Upper School Curriculum

Select a Department


Four years of English are required for graduation. Grade 9 and 10 requirements are met by one-year courses. Grade 11 and 12 requirements are met by yearlong electives. Independent studies may also be developed by students to meet their interests and needs. Advanced and elective courses are dependent upon faculty expertise; thus, the following course descriptions are subject to change and variation.
  • English 9

    English 9 challenges students to develop their own voices as critics and as writers, to think independently and reflectively, and to express their ideas clearly and powerfully. Throughout the year, students read challenging texts that explore questions about identity, culture, and the complexity of relationships. From Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun, and Shelley’s Frankenstein, to Morrison’s The Bluest Eye and Shakespeare’s Macbeth, the range of works invites students to ask questions, so that they develop a deep understanding of how family, culture, race, and gender roles influence character choices and the development of narratives. Our curriculum exposes students to a variety of literary styles and genres. In addition, students develop media literacy skills by making informed connections between the page and the screen. Class discussion and assignments emphasize close reading skills, informed speaking and active listening, rigorous literary analysis, and attention to the mechanics of writing. 
  • English 10

    In English 10, students discuss and write about literature with increased sophistication and complexity. The goal is for them to become better readers, writers, thinkers, and communicators. Through discussion, writing, oral presentations and group activities, the course stresses independent critical thinking, literary analysis, and original interpretation. Special emphasis is placed on making connections between works of literature and their historical and contemporary contexts. Students gain practice in a variety of writing styles, which may include formal essays, reflection papers, poetry, memoir/autobiography, and dramatic monologue. The class will explore James McBride's The Color of Water, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby and Shakespeare’s Othello; other texts may include Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried, Jeannette Walls’s The Glass Castle, and a range of poetry and short fiction.
  • Advanced American Literature

    Prerequisite: department approval 
    In the 18th century, St. John de Crѐvecoeur famously asked, “What then is the American, this new man?” This question has preoccupied and puzzled thoughtful Americans to this day. In the first semester of this yearlong course, we examine works that address this concern in three movements. Before doing so, however, we begin with a contemporary novel by Douglas Clegg that may disturb and challenge your preconceptions about what American fiction has become. Then, returning to the three movements, we first explore “The Birth of an American Self” by looking at how 19th century writers (e.g., Twain, Thoreau), confronted by nature on a scale largely inconceivable to their European forebears and by a new social and political order that strained the limits of individual sovereignty, set out to define a new sense of self and arrive at forms of imaginative expression commensurate with their novel circumstances. Next, during “The Fracturing of American Identity,” we investigate the way 20th century writers, particularly in the Lost Generation (e.g., Hemingway, Eliot) and later, the Beat Generation (e.g., Kerouac) focused on the decay and growing alienation of the individual, as reflective of what they had witnessed in the horrors of both World Wars. To finish the semester, students ponder “The Death of the American Dream” by focusing on writers such as Morrison, Miller, and McCarthy, who question the veracity of the ideals that continue to be vital to our national ethos.
  • Advanced British Literature: Illusions of Grandeur (British Literature from c.1000–2019)

    Prerequisite: invitation from the department 
    In Shakespeare’s Richard II, John of Gaunt describes the British Isles as “This other Eden, demi-paradise,/ This fortress built by Nature for herself/ Against infection and the hand of war” (2. 1). Though he is bemoaning the current state of England under King Richard II’s leadership, his words hint at a nation that will go on to develop a sense of safety in its separateness and dominance. In Advanced British Literature, students read a wide variety of works, from the Anglo-Saxon conquest through the 21st century. Our early attention is on the honing of a British literary identity. We then focus on English writers who, over successive eras, crafted a robust voice that spoke of an island’s quest for global dominance while simultaneously portraying the mental and moral vulnerability of those back home who were victims of Britain’s imperial lust. Texts from the 21st century refine our understanding of Britain’s dependency on hierarchy through explicit exploration of race and social class. Our inquiry includes texts by Charlotte Brontë, Geoffrey Chaucer, Joseph Conrad, Bernardine Evaristo, Seamus Heaney, Ted Hughes, Kazuo Ishiguro, Ian McEwan, William Shakespeare, Oscar Wilde, Virginia Woolf, William Wordsworth, and others.
  • Advanced English: The Epic

    This course delves into the foundational texts of the Western literary tradition: Gilgamesh, Homer’s Odyssey; Euripides’ Medea; and Milton’s Paradise Lost. The heroes in these texts carve out a space for civilization from a world of chaos, monsters, and villains. In our discussions, we seek to understand what makes someone heroic, and also what defines the villains or monsters that the heroes defeat. Along the way, we ask two sets of questions: What do these narratives tell us about love, truth, justice, and community? And, how does a story begin? Where does it end? What makes incidents hold together in a plot? What makes a character believable—and relatable? 

