Students at Brampton, Ont.’s Holy Name of Mary Catholic Secondary School value their faith-based English curriculum. Photo by Stephen Johnson

English class takes a turn to the spiritual

By  Stephen Johnson, Youth Speak News
  • June 19, 2014

BRAMPTON, ONT. - At Holy Name of Mary Catholic Secondary School, students want Catholic education to extend beyond religion class. 

In April, as part of a collaborative inquiry project, students at the all-girls school were asked for feedback on the school’s English program, which is organized around four faith-based themes. In Grade 9, the English curriculum focuses on the wonder of creation; in Grade 10, on the virtues; in Grade 11, on conscience; and in Grade 12, on the importance of discernment in finding one’s way in life. However, all four themes are interwoven throughout the four grades. 

“These thematic connections have developed through the input of students and teachers over many years,” said Terry Murphy, Holy Name’s head of English. “But this past year, the department had the opportunity, as part of a school-wide initiative, to reflect on the Catholic focus of our curriculum and to articulate this with the help of our students. We asked them for their input on how the Catholic themes in our literature help them in their journey through secondary school. The enthusiastic conversations that ensued were a source of joy and inspiration for us all.” 

Vania Hope and Jasmin Athwal, two Grade 12 students, were among the many who participated in the review. Hope did not always like English. Holy Name’s program, however, gave her a love for reading. 

“When we started making connections between books and faith and life, I realized, ‘yeah, that makes sense,’ and I began looking for connections that I wouldn’t have otherwise looked for,” said Hope. “I think it’s important we incorporate faith into the English classroom. It’s cool to see how those things you learn about in religion turn up in English. And, I like the themes, how they match the grade you’re in.” 

She added: “In Grade 9, you’re coming into a new part of your life, so wonder is important. The virtues were a good choice for Grade 10 because that’s when we were concentrating on forming friendships and these virtues were what we were looking for in our friends and what we wanted them to see in us. In Grade 11… it’s when you find your voice in life, so conscience was an appropriate choice. And in Grade 12 you’re thinking about the choices you need to make for the future.” 

Athwal added that the students begin to see connections between the literary themes and their lives, likening the connection to a “spider’s web” and calling it “magical.” 

“We want to study ‘lakes’ not ‘puddles’ — we want to delve into really substantial works that will enrich us in a number of ways, enrich our knowledge of poetry, history, the arts, other works of literature, and our common humanity,” said Athwal. 

Both Hope and Athwal focus on the faith or lack thereof in the literary characters they study. 

“It’s not just seeing what happens when a character has faith, but also what happens when he doesn’t,” said Hope. 

Athwal continued: “In both Gatsby and Hamlet, we see people who make the wrong decisions and, without God, things turn out badly for them.” 

English teacher Rex Trotter sees value in connecting literature to life. 

“In Grade 11, for example, we try to make those connections come to life with Macbeth, a great drama of the soul, and Jane Eyre, a novel about choice and conscience... The characters must examine their consciences to make choices between what is good and what is not so good. And we hope that students can see the relevance of this to their lives,” he said. 

Hope believes connecting literature to spirituality makes learning richer. 

“It is important we make the connections to spirituality early — in Grade 9. And I think it is valuable when we read the same books together… it makes it easier for us to relate as a community of readers,” she said. 

The spiritual focus of the English curriculum is valued by Holy Name’s non-Catholic students as well. Mariam Mohammed, Grade 12, is not Catholic but the reason she came to Holy Name is the emphasis on faith is so important. 

“When I read books like Jane Eyre… I saw God everywhere in it. As our teachers pointed out, you can find God in just about every work. He’s everywhere,” said Mohammed. “When we were reading ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,’ there were so many religious allusions. Even though God’s miracles are hard to see sometimes, they’re always there and when I read those works I was able to see them… through the words and imagery. Catholic education has been very important to me.” 

It is not only senior students who value the faith-based curriculum. Grade 10 student Jasleen Deol says, “Catholic schools are different in their teaching methods… It is not enough that Catholic students be provided with sufficient school supplies; they also need great literature.” 

Having the opportunity to share their faith as they discuss literature has, in these young women’s opinions, made them stronger. 

“Faith affects how we relate to one another. I’m no longer hesitant to express myself. These are my values. I don’t have to be ashamed of my faith,” said Hope. 

(Johnson, 20, is a Concurrent Education student at Glendon College, York University.) 

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