The curriculum offerings for senior English change from year to year. English IV Honors courses are more narrowly defined, to make room for deeper, more complex analysis. Below are examples of recent courses.
Inventing the Self: Personal Narrative Writing
Non-fiction personal memoir is a particularly provocative feature of the contemporary literary landscape. In this class, students use some examples of this genre as springboards into their own experiences and as catalysts for self-discovery. In other words, they integrate seminar discussions of the published works with original non-fiction. Writing personal narratives, observations, and reflections, students seek to practice modes of expression that they may never have encountered before—within themselves and elsewhere. The goal is an ambitious and noble one: to write themselves into a revelation of who they are. Students use a portfolio approach, including organic collections, blog posts, and other artistic expressions. They commit to critical sessions each week in a workshop setting and work toward final projects at the end of each term.
Never Again: The Literature of Genocide
In the midst of both The Holocaust and more recent genocides, writers and other artists reflected both the horrors and the hopes of victims and perpetrators alike. From the cauldrons of racial, ethnic, and political violence have emerged generations of survivors whose voices continue to keep the memories alive and to contribute to reconciliation and understanding. In this class, students consider the art—including memoirs, poetry, and film—of those who experienced the “final solution” of the Nazi death camps and the genocides of Cambodia and Rwanda. Writing assignments are analytical, personal, and creative in nature. Please note that these literary expressions, though they may reflect the terrors of genocide, are nonetheless affirmations of the most precious elements in our human condition—and are thus inspiring.
What Moves in the Margin: Great Women Writers of the 20th and 21st Centuries
Grounded in the conviction that our shared humanity is more important and more powerful than the gender we may not share, this course offers students the opportunity to turn the table on the patriarchal standards still embedded in current curricula through the study of texts produced by great women writers of the 20th and 21st centuries. These authors, like their canonical male counterparts, grapple in their texts with what it means to be human. Possible titles for consideration: Song of Solomon, Toni Morrison; Sing, Unburied, Sing, Jesmyn Ward; Written on the Body, Jeanette Winterson; Everything I Never Told You, Celeste Ng; Citizen, Claudia Rankin; A Room of One’s Own, Virginia Woolf; On Beauty, Zadie Smith; Short stories from E. Annie Proulx, Alice Munro, Jhumpa Lahiri, Pam Houston, and Flannery O’ Connor; Poems from Emily Dickinson*, Mary Oliver, Sharon Olds, Anne Carson, Sylvia Plath, Audre Lorde, and more. (*A deserving 19th-century exception.)
The Empire Strikes Back: Immigrant & Diasporic Voices in American and English Literature
This course explores works of literature that have emerged from colonial and post-colonial territories during the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Students read works from representative English and American immigrant authors who work within the post-imperial framework, even as they assume the daunting challenge of cultural decolonization. Building on themes explored sophomore year in works like Dubliners, by James Joyce, Things Fall Apart, by Chinua Achebe, and Heart of Darkness, by Joseph Conrad, students consider questions such as: What effects does/did colonization have on culture? How are those effects revealed in the works studied? What role does language play in the culture of imperialism? Is it significant that these authors write in the language of the colonial power? Books for consideration: The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, by Junot Díaz; The Farming of Bones, by Edwidge Danticat; Unaccustomed Earth, by Jhumpa Lahiri; Homegoing, by Yaa Gyasi; Native Speaker, by Chang-Rae Lee; How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents, by Julia Alvarez; When the Emperor was Divine, by Julia Otsuka; Waiting, by Ha Jin; Ceremony, by Leslie Marmon Silko; and Americanah, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.
Here is the basic premise: In the early 14th century, God treated the Italian poet Dante Alighieri to a guided tour through Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven. (This may sound like a tall tale to you, as a cynical 21st century American, but Dante guarantees that we cannot find a single detail in his account that is theologically inaccurate.) In this course, students read the first installment of The Divine Comedy, Dante’s masterpiece: Hell, or in Dante’s native Italian, Inferno. They look over Dante’s shoulder as his guide, Virgil, points out the gluttons, who are sliced and diced while rolling in the mud like pigs; the violent, who boil in a river of blood; and the hypocrites, who spend eternity in a pit full of excrement. In all cases, the punishment fits the crime. Readings are short—one canto, or about five pages, per night—but will require several readings, a bit of independent research, and very careful attention to detail.
Why, more than four hundred years after his death, should students spend a full term studying the works of Shakespeare, a poet who worked in rhyme and in formal meter, a dramatist who operated from conventions that strike a modern audience as stilted and unconvincing, a man whose understanding of the world and whose use of language to express that understanding can seem bewildering? The answer is that Shakespeare is simply the most important English writer who ever lived. That importance stems from the unique combination of the time in which he wrote and the particular genius he brought to his craft. Writing when the language was finally settling into its modern form, when the English theater was being created along with many of the plays that were to dominate the stage for hundreds of years, and when England itself was becoming the most significant political and economic power in Europe, Shakespeare had an unparalleled sense of freedom in his expression and an overwhelming confidence in his ability to create. Because he possessed both a poetic skill of the highest order and a dramatic sensibility that allowed him to see fully into the hearts and minds of his characters, his plays have remained key documents in the history of literature and absolutely viable dramatic vehicles in contemporary productions. Students read and study five plays: one history, one comedy, two tragedies, and one romance, paying attention to aspects of stagecraft, cultural and historical assumption, even some of the limitations of Elizabethan acting styles, but focusing primarily on the stringing together of language, the development of character, and the gradual revelation of theme. As a way of considering the variety of approaches and interpretations that actors and directors have taken over the last eighty years, students look at clips of movies and videos of stage productions. The course is conceived as a seminar, with students taking on significant responsibility for class discussion. Texts: Henry the Fourth, Part I; Twelfth Night; Othello; Macbeth; and The Tempest.
