The student news site of Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology


The student news site of Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology


The student news site of Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology


This error message is only visible to WordPress admins

Error: No feed found.

Please go to the Instagram Feed settings page to create a feed.

History in our books

The most influential books in the English 11 curriculum
Karen Lee
Though students may not like these tough-to-read stories, whether it be because it is homework or it’s just hard to read, they can serve as a gateway to deeper thought and understanding of history and their identity. “This may not be your favorite book or the book you’re going to read on a beach,” Henry said. “We go through these books and we learn things that are hard and we come out better for it on the other side.”

Refusing to read is like refusing knowledge. Though it can be hard to sit down and read a few chapters of the assigned reading for English class, these books can be eye-opening for students and a great opportunity to learn history through literature. 

English classes at Jefferson all have certain books that students read. Students in their humanities (HUM) classes, which are team-led by English and history, read literature in their English classes that are connected to historical topics. While most other schools teach these two classes separately, Jefferson teaches them together, with the same classmates for both English and history. For juniors, Advanced Placement (AP) United States History and English 11 make up HUM II. 

Junior Nadiyah Williams believes that “The Scarlet Letter” by Nathaniel Hawthorne is the most influential book in the English 11 curriculum. It is about a woman living in the Puritan Massachusetts Bay Colony from 1642 to 1649. 

“We had a lot of really good discussions about the book, and I was able to pick out a lot of messages that I could relate to myself as a person,” Williams said. “Something that stuck out to me was the way that the book reflects humanity because there was a lot of moral ambiguity in the book.”

However, Maria Gilbert, an English teacher at Jefferson, believes that the “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass” by Frederick Douglass resonates the most with students. 

“It’s important to be able to study the legacy of the slave narratives,” Gilbert said. “It’s an inspirational story and a wonderful story about the power of reading and education. I think students are genuinely moved by this book because of the story it tells about what it means to be an enslaved person and what freedom means.”

Frederick Douglass was an important figure in the African American civil rights movement in the USA. He supported the abolition of slavery and advised presidents Abraham Lincoln and Andrew Johnson on the Civil War and Black rights

“You might feel that the subject in this book can be controversial to read, because of the intensity of the story. There might be [some] people who feel that the subject matter [is] too intense for some students to read,” Gilbert said. “The experiences are very vivid, but I think the power of the book is that the students experience it internally and it’s the kind of book that I think lingers in the minds of students for a while.” 

Telling personal stories from his time as a slave, “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass” educates readers about the life of a slave and exposes the horrors of slavery in the USA. 

“I think it was the most influential because the story that it’s telling is so different from all the other texts at the time,” junior Japneet Kaur said. “It’s honest and it’s telling the actual life of a person who was enslaved at the time, instead of just sugarcoating the subject and giving the readers what they want to read. Everybody knows that slavery is bad, but you never really think about what happens to individuals, and what their life is like afterward because we don’t read them.” 

The satirical commentary on society throughout the book makes “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” by Mark Twain English teacher Suzette Henry’s top choice. Set in the southern USA before the Civil War, the book touches on subjects like racism and freedom. 

“It challenges how we feel as human beings as readers, which is not easy to do. It is not an easy novel to teach,” Henry said. “There [are] a number of racial slurs, bad behavior [and] people treating one another terribly that gives a modern reader a pause to understand why people hurt each other this way.”

Due to the historical background of the novel, there are many dark moments, including a scene where a drunk man is murdered and a mob gathers to lynch the murderer. Despite these sad moments, Henry believes that it is important for students to read “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” to understand history through literature and the world. 

“Historically, there’s been so many hurtful things, but how do we process those hurtful things to move forward at the end of the day? [By] learning one’s history through literature, it can help us understand the past, so that we understand our present and so that we understand our future,” Henry said. “The world is very complex. It is not just black and white. This book helps the individual ask, ‘Why do I think what I think?’”

Additionally, English teacher Denise Castaldo believes that “The Great Gatsby” by Scott Fitzgerald is one of the most important books that are taught in the curriculum, as it makes them think about their goals and what it means to be happy. 

“It makes students think about their goals and whether or not their goals are actually going to make them happy,” Castaldo said. “The story centers on someone who has a very specific vision for what he wants in life. It questions whether that one specific thing is always the best or smartest thing to do.”

Though there are many opinions on which book may be more influential, every book that goes into the English curriculum through all classes must go through a long vetting process. They are all carefully chosen by the teachers, and after careful consideration, they finally end up in the hands of a student. 

“I think they’re all important. The English 11 team takes a lot of time to think about which books we put in front of our students,” Henry said. “Since every book has to be approved by a committee of teachers, a librarian and the division manager, it’s not like we just pick any book. They had to have gone through an approval process for review. In some ways choosing just one book is like trying to choose your favorite friend because each book [can] teach you something different.”

Story continues below advertisement
Leave a Comment

Comments (0)

Information about our comments policy can be found here:
All tjTODAY Picks Reader Picks Sort: Newest

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *