Representation in Ninth Grade English

You walk into your first day of high school, everything is new: new teachers, new campus, new students. How will you get to know this school? What are its values? How will you explore and come to understand your identity and find your place in this new environment?

Perhaps surprisingly, ninth grade English class can help you find answer to some of these questions. As the GDS course catalogue explains,“English 9 texts focus on journeys — both metaphorical and physical — in which the protagonists “adolesce” as they struggle toward the formation of tested and tempered identities.” One of the purposes of the ninth grade English class, according to head of the English Department Sarah Redmond, is to address issues of identity through “windows and mirrors.” Through close reading and textual analysis, ninth graders not only explore the complexities of literary passages, but they explore their own identities, discovering things about themselves and the environment around them.

The windows into, and mirrors of, identity are presented in English 9 through the characters featured in the books students are required to read. So how do GDS teachers pick six books to teach, over a course of nine months, that allow a diverse group of students both to reflect on their own identities and to learn about those different from them?

Redmond explained how the texts for ninth grade English are chosen: “Sometimes decisions are made in grade teams, and sometimes we make them as a whole department to create a holistic view of what are we accomplishing from grades nine to twelve.” This year in ninth grade, students read Gilgamesh, Genesis, Romeo and Juliet or A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Their Eyes Were Watching God, and American Born Chinese. In addition, teachers had the option of choosing one of eight additional texts, including The House on Mango Street, Funny Boy, Caucasia, Jane Eyre, Northanger Abbey, Assata, Rite of Passage, and various poetry selections.  

The identifiers of the protagonists in each of these pieces of literature, and thus the focus of discussion, varied. For example, in my experience, Romeo and Juliet featured only white characters and much of class discussion focused on gender; whereas in Their Eyes Were Watching God, most of the characters were African-American and class discussions focused more on race.

While these books present “windows,” do they also serve as reliable “mirrors?”  In other words, do students really see themselves reflected in the books they read in ninth grade? And how accurate are the “windows?”  How much are students really learning about those different from themselves?

When asked this question, sophomore Emily Axelrod responded, “My white womanhood I definitely saw represented. Romeo and Juliet is centered around white women, and white women are central in a lot of texts. My Jewish identity I didn’t see as much, that side of me I don’t see represented in a lot literature or in a lot of media for that matter.”

That idea of partial representation was also echoed by Addie Rudnick, a freshman, who said “Well this year we didn’t read any books that had a Jewish heroine, but we did have a few books that had female protagonists which was good.” None of the core texts in ninth grade focus on Jewish identity, but despite that significant omission, Axelrod explained that, “I think ninth grade English was pretty representationally diverse. We started talking about a poor black teen in New York, then Their Eyes Were Watching God, written by a black author about a black woman, then Caucasia was about being mixed and liminal spaces, and Caucasia also mentioned homosexuality.”

Another way identity and representation are explored in English 9 is through conversations prompted by the books read during class. “[We] make a deliberate choice to talk about social issues,” Redmond explained. Axelrod spoke to that as well remembering, “We talked about representation a lot in ninth grade English, and whether the books were chosen for their content or to provide for those conversations is unclear.”

Students acknowledge that striking a balance between mirrors and windows is difficult, but important. When asked how important she thought it was that students see themselves represented in the books they read Rudnick responded,“I think it’s super important. It’s how people are able to see themselves as someone else who shares identifiers with them doing good things and it can imprint into their minds that they can do that too.” Axelrod agreed, stating that “I think it’s really, really important. And I think it’s important not just to have representation but to have good representation. Like now [in tenth grade] we are reading The Great Gatsby, and there’s a Jewish character and it’s a very anti-semitic portrayal. So I think it’s important to have texts centralized around characters from different backgrounds but also to have books written by authors from different backgrounds.”

Clearly, if part of the purpose of English 9 is to explore identity and representation, students won’t get the most benefit from only reading books with characters similar to them, but they also won’t derive the most benefit from reading books solely with characters to whom they can’t relate. Having at least one book that will represent every part of every student’s identity is impossible, but English 9 succeeds in exploring identity by offering a diverse curriculum and encouraging wide-ranging and productive conversations about the multifaceted complexities of identity and representation. As Redmond concludes, “I wouldn’t say the ninth grade curriculum is a mirror for all ninth grade students, but we are hopeful that students will find different parts of themselves. Books are about people and our complex identities as human beings, and you’re inevitably going to be talking about identity. It’s part of what I really value about being an English teacher.”