    The course is divided into three main sections. We begin by exploring “The Hero’s Journey,” focusing on the goals that motivate epic quests, as well as the temptations (lust, pride, decadence) that threaten to derail them. Next, we investigate “Myths of Creation, Destruction, and Transformation,” analyzing what these stories tell us about the shifting and unpredictable nature of reality. We end the course by considering “Myth in America,” examining how these classical tales have been repurposed to address the pressing issues of our time in Luis Alfarao’s Mojada and Jesmyn Ward’s Salvage the Bones

    Throughout the course, we juxtapose our primary texts with a variety of contexts. We analyze modern responses to the epic tradition—including a feminist revision (Madeleine Miller’s Circe), an African American recasting (Susan-Lori Parks’s Father Comes Home from the Wars), and a cinematic homage (Joel and Ethan Coen’s O Brother, Where Art Thou?).
  • Advanced English: The Novel from Austen to Wilde

    This is your chance to read the greatest English language novels—and a French one, too—the classic texts that formed our ideas of the modern self and created the genre with which we’re so familiar today. We seek to understand how novels work: How do they give the illusion that their characters are real people, moving through real time? How do they create—and manipulate—point of view? How do they balance major and minor characters, plots, and subplots? What gives shape to a story, and makes it seem like more than a random series of events? 

    We read a coming-of-age novel, a novel told as a series of letters, a historical novel, a marriage plot, a supernatural allegory, and even a short science fiction classic. In texts such as the foundational coming-of-age story, Jane Eyre, for the first time we see literary characters imagined as fully-formed individuals with complete life stories and intricate conscious (and subconscious) motivations. Alongside this emphasis on interiority, the great realist novels expand our vision of the ways in which individuals are enmeshed in larger social contexts. We analyze how novels such as A Tale of Two Cities and Clotel reflect a complex interplay between personal lives and cataclysmic historical occurrences such as the French Revolution, the Industrial Revolution, and the institution of American slavery. As well as telling new kinds of stories, the classic novel pioneered new narrative forms. We explore Austen’s unrivaled mastery of irony (Pride and Prejudice), Laclos’s shifting points of view (Dangerous Liaisons), and Wells’ forays into science fiction (The Time Machine). We’ll be attentive throughout to how these key cultural touchstones helped create our ideas about race, class, and gender.
  • The 19th-Century Novel: The Art of the De-Centered Self

    In 1915, Freud announced that humanity was like a deposed tyrant, the victim of revolutions—first by Copernicus (who proved that the earth isn’t the center of the universe), next by Darwin (who showed that humanity isn’t the center of the natural world), and then by Freud himself (who argued that the conscious mind isn’t the center of personality). As a result, people could no longer make sense of their lives by appealing to a larger system—but, instead, had to find meaning in the present. The realist novel is the great cultural document of this era, charting both the anxiety and the liberation of this collective sense of living on the margins. 

    This course examines some of the key novels of the 19th century, with a particular emphasis on how they construct meaning out of the apparent randomness of the human condition. Our texts include Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities (which depicts the chaos of revolutions and the refuge of private life), Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South (which represents the struggle between social classes as an economic “survival of the fittest”), Wilkie Collins’ The Moonstone (which hinges on the dominant role of the unconscious), Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (which explores the political consequences of radical de-centering), and H. G. Wells’ The Time Machine (an early science-fiction novel, which imagines our historical moment dwarfed by a larger cosmic story). 
  • The Anti-Hero

