ms. Breen also recognized that her syllabus has changed greatly. “[It’s been] a lot of trial and error through the years. The first year that I taught, my syllabus was very different than it is now,” said Ms. Breen. She also commented on the importance of equality in the works she introduces: “I’ve tried to establish diversity of voices in the works that I teach, making efforts to teach the same number of male and female authors.”

Freshman English teacher Ms. Crabb also keeps the context of the broader world in mind when selecting her syllabus. “Much of what we read is pretty standard for American ninth grade…I brought in a journalism memoir this year to enhance our media studies: Deep South Dispatch: Memoir of a Civil Rights Journalist. I think it’s tremendously important for students to learn what good journalism looks like and where to find it in today’s complicated media landscape.”

For Senior English teacher Mr. McCormack, his book selection often reflects his students’ impending transition to college. “They’re going to go to college…and so on one hand, I feel that there are things that I’d love to show them…but there are also things I feel like they should know, and be familiar with for the more advanced courses they’re going to take at the college level,” says Mr. McCormack. He notes, however, that he wants the novels to be seen as more than just an example of a specific writing style or technique. “I think it’s important that [the works are] engaged on their own terms…mixing up the order, out of chronology, encourages students to think of them as self-contained works as well as part of a larger fiction.”

The order in which the books are introduced is very intentional. For Mr. McCormack, chronological introduction of novels would be “a more coherent or obvious way to do it, but I like doing it a bit out of order, because I think it’s important that the students think of the works as individual worlds…as opposed to just examples of movements or time periods,” said Mr. McCormack.

Ms. Breen also found that proper timing helps engage students more with the material. “I always teach Macbeth in the fall: the Weird Sisters are Halloween-appropriate, and I seem to be able to convince students that the play’s curses cause the wild South Carolina weather in autumn. More than that, though, I want the works to speak to one another, and so I think about how the order of works might influence how students perceive each one.”

It seems that across the board, it is vital to choose a selection of works which complement one another. “I like each work to be in dialogue with the other works, so hopefully it kind of reinforces and expands certain ideas…that’s how we learn,” said Mr. McCormack. “To the Lighthouse introduces…modernism, a technical thing, and the idea that the style and the structure is part of the meaning of the work…but also introduces the idea of the subjective reality, and the private kind of reality of our own headspace. But then we move on to Hamlet…and that introduces the tragic form. Even though it’s so different than To the Lighthouse, it still picks up on that thread.”

For Dr. Ragan, book selection comes down to establishing and solidifying skills. “I think of English classes as being skills classes, as opposed to content classes,” says Dr. Ragan. “In other classes, that are content-oriented classes…it’s expected for you to master a body of material before the end of the year, and that’s what the test will cover. In my class, I think it’s more important to teach kids how to read, and to adapt their reading skills to a variety of different kinds of content. And also, it’s very, very important to teach them how to assemble their thinking about those works, and to write effectively about them. Those things can be done with any number of books.”

Ms. Crabb agreed that establishing fundamental skills is vital. “ It’s about how all the parts fit together to bring students from being brand new freshmen to skilled-and-ready sophomores,” she said.

But is one book more important to the curriculum than others? Not according to Ms. Breen. “The books that have been mainstays (I’ve taught them all seven years that I’ve been here) are Frankenstein, Macbeth, and Mrs. Dalloway,” said Ms. Breen. “However, I consider each of the books I teach as ‘essential’. Each one asks questions of the world, and I’ve come to love the questions themselves.”

“The signpost texts would be the ones that…every Hammond student takes. Which, in this case, is Hamlet, Oedipus Rex and Heart of Darkness,” said Mr. McCormack. “So, I suppose, for me, I think of the first semester of each course as being engaged in a really foundational question…kind of the existential question: what is an individual’s identity? But obviously, life takes place in the context of a much larger [world]. For example, I teach Heart of Darkness. So it’s kind of like, you have this existential crisis, but then you [ask], ‘how do I fit into the larger world, and my obligation to other people, just, as human beings?’ And then we think about that in terms of Catch-22. And then in the World Literature course, there are different texts, but there’s a similar kind of arc.”

“Teaching the Bible is always full of surprises,” said Ms. Crabb, “because folks don’t know it as well as they think they do. And it’s fun to introduce the Bible to students who have never actually read it before. It’s way more philosophical and edgy and “literary” than most people realize… [and] I always wrap up with either Fahrenheit 451 or Life of Pi, because they demonstrate how frequently biblical allusions appear in popular, non-religious literature.

“I think probably the one that’s my favorite to teach is not necessarily the one that I think is the greatest book, or the one that I like the most. It’s the one that the students respond most positively to,” said Dr. Ragan. “through the last decade, it’s been Fredrick Douglass’s Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave. It’s, I think, maybe the first slave narrative that most of the students have every encountered, and it is remarkably powerful. A lot of students respond very positively also to The Things They Carried, which is the only book that I teach both the Honors students and the regular students. Probably my favorite book to teach, one of my personal favorites this year, will be Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury.”

But which books are considered class favorites among upperclassmen? Well, answers vary from year to year. “Different grades have responded very differently to books,” said Ms. Breen. “This year, the summer reading in British Literature The Sense of an Ending generated a lot of enthusiasm. The non-fiction unit on education always sparks intense and interesting conversations in AP Language: students really seem to want to understand why they go to school, and what they are doing here in the first place.” And on the topic of a personal favorite: “Every book I teach has, at one point, changed the way I think and how I perceive the world, so that makes it incredibly hard to pick a favorite. However, I do find that some books are richer for re-interpretation year after year.”

This was a point re-iterated by Mr. McCormack. “I try and re-read everything along with my students, which means that they have to be rich enough to sustain that kind of re-reading,” said Mr. McCormack. When it came to the question of which books sparked the most interest among students, he said, “I’m always surprised at how much AP students like Crime and Punishment…I think if you describe a 600-page Russian novel from the 19th century, it just sounds tough. But I’m always surprised at how engaged the students are with the plot…[and] Catch-22, I think, for similar reasons. I think it’s a book that appeals to young people, because it engages in questions of authority, and our relationship to power…and then for my World Literature course, [it’s] always the book we’re reading right now, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, [which] is just something I think students always really enjoy. And a lot of times that one’s cool, because…people who don’t think of themselves as enjoying books also seemed to really like it. Almost as if they didn’t know books could be written like that. And that’s a very cool thing to see.”