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A Brief Wondrous Look: How a single book challenges 11th-grade students to read, write, and think critically

At Stephanie Pham’s job interview at Mayfield Senior School last spring, English department chair Leandra Ferguson asked her what was her favorite book to teach. The answer was a no-brainer for Ms. Pham: The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz.
In many ways, Ms. Pham didn’t choose this book as much as it chose her. She inherited it as part of an assigned English curriculum, called “Literary History of New York,” while she was teaching in a Cristo Rey school in New York City. At the time, the student body was mostly of Dominican descent, like the book’s author. When Ms. Pham started at Mayfield in the fall of 2019, Ms. Ferguson announced that the department had added the 2007 book to their curriculum, specifically with her in mind. 

With that news, Ms. Pham found herself both “excited” and “a little bit anxious.” Oscar Wao had been a perfect fit at Cristo Rey, but now she was a new teacher, at a new school, in a new city, with a new student body made up of an entirely different demographic. She didn’t know what to expect.

Mayfield’s readiness to incorporate the Pulitzer Prize-winning Oscar Wao to the Junior year reading list gave Ms. Pham an insight into how the English department establishes their curriculum. Broadly speaking, the English 3 course approaches American literature across the centuries, with a primary focus on writing and analyzing the writer's craft. But, in many respects, Oscar Wao challenges all of those categories. 

Firstly, the author was born in the Dominican Republic, and prolonged sections of the book take place outside the U.S. Secondly, it brings up the question of language itself—chunks of this book are written in untranslated Spanish. Plus, surveying hundreds of years’ worth of literature puts newer releases under more scrutiny, and it is difficult to know if this recently published title will stand the test of time. But the way this book probes ideas of the American canon is something Ms. Pham takes a lot of pleasure in.

“I think it is a very American book...it is a book about diaspora, a book about immigration and what immigration really looks like for a lot of people.” And Ms. Pham investigates the idea of an “American book” itself. “My major in college was ‘The Great Books,’” she explains. “I have great respect and love for the classics. But as soon as I started teaching I thought there were a lot of holes...This is not really everyone's experience, and although these books are truly great books these are not the only great books out there. There is a lot we are missing.”

What makes a book “American” has always been a difficult question, Ms. Pham asserts. She brings up the Lost Generation—authors including Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and Faulkner—who did most of their writing about America when they were living abroad. So what should be the criteria to include a book in a course of American literature? “I think it needs to look like America in some way,” Ms. Pham says. “It should share some of the existential questions of America.”

More than halfway into her first year, Ms. Pham has been pleasantly surprised how collaborative the entire English department is—wide open to discussion about how the curriculum can adapt to remain useful and relevant. Like almost every Junior in America, Mayfield students read The Great Gatsby. Everyone reads some Thoreau. But some famous titles have been retired. The Scarlet Letter. Heart of Darkness. Teachers still have their own preferences, and the course load of English 3 is not identical across different class sections. The department continues to expose students to seminal works in American literature, but stays open to adding newer titles that help them understand the craft of writing. And Ms. Pham feels Wao has been hard to match in this regard. 

“The first thing that we talk about in this book is diction...what choices is the author making and what's the effect of those choices on the audience?” Ms. Pham asks. “What's he doing when he chooses to flip into Spanish?...Why do you think he does that? Is it to alienate his audience? Is it to connect with certain audiences?” The Oscar Wao book has a huge scope. It is multigenerational. It has male and female narrators. It plays with first person and second person in its storytelling. As a piece of literary anatomy, there are so many parts to dissect. And if a book can incite good critical thinking from students, Ms. Pham sees a lot of value.

Small, student-led discussion groups served Ms. Pham well at Cristo Rey, and she has found the technique useful at Mayfield too. The book overflows with subject material—touching on ethnohistorical, literary, and pop culture references—and the effect is one that welcomes a wide swath of readers under the same tent. “It was helpful to start teaching this book...with students who identified more with this culture than I did...many of my students were much more the experts on that than I am.” It allowed different types of expertise to exist in the classroom at the same time. “I could just be the expert on the literary aspects of this book,” she explains. And although the demographics of Mayfield and Cristo Rey are very different, Ms. Pham sees students’ knowledge and experience as essential points of entry for this book. 

The critical analytical approach Ms. Pham champions is alive and well in the students in her classroom. In their small discussion groups, girls are scrupulous about where their information is coming from. “Multiple narrators give you different perspectives,” a student offers up. “Everything is different to everyone.” One of her group members agrees, noting that even the footnotes are written from the perspective of the narrator, which is not the perspective of the author per se. Because the narrator, she points out, “is definitely not unbiased.” 

Students will engage in these deep critical thinking skills again when Ms. Pham eventually brings up biographical elements about the author, Junot Diaz. Oscar Wao is a book of fiction that sometimes explores themes of brutality and toxic masculinity. And in a nonfiction essay for the New Yorker, Mr. Diaz disclosed that he was a victim of sexual abuse at a young age, and his later relationships suffered as a result. However, soon after that article was published, several allegations of misconduct were lodged against him. This is a question Ms. Pham expects to form its own classroom discussion. Scholars have debated whether or not Diaz’s books should still be studied, given his alleged actions, particularly toward women. Ms. Pham will encourage the class to interrogate if Diaz’s writing can provide a worthy form of social commentary, or if reading his work perpetuates underlying and unresolved issues? Can artwork stand alone, or do allegations against an artist make that impossible? She wants the girls to make their own decisions.

Will Oscar Wao always be part of Ms. Pham’s curriculum? Not necessarily. When she and the other members of the department consider titles for the course, they always ask themselves: “Is this something that is going to engage students...Even if it's a wonderful book, even if it's an important book, will it matter if they're not reading it?” 

Early in her teaching career, Ms. Pham decided that each year she would remove one title from her course load to make room for another. This practice has kept her curriculum fresh for her students and for herself. She makes it clear that she wants to add more female authors, more Native American authors, and is narrowing her sights for who might make the cut next year. 

“To me,” Ms. Pham says, “it's always worth it to have these conversations.”
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Established in 1931, Mayfield Senior School in Pasadena, CA is a Catholic, independent, college preparatory school for young women grades 9-12. Noted for its rigorous academic program, which includes 21 Advanced Placement and Honors courses, Mayfield’s curriculum is underscored by a philosophy of educating the “whole child,” which also encourages commitment to and excellence in the arts, athletics, community service and spiritual growth. The nurturing environment at Mayfield Senior School allows each student to flourish in an atmosphere of personal attention.