    In this course, students tackle stories featuring protagonists who do not necessarily fit the conventional definition of a hero. They explore the notion of what it means to be a hero, the definition of which can be difficult to determine and is often ambiguous. Many of the characters they encounter may challenge their ability to empathize, but this is likely to change as they more closely examine each character’s unique circumstances. Texts include Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange (which facilitates discussion of the concept of free will), Camus’ The Stranger (contextualized by an introduction to 20th century existentialism), and a variety of other short and full-length works. Students are expected to annotate and write responses to each reading, and dissect each piece with a critical essay and/or creative project.
  • The Art of Short Fiction

    12th Grade Only
    In his 1846 essay “The Philosophy of Composition,” Edgar Allan Poe defined the short story as prose fiction that could be read in one sitting—approximately 20,000 words or less. He believed this limitation, in and of itself, made it far superior to the novel, and he would have been pleased to see its popularity grow in the latter half of the 19th and 20th centuries. In particular, during the last three decades, there has been a reawakening and a transformation of the traditional short story; some have even called it a short-fiction revolution. In this course, we explore the historical development of this genre and the many unique short-fiction blueprints. Students analyze the timeless short stories of Nathaniel Hawthorne, Ernest Hemingway, Amy Hempel, Dorothy Parker, Edgar Allan Poe, Alice Walker, Eudora Welty, and other great writers. We also read the following novellas: The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka, Different Seasons by Stephen King, Black Water by Joyce Carol Oates, and The Moon is Down by John Steinbeck. Students are expected to write formal analytical essays, as well as to compose their own original short story collection. 
  • Bad Intentions

    Lust. Pride. Greed. Rage. Envy. Whether it’s a hero with a fatal flaw, a villain with an evil plan, or an anti-hero we secretly root for, bad motives drive the plots of great literature. In this class, we strive to understand the psychological lure of vice—both what draws a character to the dark side, and why we as readers find the wicked so much more interesting than the good. In the process, we explore a deep cultural ambivalence: the qualities we revile are often the flipsides of those we most admire. 

    The class is organized into units examining both individual motives and their interconnections. We read the deliciously wicked exploits of a master-seducer in Dangerous Liaisons and uncover the vicious circle of lust and pride in The Picture of Dorian Gray. We analyze the central role of greed in crime fiction and film, from Sherlock Holmes to film noir (The Maltese Falcon), to modern finance (The Wolf of Wall Street), to dystopia (Snowpiercer). We compare what happens when righteous rage against injustice is externalized as revolution or internalized as self-hatred (A Tale of Two Cities and Invisible Man). Ultimately, we aim to synthesize some conclusions about envy, the deadly sin of the social media age: What does it mean to want what someone else has? What can envy tell us about appearances, identity, and desire?
  • Exploring the Art of the Novella: Around the World in Eighty Pages

    In this course, we study many varieties of short fiction, paying particular attention to the novella. We explore a wide variety of texts from several cultures and time periods, with special consideration given to the way these formats differ from the novel. Featured authors include Kate Chopin, Franz Kafka, and Herman Melville, as well as more recent masters of short fiction, such as Margaret Atwood, Jim Harrison, Amy Hempel, and Joyce Carol Oates. Students write one take-home analytical essay, one in-class essay, and several pieces of short fiction. In addition, students workshop their drafts during class and submit an original collection of short fiction at the end of the semester. 
  • Feminist Waves in Women's Fiction

    A unique group of 19th-century female authors recognized the psychological price paid by women when they expressed forbidden thoughts and actions. Although the struggle for equal rights was inevitably valued, the battle scars left a complex legacy of emotional suffering and socio-political setbacks. In the 1960s and ’70s, female authors reclaimed the torch and voiced the second wave of domestic oppression in the lives of different American women. In this course, we explore how a group of women writers depicted the hidden costs paid by their fictional characters when they dared to assert themselves at home and in the outside world. We delve into how the intersectional factors of race and class affect the authors’ feminist viewpoints. From the polemical inspiration of Alvarez’s How the GarcÍa Girls Lost Their Accents to French’s The Women’s Room, to the pivotal poetry and immigrant narrative of Shange’s for colored girls who have considered suicide/when the rainbow is enuf, the complex stories of women are provocatively expressed. Other texts may include Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper and Other Stories, Kaufman’s Diary of a Mad Housewife, and Naylor’s The Women of Brewster Place. A historical overview of the first and second waves of feminism is used as a theoretical framework for study. Supplemental readings from short stories and political essayists are included. 
  • Going Against the Grain: Counterculture Literature in America

    In this course, we explore some of the most socially influential texts that emerged from the historical counterculture of the 1960s era. Each text illustrates a specific form of the social rebellion and cultural unrest that permeated this turbulent period. From an Oregon psychiatric hospital to a Greenwich Village nightclub, we explore the many factors that caused the subjects of these works to vehemently rebel against the social constraints that impeded them. We also focus on the stylistic changes in writing that emerged during this time and how these techniques allowed for bolder forms of artistic expression. The main texts are Another Country by James Baldwin, In Cold Blood by Truman Capote, One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey, and Edie: American Girl by Jean Stein. 

