I hated English in high school.
If there was one class I thought I’d never want to teach…it’s English. Reading was kind of boring, writing was a lot of work for little gain, and grading papers…no, no, no, no. Yet, here I am entering my 10th year of teaching at Collegiate, and I’m about to teach a section of high school English.
How did it come to this??? Let’s start back in high school…
Reading in High School
We read books like The Stranger and As I Lay Dying and The Scarlet Letter and the play Julius Caesar. All teacher-chosen books, and all excellent works (from what I’m told) of historical fiction literature by dead white men. But not books I was likely to ever get excited about. Falling in love with reading and becoming a life-long reader was not going to happen.
I never once (in high school) got to read a book of my choosing for class. I was a student, but I didn’t get to be a reader, someone who chooses books to read in order to learn and experience new things.
Writing in High School
We wrote research papers and literary analysis essays. I compared Denethor from Lord of the Rings (which I read in middle school…remember, I never got to choose a book to read in high school) to Willy Loman from Death of a Salesman. I made notecards for a research paper on the ethics of stem cell research (I think…I can’t quite remember). Never anything I would want to write on my own. I never saw myself as a writer.
Once, I did get to write a descriptive one-pager. I remember I wrote it about what I felt driving in my truck. I’m sure it was actually over-wordy and full of cringey purple prose, but I had fun with it and other students thought it was great. I was proud of it. I think it’s one of the only things I was proud of in high school English.
To be fair, I had great high school English teachers. Gurnow, Boyer, and Henningsen led their classes well. I have fond memories from my time in those classes, and I gained necessary skills for college. But I think the way English is traditionally taught fails too many of us.
What Made Me Want to Teach an English Class
Fast forward six years. I’ve graduated college (studying engineering so I wouldn’t have to read and write much) and am beginning a career in science education at a great school. Every day, all teachers and students in the building have this 15-minute block of time called R&R to read a book of our choosing. I’ve watched the first season of Game of Thrones on a bootleg website, and I feel a bit guilty about that, so I start reading A Clash of Kings, the second book in the A Song of Ice and Fire (i.e., Game of Thrones) series, and the longest stinkin’ book I’ve ever cracked open. And I love it. I can’t wait to get home each night to finish the chapter I’d started during R&R. I realize that all the books I’d ever really loved were fantasy. I start to think that maybe I am a reader after all.
I just never realized fantasy and science fiction were genres that readers read.
Fast forward another six years, and I get the itch to start writing my own fiction. I start working on a novel (spoiler alert, novels are hard to write). The novel doesn’t happen, but I do start writing some short fiction, entering some competitions, and even get a few stories published (which you can read here if you’d like). I start to think that maybe I’m not just a reader; maybe I’m a writer too. I’ve started developing (as Kelly Gallagher and Penny Kittle would say) my identity as a reader and a writer.
Fast forward another few years to 2020. This past year, as part of a professional development unit at my school, I read The Book Whisperer with three middle school English teachers. Yeah, a strange turn of events that I, a high school science teacher, ended up reading a book about getting students to fall in love with reading. What Donalyn Miller describes in her book—a chaotic classroom full of students reading books of their choice, recommending books to each other, surrounded by thousands of books—was so contrary to anything I’d ever seen. It was what I wished my English class would have been. It made me excited about what an English class could be.
Then rumors emerged about a revamping of high school English at my school. (Credit to Thomas Pillow, Peter Bouck, and Shelia Morgan for pioneering this!) Instead of students signing up for required English 2 or English 3, students would have choices, getting to choose classes like Women’s Literature, Coming of Age Literature, Mysteries and Suspense, or Poetry. Classes would be semester-long, with fiction classes in the fall and non-fiction classes in the spring.
Just as I’d developed my identity as a reader and a writer, maybe I could help students do the same…
So I started dropping hints that I would love to teach a class on science fiction and fantasy, and people thought I was joking at first. I mean, maybe I was. It was ridiculous, but the more I thought about it, the more I wanted to share my love for SFF with a class of nerdy, SFF-loving kids. And here I am, prepping to teach it.
How This Class Will Be Different
For about half of the semester, students will read books of their choosing. So I took my classroom budget from this year (being most virtual all year, I didn’t need to spend that much on science supplies), went to novel. bookstore, and bought a ton of books that I think my students might want to read. They should have plenty to choose from!
The other half of the semester, they’ll read one whole-class novel and one small-group “book club” book. My plan is to read Dawn by Octavia Butler as our whole-class novel. I think it’s brilliant, and Butler is an important author to know. So much to unpack in the book, with themes of colonialism, consent, and what it means to be human.
For book clubs, students will rank their choices from a list of five books. Then I’ll assign their book clubs, and they’ll meet with their small group each week to discuss the book. I actually did this in my Physics class last year, and it went well. I’m excited to try it again with science fiction and fantasy. Aiming for diversity in author and genre, I picked these book club options: The Vanished Birds by Simon Jimenez (my favorite book of 2020), Wings of Ebony by J. Elle, Steelheart by Brandon Sanderson, Cemetery Boys by Aiden Thomas, and The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien (the book that first got me into fantasy).
As for writing, we’ll spend half the semester actually writing in the genres of science fiction and fantasy. Students crafting their own characters and stories, learning how to write narratives and learning to read as a writer. During the second half, we’ll focus on literary analysis.
This structure mostly comes from the book 180 Days: Two Teachers and the Quest to Engage and Empower Adolescents. Highly recommend.
I’ve seriously thought about leaving education several times in my ten-year career. I have an engineering degree, after all. But what keeps bringing me back are things like this. The opportunity to try something new, to break out of the mold of the way class has always been done and into something that might better serve students.
I’ll still be teaching mostly science next year, and don’t worry, I can’t see myself switching over to teaching English full-time. But I sure am excited to talk to students about SFF books and help them learn how to write their own SFF stories.