English classes place greater focus on Black authors

A recent Monday morning in the Academy’s Main Building had freshmen researching the details of the Harlem Renaissance in general and artist Aaron Douglas in particular, all in service to a class exploration of All American Boys, a young adult novel by Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely. One of the novel’s main characters, Rashad, is a fan of Douglas. 

“Let’s dive in,” Upper School English (and History) Faculty Matt Ranaghan told the dozen or so students in his class. 

Soon, freshmen were discussing the exact location of Harlem, the definition of “Renaissance,” and the many facets of the term “culture” — from music to literature to fashion to food. Shuttling between the artwork of Douglas and the musings of Rashad, the students also discussed the power behind focus and framing, the contrast between perception and reality, and the concepts of visibility and invisibility. 

And the text chosen for that morning’s discussion is becoming more the rule and less the exception when it comes to English classes at Thayer. 

“We are having these conversations every day in our classes,” said Ranaghan. 

Painting with a broad brush, roughly five years ago members of the English Department began to engage in active conversation about which authors and which works should be highlighted in classrooms. As one part of that conversation, faculty members sought to place more Black authors at the center of the curriculum. The idea is to create a true diversity of thought and experience when it comes to literature. 

“There are so many stories out there that need to be told, and they don't need to be told through a singular lens,” said Ranaghan. For example, he said, the English curriculum also includes books such as Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets to the Universe, a young adult novel which addresses issues of sexual identity. 

In Ranaghan’s freshman class, students were tasked with choosing a relevant quote from the novel and illustrating it in a cartoon style similar to that of Rashad but also with a nod to the imagery found in the work of Douglas. 

“I want your vision,” Ranaghan told the class before adding that artistic ability would not be a factor in later grading. “I want to see how you mesh these two things together.” 

The next day, students presented their quotes and accompanying images before the class and defended their work. Some students chose to portray Rashad’s interaction with a grocery clerk while others chose to focus on various scenes involving the basketball team. One student selected a fist in an ice bucket, a reference to an incident which divides the novel’s fictional community. 

Thayer Academy English Class Ranaghan 1

Upper School English (and History) Faculty Matt Ranaghan describes a painting of Aaron Douglas, one of the great artists of the Harlem Renaissance. 

Thayer Academy Ranaghan Class 2

Lilly O’Connell ‘25 discusses the details of her assignment. 


 

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