    To provide a fuller contextual picture of the books, additional readings from selected articles, essays, poetry, and short stories are used to broaden our awareness of different countercultural artists. Iconic films and field trips to cultural sites featuring the 1960s are also included in our exploration of the authors and their indelible literary messages. 
  • Hell Is Other People

    This course is designed to have as its center Jean Paul Sartre’s play No Exit, which contains the infamous line from which the title derives. We spend the semester reading and discussing texts (plays, novels, short stories) in which the protagonists are psychologically (and sometimes physically) tormented by both the individuals they encounter and the social structures that dictate behavioral norms. As a counterpoint, we also explore how the characters often cause their own anguish. Many of the stories feature protagonists who do not necessarily embody the conventional definition of hero, and in some cases, may not be heroes at all. In addition, we explore the notion of what it means to be a hero, the definition for which can be difficult to pin down and is often ambiguous. Many of the characters may challenge your ability to empathize, but this is likely to change as we more closely examine each character’s unique circumstances. Much of the course is contextualized by an introduction to 20th century existentialism, which we use as a lens through which to read many of the texts. Aside from No Exit, other texts include Albert Kobo Abe’s The Face of Another, Camus’ The Stranger, Richard Wright’s Native Son, and Spike Lee’s film Do the Right Thing
  • Heroes, Gods, and Monsters

    Every culture creates myths and legends to explain the world and people’s place in it. Through tales of perilous journeys and raging battles, these narratives ask fundamental questions about the meaning of heroism, justice, love, and truth. By analyzing texts like Homer’s Odyssey and Milton’s Paradise Lost, as well as modern-day epics such as George Lucas’s Star Wars, we explore how our ideas about what it means to be a hero have changed over time. At their hearts, epics are about the attempt to carve out a space for civilization from a world of chaos, monsters and villains. In our discussions, we consider who or what are the monsters in these texts: what does that tell us about what people over the centuries have been most afraid of? What kind of world were they trying to create, and what did they consider the greatest threats to that ideal? Throughout the course, we pair ancient texts with modern films, novels, and plays to address the question of what we’ve inherited from these foundational texts, and how our definitions of heroes, gods, and monsters continue to evolve. 
  • Memoir, Memory & Identity

    11th grade only.
    This introductory course is for students interested in autobiographical writing. We explore the ideas of memory and truth as we analyze a variety of memoirs in all their forms and iterations. Spanning decades and nations, styles and subjects, our reading list includes several of the following titles: The Diving Bell and the Butterfly by Jean-Dominique Bauby, Fun Home by Alison Bechdel, Fire Shut Up in My Bones by Charles Blow, The Yellow House by Sarah M. Broom, Running with Scissors by Augusten Burroughs, Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates, Not My Father’s Son by Alan Cumming, When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi, Girl, Interrupted by Susanna Kaysen, Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauer, Let’s Pretend This Never Happened (A Mostly True Memoir) by Jenny Lawson, The Color of Water by James McBride, Just Kids by Patti Smith, Memorial Drive by Natasha Trethewey, Hillbilly Elegy by JD Vance, and Educated by Tara Westover.

