Bangor High School Principal Paul Butler is shown in December 2020. The school's English department will revamp its curriculum to include more books from authors of color. Credit: Natalie Williams / BDN

Bangor High School is revamping its English curriculum for juniors and seniors so it includes more books from authors of color and moves away from a heavy focus on European literature.

The high school’s English department recently sought permission from the Bangor School Committee to add six to eight new classes each for 11th- and 12th-grade students covering a wide range of topics, including Black culture, world religions, social justice, comedy, sports, outdoor adventure and horror writing.

Starting next school year, students will be able to choose from eight options available each semester, fulfilling their English requirements by studying topics that interest them. That approach will take the place of juniors all taking British literature and seniors all taking world literature.

The change to a curriculum that’s more reflective of the nation’s diversity was one of the steps the Bangor School Department pledged to take last year after Black students from Bangor High School shared their experiences of racism at the predominantly white school. The students, who recounted their experiences to the BDN, asked for a more representative curriculum from the school department among a number of changes to improve the experiences of students of color.

“We had a need to look at the curriculum and diversify it for lots of good reasons,” said Bangor High School Principal Paul Butler. “And I’m really happy that the English department led the charge in putting all these things together. This serves as somewhat of a template for how we’ll proceed department by department in the school.”

The English department had been working on these changes since September 2019 because of a “noticeable lack of representation and diversity” in the literature texts 11th-grade students studied, said Jane Venturelli, who chairs the English department.

Work on those changes, however, was delayed due to the pandemic before it resumed at the start of this school year.

In September, the department sent out a student survey and started building the new curriculum based on students’ feedback. The Bangor School Committee then approved the revamped curriculum at its Jan. 27 meeting.

“I think that just shows that teachers had already seen the need for it, and we were on the same page as the students,” Venturelli said. “Sometimes curriculum is just outdated, and it’s important to update it and make it more relevant and authentic to students’ lives. Everyone in the department was on board because we love reading so much, and we really want the students to love it and enjoy class.”

In addition to revamping the English curriculum, the school department also announced last year that it would conduct an audit of the district’s library books with the goal of introducing more books from authors of color and people from diverse backgrounds.

The school department has already done that audit for books for kindergarteners through third-grade students using the Diverse BookFinder tool built by Bates College, Interim Superintendent Kathy-Harris Smedberg said.

The school department has a grant to buy books from a more diverse set of authors.

“Part of the requirement when you’re ordering books is that you’re looking at more diverse reading so that children go to the library and they can actually see themselves in books that they’re reading,” she said.

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