John Minahan, Department Head

The English Department aims to encourage a love of language and an appreciation for its powers to enrich lives. We offer a wide-ranging program of classic and contemporary texts from different cultures, genres, and historical periods. English classes foster each student's ability to read actively and critically; to write effectively in analytical, creative, and reflective modes; and to speak articulately in discussions and presentations of individual and collaborative work. Thus, over four years, a broad range of readings in both American and global literatures helps students to understand themselves and enter into the lives of others with insight and empathy.

English 9 - The Self, the World, and the Word

Yearlong–Required in Grade 9

This course serves as an introduction to the study of literature on the high school level. A large part of finding one's way toward adulthood involves defining oneself in relation to family, peers, and society. Students in English 9 therefore examine how the search for identity is portrayed in novels, plays, stories, poems, essays, and films. Frequent writing assignments_mostly analytical, but also reflective, and creative_enable the student to develop her own voice and vision. Texts are updated and rotated frequently, but have recently included various works by Shakespeare, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, The Book Thief, Caleb’s Crossing, The Joy Luck Club, Arsenic and Old Lace, Rebecca, and various short stories and poems. In addition to creative texts from a wide variety of genres, students will also study nonfiction articles related to the curricular texts and the overall theme of identity.

English 10—Literature and the Human Condition

Yearlong- Required in Grade 10

What do I believe? How should I live? What can I do? These essential questions are basic to our humanity; exploring them is one reason to read great literature. In this course, you will encounter a series of texts that portray profound human experiences such as friendship, love, war, hope, heroism, and transformation. You will find a wide range of literary voices, genres, cultures, and time periods. Diverse settings may include Chicago, Nigeria, Afghanistan, and the Dominican Republic, and move from the end of the 19th century to a post-Apocalyptic future. Past readings have included The House on Mango Street, Things Fall Apart, All Quiet on the Western Front, Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, The Kite Runner, a Shakespeare play, and Station Eleven. In different ways, all of the readings explore what it means to be human, and challenge you to develop your own answers.

English 11—The American Experience: Literature

Yearlong—Required in Grade 11

The American Dream: Alive and well, or a myth all along? This course examines some of the most respected American literary works of the modern era, beginning with an account of the Roaring Twenties’ indulgence and debauchery, and working up to a novel about post-9-11 America, with stops along the way in the nineteen thirties, forties, fifties, and so on. Our texts include multiple genres (novels, short stories, poems, non-fiction essays and articles) and offer voices that reflect diversity of groups, cultures, and perspectives. We’ll use these texts as lenses through which to view the national imagination, asking how America’s collective narrative has been shaped and reflected by individuals and their art. We will work together with the American History course to make connections, address essential questions, and enrich our understanding of the American experience.

English 12—Senior Seminars

**Students must indicate a first and second choice**

Yearlong—Required in Grade 12

Language and Power

We live in a deeply divided nation and a world filled with conflict. Language has a lot to do with those divisions and conflicts. Words can break hearts, or provoke hatred, or take a country to war. But words can also help us to make peace, solve problems, discover meaning, and become inspired. This course will examine the incredible power that language has: in political and social issues, in our relationships with family and friends, and in the search for meaning and values. Readings will be drawn from a wide range of texts, past and present: memoirs, speeches, essays, imaginative literature, songs, journalism, film, and other sources depending on the class’s interests. We’ll also consider how mass media, digital communication, and even the design of physical spaces are also “texts” that we can read critically and think about creatively. Perhaps most important, we’ll seek out ways to talk about controversial issues such that diversity and difference can be seen as benefits rather than burdens. The student will therefore develop a set of reading and writing skills applicable to any college major, as well as a clearer understanding of how she can use words to make a positive difference both in her life and in the world.

Media and Gender

This course will challenge students to examine how media portrays gender. Students will examine how our ideas about gender and media have and have not changed in the last 200 years, with a primary focus on minority or less-empowered groups and their media representations. Texts will be mainly nonfiction, and will include essays, speeches, literary criticism, articles, and advertising. We will consider the purpose of the writer and examine how words are chosen to inform, persuade, inspire, and, sometimes, deceive. We will also explore how gender expectations affect the ways that female-gendered persons speak and write, and how their words are criticized, received, and viewed by different audiences. Texts/resources may include:

  • How to Suppress Women’s Writing, Joanna Russ
  • Rhetoric in Popular Culture, Barry Brummett
  • On Beauty, Miss Representation, and/or Killing Us Softly (all documentaries)
  • A collection of articles and essays
  • Additional texts and topics based on student interest

Literature and Philosophy

This course is both an opportunity for advanced literary analysis and an introduction to the study of philosophy. Roman philosopher Cicero once remarked that “the purpose of philosophy is to teach us how to die.” This course posits that, conversely (and less morbidly), philosophy teaches us how to live, and that literature does this, as well. By putting philosophical and literary texts into conversation with one another, we will seek to answer a set of some of the most compelling and essential questions of existence: among others, “What is my purpose?” “What can I know?” “Where am I going?” Texts for this course include writings from Aristotle to Ayn Rand, in order to frame literature—novels, plays, short stories, and poetry—by Shakespeare, Turgenev, Melville, Woolf, Chopin, and more. Replete with some heavy-hitters from the literary world, this course will appeal to students curious about big questions and eager to explore some of the best that both literature and philosophy have to offer.

English Electives

Introduction to Psychology

Yearlong—Open to Grades 11 and 12

This full-year elective is an investigation into the foundations of human thought, emotion, and behavior. Such an exploration can yield lifelong results: an informed and compassionate understanding of self and others, a facility for creating and preserving positive relationships, a way to make crucial decisions, a method for handling tough times. The topics that we cover include: sensation and perception, sleep and dreams, memory, motivation, personality types, stress, and social dynamics. Because most of what happens in this course is in the form of active investigation and experiment, class participation is particularly important.

Memoir Writing

Fall Semester—Open to Grades 10-12

Writing memoir is not writing your autobiography; rather it is sharing moments of your life. In this one-semester elective, we will practice ways to access memories and generate ideas for telling those stories. We will explore a variety of memoir structures, practice the use of specific sensory detail, and develop our abilities to write in dramatic scenes. We will play with the often elusive concept of voice, including how perspective and delivery change the story. The term “creative nonfiction” has been used to classify the writing of this course, combining the fact-gathering of non-fiction with the descriptive language skills employed by writers of fiction. We will consistently refine the skills and methods involved in giving and receiving meaningful feedback. Readings will include such texts as 100 Essays I Don’t Have Time to Write by Sarah Ruhl.

Spoken Word

Fall Semester—Open to Grades 10–12

“Raise your words, not your voice. It is rain that grows flowers, not thunder.” -RumiOral storytelling has a rich history, and has often been used by human culture as a way to make sense of world. This one-semester elective will examine the power of the spoken word, with a focus on storytelling to incite social change. This course will encourage students to close their eyes and listen. Three things will result: first, words will interact differently with one another (are the song lyrics “I am the sun and the air,” or “I am the son and the heir,” and does it matter?); second, performance and recitation become key components of meaning (What happens to the “I Have a Dream” speech when read by a less effective orator?); third, the purpose of the words becomes paramount (emphasizing different words in the sentence “I did not say that I killed my wife” completely changes its meaning). Students will reflect on these issues while also creating their own pieces, meant to be heard rather than read. These pieces, as well as the work that we listen to, will cover a broad range, and may include epic poetry, the Native American tradition of oral histories, songs of the Underground Railroad, radio plays, famous speeches throughout history, slam and spoken word poetry from the Beat Poets through the present, podcasts, and comedy.


Spring Semester—Open to Grades 10–12

Writing and staging original short dramas will be the goal of this one-semester elective. We will read plays, study their structures, develop opinions about playwrights’ styles, and evaluate various themes, dialogue techniques, and staging ideas. In addition to submitting plays to our school’s 10-minute play festival, the prestigious local contest, "Write Here, Write Now" will be the impetus to complete a play and revise it for submission. Drawing from the instructor’s experiences at the Iowa Summer Writing Festival and the University of Edinburgh’s Theatre and Performance course, a variety of prompts will lead the student playwrights to the final stages (pun intended) of writing and staging. We will consistently refine the skills and methods involved in giving and receiving meaningful feedback, and all students are required to read parts in each other’s plays. Field trips to local professional theatres are hopefully planned.

Writing About the Natural World

Spring Semester—Open to Grades 10–12

“Science and literature give me answers. And they ask me questions I will never be able to answer.” -Mark Haddon The student in this one-semester elective will have an opportunity to develop her own unique voice as a writer while also discovering and articulating the beauty of the natural world. This course will therefore explore the best of those places where scientific inquiry and the written word intersect. The humanities and the STEAM disciplines are often seen as two separate and unrelated realms; just as often, one is viewed as being somehow more important than the other. This course will instead experiment with the skills and mindsets of those different content areas as they complement and enrich each other. Readings will be drawn from such texts as: Cosmos by Carl Sagan; The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell; A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson; Walden by Henry David Thoreau; excerpts from The DaVinci Code by Dan Brown; and Small Wonder by Barbara Kingsolver. Students will respond in multiple genres, creating their own written pieces that blend the vision of science with the emotional power of literature.