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Modernizing Literature Lists

Portola Jr Sr High English teacher Sara Murphy        

Left: Sara Murphy, English teacher at Portola Jr Sr High School

Right: some of the books being considered for addition to the Core Selection reading lists.

PUSD teacher works with team to modernize literature lists

Portola Jr./Sr. High English teacher Sara Murphy likes to read. Which is a good thing, as her summer reading has been a tall stack of books, possible choices for addition to PUSD’s Core Selection literature list. Murphy earned her Master’s degree and teaching credential at Chico State in 2017 after graduating from QJSHS in 2012. She will be serving as the Vertical Team Lead in English Language Arts (ELA) for the 2019-2020 school year. 

The Vertical Team program aims to put same-subject teachers across grade levels together to learn and share education successes and strategies. At the high school level, teams include teachers from 7th through 12th grade, building continuity throughout the grade levels. Each school year, a Vertical Team Lead is selected from applicants to help bring structure and outcomes to the team meetings.

Ms. Murphy says a main goal of the ELA Vertical Team this year is “focusing on adopting new diverse novels for grades 7 through 10 Core Selection literature lists.” A literature list, Murphy explains, is the list of Core and Supplemental literature approved by the PUSD Board of Trustees to be taught in PUSD classrooms. Core Selections are those books that are funded by the district, and comprise four choices per grade level. 

“Our current Core Selection includes authors like Maya Angelou, Rudolfo Anaya, and Richard Wright alongside more traditional choices. Diversity of reading material is something we were talking about at Chico State when I was a student there, and is a national conversation among teachers and districts right now,” Murphy says. “When we talk about diversity, we are talking about expanding representation of LGBTQ issues, gender diversity, people of color, people with disabilities, and ethnic, cultural, and religious minorities. We want our book selections to be not only mirrors of our own experiences but also windows into a wider world.” She adds, “It’s important to keep in mind that the Core Selections are just one aspect of what students are reading, and in general the novels fill about 25% of instruction time. Individual teachers bring in shorter pieces, for example Gary Soto’s poem “Oranges,” and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's essay "We Should All Be Feminists," that reflect diverse topics and writers. So the Core list on its own doesn’t give a full picture of what’s being presented in the classroom.”

While it may look at first glance to be an easy task to pick out a few books and add them to the Core Selections, Murphy finds it to be a complex undertaking. “I started working on this last year, reading all the books that made the initial cut.” she says. The Vertical Team reads the novels from her narrowed down list, then they will gather to discuss their feedback at the team meeting in October. “We want to be intentional in choosing books to be studied in classrooms for years to come. Some of the things we look for are compelling characters, universal themes within different cultures and time periods, writing that challenges the reader’s beliefs, and just great storytelling with “places to laugh and places to cry” as author Carol Jago says.” Murphy goes on to say, “There are technical considerations as well, such as if the reading level is appropriate for the grade level.”

After the books have been agreed on by the Vertical Team, each one will go through the approval process with the Board of Trustees to be added to the Core Selections literature list. 

“Books read in high school can have real, long-term impact on a person’s life,” Murphy says. “I believe the time and thought we’re putting into choosing books for our Core Selections list will result in novels that resonate with all readers for a long time.”