    Personal essays by James Baldwin, Edwidge Danticat, Lars Eighner, Mindy Kaling, Frank McCourt, and Elie Wiesel are also incorporated. We consider what these texts can tell us about the complex intersection of art and truth as we explore questions of empathy, self-expression, memory, and the making of identity. Through free-writing exercises and specific writing prompts, students pull from the fabric of their lived experiences to craft original works of their own. During the writing workshops, students learn to employ fictional techniques such as characterization, dialogue, and plot, as well as how to employ emotional tools (authenticity, curiosity, empathy, and urgency) to transform their personal experience into compelling prose that speaks to the humanity in all of us. 
  • Modern Japanese Literature

    In this course, students are introduced to some of the major writers and thinkers from late 19th-century to early 21st-century Japan. We explore modern Japan by studying authors from every era of the nation since the Meiji Restoration. As these eras directly coincide with the reign of each emperor, we note that each is characterized by a distinct political and cultural spirit. Students examine the struggle of national identity, as the Japanese attempt to reconcile centuries of tradition with the desire to become a modern—and inevitably, a more Westernized—nation. This moves us into the interwar years, in which Japan feels compelled to prove itself to the West, and on to the postwar years, which are fraught with uncertainty, angst, and fear. Finally, we reach contemporary life, with Japan having emerged as one of the world’s safest and most advanced nations. To provide a deeper framework for understanding the cultural context, students are also exposed to some aspects of the Japanese language and the historical and philosophical forces that have shaped Japanese thought for hundreds of years. Students are expected to annotate and write responses to each reading, and dissect each overall piece through a critical essay and/or creative project.
  • Public Speaking

    10th –12th grades.
    In this half-credit additional elective course, students become adept at the art of public speaking. Public speaking is one of the most important life skills, from the application of school presentations, future career opportunities, and even at a best friend’s wedding. The craft encompasses multiple forms of communication, well-placed pockets of story-telling, and creative techniques for body language. We focus on three major types of speeches: demonstrative, informative, and persuasive, and uncover the ways each of these gradually build upon the next. Though students might enter this course with some degree of angst, shyness, or fear, they exit with confidence, courage, and ultimately, a powerful voice to call their own.
  • Radical Texts: Poetry, Politics & Performance

    A cross-divisional, interdisciplinary, team-taught course, this class addresses the writer as artist and performer. Students examine a wide range of alternative, mainstream, and experimental theatrical and literary genres. Units include solo spoken word, slam poetry, epic theatre, street theatre, fringe theatre, Commedia dell’Arte, and, ideally, a smattering of both performance and conceptual art. In addition to the analytical examination and discussion of selected texts, students are expected to participate in the creation and performance of original, written, theatrical, and poetic works. This is as much a creative class as it is an analytical one—and, fittingly, class meeting locations are divided between a regular classroom and the theatre stage. Students also participate in required trips, both in the evening and during the school day. Past classes have attended evening performances at La Mama Experimental Theater on East 4th Street, Lincoln Center, Irish Repertory Theater, and poetry workshops at The Nuyorican Poets Café. Texts for the year include works by Aristophanes, Samuel Beckett, Lorraine Hansberry, Eugene Ionesco, Charles Ludlam’s Ridiculous Theater, Luigi Pirandello, The San Francisco Mime Troupe, Tom Stoppard, several complete volumes of contemporary poetry, and more. You do not need to be a drama student to take this class; talent and experience are appreciated, but optional. 
  • Women at the Intersection

    What happens when girls and women are prevented from learning about the world outside of their experiences? What happened when a woman was unable to acknowledge all of her identities? What did women do when they were denied entry to becoming their full selves? In this course we uncover how a uniquely diverse group of 20th century female authors recognized the psychological price paid by women when they expressed forbidden thoughts and actions, and why their fictional characters dared to circumvent intersectional social barriers in various ways. 

    We focus primarily on three areas: how the effects of the first and second waves of feminism influenced the themes of each literary work; examine why these movements inspired the practice of reading women’s literature through the intersectional lenses of race, class, gender, and sexual orientation; finally, we reflect on whether the third wave of feminist texts were decidedly impacted by the writers from the previous feminist eras. Related excerpts, short stories, and essays are added periodically.


  • Photo of Jason Tarbath
    Jason Tarbath
    Upper School English Teacher and Advisor, English Department Chair
  • Photo of William Evans
    William Evans
    Upper School English Teacher and Advisor
  • Photo of Natalka Freeland
    Natalka Freeland
    Upper School English Teacher and Advisor
  • Photo of Pamela Murphy
    Pamela Murphy
    Upper School English Teacher and Advisor
  • Photo of Kevin Smith
    Kevin Smith
    Upper School English Teacher and Advisor
  • Photo of Celestine Woo
    Celestine Woo
    Upper School English Teacher and Advisor