Why Can’t A Girl Be A Hero?: An Examination Of The Saint Ann’s Middle School English Curriculum

In the Saint Ann’s School middle school English curriculum rich with treasured books such as Animal Farm and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, it’s a surprise to realize that with 7th grade, female protagonists and writers disappear from the classroom. The first part of 8th grade centers on a coming of age theme with books like The Catcher in The Rye and Black Boy, and yet a coming of age book about a girl is rarely read. As English teacher Melissa Kantor puts it, “To Kill A Mockingbird is the last girl and then 7th and 8th grade is all boys.”
The Saint Ann’s English curriculum is, as Ruth Chapman, head of the English department, describes it, “organic.” She said that instead of having one set curriculum for each grade, there is a list of suggested books, another list of a few books that are mandatory, and the largest and perhaps most importantly, a list of “frozen” books. These books are, as Ms. Chapman puts it, “in the freezer for that grade and we ask no teacher below that grade to take them out of the freezer just so they’re always available.” This list is reviewed each year. She noted, however, that the books read in English classes are mainly dictated by the teacher’s interests as well as the given group of students. As Ms. Chapman puts it, “Usually the spark happens in the classroom at the teacher level.”
The English department is aware of the gender inequality that becomes evident in the 7th and 8th grades. As Ms. Chapman says, “Do we have a kind of consciousness that we’re teaching a lot of dead men? Yes.” She went on to say, “We’re certainly aware not just of the age, but the different populations whom we are teaching to.” English teacher Alex Levin noted, “I think that with time that balance will be achieved, and I do think that’s something that we should push for. I think it’s lame to say things will change with time.” Ms. Kantor said that she felt it was crucial to have a gender balance, noting, “It’s outrageous that we don’t have it and, as I say, we’re always looking for it.” She said that she begins each summer, “On the quest for the middle school girl book.” While she said that she rejects the majority of these books, the search will continue. The graphic novel Persepolis, a recent addition in the 7th grade, is a result of this search. Kantor noted that she’d had a lot of books recommended to her from teachers at other private schools in the city, but while she respects their English curricula, the books recommended are rarely ones she wants to teach.
Moses Rubin, a 10th grader, expressed his concern about the curriculum. “It’s ridiculous that in 7th and 8th grade combined I read two works including a female main character, Romeo and Juliet and Persepolis,” he said. “I think the school can and should make more of an effort to introduce female main characters into the curriculum.” He went on to say, however, “ Unfortunately western literature is dominated by men, so the choices teachers have are severely limited.”
The department has tried several women writers in these grades but most of them haven’t stuck. Ms. Chapman noted that teachers have tried various works by Thomas Hardy as well as Jamaica Kincaid’s novel Annie John. Many teachers have tried Maya Angelou’s I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings and Sandra Cisneros’ The House On Mango Street, but as Ms. Kantor noted, both of these books contain rape. She pointed out that this is true of many coming of age stories about girls and that while she is not uncomfortable teaching books with rape in them, “I don’t think that is necessarily what coming of age is for a girl. Not that sailing down the Mississippi river with a runaway slave is coming of age for a boy but to be true to some of the issues of the lives of middle school adolescent girls and to have literature that isn’t just therapeutic but that is great literature is of major concern to the department, in general and it’s something I’m quite conscious of.” Mr. Levin said that when he teaches the 7th grade, he “makes a point” to teach either Annie John or Susan Minot’s Monkeys, noting that they were really the only women writers in the curriculum. He also spends time on women poets. He went on to say, “I think it’s important for girls to see that there are women who are writers who are admired and who are talented and brilliant so I definitely think that is something that is worth addressing and is to a certain extent addressed.”
Ms. Miller noted that The Canterbury Tales, which are often read in the 7th grade, do have interesting female characters though the protagonists of the stories are not women. She explained, “You have very interesting gender and marriage issues and the history of female life.” She said, on the other hand, that she felt, “I don’t think anyone, especially in the 8th grade curriculum, has found that slam dunk book, written or about a woman, that works with the other ones so well.” Mr Levin said, “Maybe there’s something complex about women writers that makes their work better in high school.” Ms. Miller noted that she used to teach The Lord of The Flies in the 7th grade but as a result, it became a “hugely masculine year.”
She went on to say that many of the women writers at the school are simply too sophisticated and often too disturbing to be taught in these grades. To mention a few, she cited Toni Morrison’s work, explaining that it doesn’t “move down the curriculum very easily,” and the Brontes, who she felt were too challenging at that grade level. She felt that that Persepolis and Huck Finn, both of which tackle challenging issues, could also be considered too disturbing. She noted, however, “I feel like 7th grade students in some ways, are ready for that journey to some more upsetting parts of life.”
These women authors can also take a long time to read in middle school, especially in 8th grade when classes spent a long period of time working on the curricular term paper. This also holds true for the 7th grade, when, as Ms. Miller, explained, both Huck Finn and Macbeth can take as long as two months to read. Every English teacher interviewed noted, however, that there are many women authors not read at school.
This flux in book choice suggests that many changes over the years have been made and will continue to occur. Ms. Chapman noted that The Catcher in the Rye used to be read in the 7th grade but was moved to 8th grade because of its complex, and sophisticated context. She also noted that Jane Eyre was once curricular in the 8th grade but was judged to be too time consuming and a better choice in electives later on in high school. One might be surprised that Huck Finn, read in almost every 7th grade class, is no longer curricular. Ms. Chapman noted that while the book is usually read much later on in other high schools, Saint Ann’s chooses to read it in 7th grade because Huck and most 7th graders are the same age. Ms. Kantor explained, “A lot of us have very similar syballi but technically it’s not dictated from above. We can teach what we want.” She explained teachers are constantly recommending books and seeing what has worked for other teachers.
Students have mixed opinions about the subject of gender in the classroom. 10th grader Lucy Best said that she feels “the lack of female perspective in these readings is only a disadvantage to the students because the more diversity one is exposed to, the more efficiently one is able to form an opinion that suits what they really think.” Isabel Thornton, a 10th grader, said that she felt this gender gap prominently in the 8th grade, and explained, “ It’s a curriculum about growing up and coming of age, and the fact that girls come of age but you only read books about boys coming of age is strange.” Laura Brown, a senior, noted that she didn’t notice this while in middle school, but when she took teacher Jane Avrich’s English class last year, which centered on work by women, the contrast became apparent.
10th graders Elliot Menard and Anya Dombrowski felt differently. Elliot said, “I didn’t realize all the books were about men because I liked the books so much.” Anya noted that female protagonists feature prominently in the lower graders and that while she was in 7th and 8th grades,“I didn’t really notice it, because I was reading books with girl main characters outside of class.” Freshmen Zachary Rosenfeld said, “I didn’t notice it and I find it interesting now that I look back on it. I don’t think the school is manipulating it, it’s just the way it turned out.”
Ultimately, the school’s main priority is to teach, as Ms. Kantor says, “Great, great books.” She explained that it would unacceptable to stop teaching Faulkner, Hemmingway, or Fitzgerald, in place of books read simply because they were by women. “The canon is largely white, male writers,” she said. Mr. Levin seemed to agree, noting that the books in the English curriculum are read, “Not only for the sake of understanding their value but also just as a form of cultural literacy. You have to know Macbeth, you have to know Huck Finn and if you miss those things, if we take those things out, then that’s a dangerous path.” Ms. Kantor explained, “I’m not worried about 50/50 or we have to have x number.”
She went on to say that in general, she felt it was important for all students, not just girls but minority students as well to feel represented in the classroom. A general consensus among English teachers seemed to be that it can be a challenge to find appropriate books for these grades that will measure up against the likes of Huck Finn or The Catcher In The Rye. However, as Mr. Levin noted, “So many great books are being written right now.” Ms. Miller expressed a desire for the department to continue to look at the reading lists of other schools. Ms. Kantor concluded, “When I find a book by a woman that I want to teach I feel a particular ray of sunshine and I’m thrilled, I feel relieved but I also feel that to teach the books we love, to teach the books that resonate with the kids is really important.”

Emma Mandel, Age 15, Grade 10, Saint Ann’s School, Gold Key

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