Movements in American Poetry: a poetry writing workshop
The Confessionalists, the High Modernists, the Beats, the Deep Imagists, the Harlem Renaissance, the Black Mountain Poets, and the New York School. These are the major movements that define American poetry. Students study poems from the best-known writers of these groups and use their analysis to determine the innovations and essential qualities of their respective movements. Students will respond creatively to the critical consideration of these significant movements. In other words, they seek inspiration from the work of great American poets as they craft great poems of their own.
1939: A World Recaptured
In this course, students examine the events of 1939, a year in which the world that we know was born. It offered earth-shaking moments of change, with the end of the Spanish Civil War and the beginning of World War II, and it anticipated later shifts with the introduction of television and the affirmation of big-time sports. The Depression ended, and the Holocaust officially began. The optimism of two great international fairs, one in San Francisco and one in New York, was tempered by Einstein’s belief, expressed to FDR, that the United States could and should build an atomic bomb. Labor unrest was both recalled by the release of Tom Mooney and limited by the Supreme Court ruling that sit-down strikes were illegal. The eventual end of colonialism was anticipated, peacefully by Gandhi in Mumbai and more violently by the IRA in Coventry, a city made famous a year later when the Germans blitzed it from the air. The United States officially looked to the past by declaring its neutrality as its allies mobilized to fight the Axis. It was a very good year for books (Day of the Locust; The Grapes of Wrath; Johnny Got His Gun; The Snows of Kilimanjaro; Pale Horse, Pale Rider; Farewell to Berlin; and Mother Courage to name just a few). It was an even better year for film with over a dozen absolute classics as well as some movies that have attained cult status. Some of the classics include Gone with the Wind; The Wizard of Oz; Stagecoach; Mr. Smith Goes to Washington; Ninotchka; Young Mr. Lincoln; Of Mice and Men; Goodbye, Mr. Chips; and Dark Victory. For cult films, you need to look no further than Mandrake the Magician; The Little Princess; Charlie Chan at Treasure Island; and Tarzan Finds a Son. Students examine a good deal of primary source material including newspaper and magazine accounts, movie newsreel reports, as well as footage from the German invasion of Poland and the free city of Danzig, from the New York World’s Fair, from Marian Anderson’s stirring rendition of the National Anthem before 75,000 people in front of the Lincoln Memorial, and from Lou Gehrig’s farewell to his fans. In addition, they read, they watch film, and they write. All students will end the course with a written research report on a topic of their own choosing.
Paradise Lost: Coming of Age
In this course, students explore the essential elements and perennial complexities of what it means to “come of age” in a variety of eras and in a range of cultures. They start by trying to define the term itself, examining different ideas of what it means to move into adulthood. They use a number of texts as springboards for discussion, asking questions like: What does it mean to be a woman? A man? How do we understand and reconcile tensions between the individual and community? Is tension with established custom and authority (e.g. parents, religious beliefs, and other social codes) inevitable in this process of becoming? What rituals do we associate with coming of age? Do they matter? Is coming of age necessarily an experience of a “paradise lost”? Texts include: Paradise Lost (excerpts), John Milton; Portrait of the Artist As A Young Man, James Joyce; Decoded, Jay-Z; Why Be Happy When You Can Be Normal, Jeanette Winterson; Between the World and Me, Ta-Nehisi Coates; All The Pretty Horses, Cormac McCarthy; On Beauty, Zadie Smith; selected poems, documentary film excerpts and articles related to media literacy and the impact of advertising on concepts of identity.
Is there such a thing as objective fact? If so, in what way does fact differ from opinion, or even from fiction? Where do legend end and history begin? How much does individual perspective affect the dominant narrative? In this course, students examine literature that challenges conventional history and tells the story anew, both on the personal and the national level. They use this literature to help them think critically about current events, about the symbolic meaning of genealogy, and about national epic. Through this process, they seek a more nuanced understanding of what we mean when we talk about “truth.” Texts will include (but will not be limited to): Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, Ben Fountain; Aeneid, Vergil; Everything is Illuminated, Jonathan Safran Foer; Beowulf [author unknown].
Major British Writers
Back in the day, if you wanted to major in English, you took two year-long survey courses, one in American Lit, one in British Lit. Nowadays, spending an entire year studying one national literature seems less essential than offering students the time, legitimacy and encouragement to study literature on its own terms, exploring voices from varying points of view. This course invites students to spend the first two terms of their senior year studying British Literature from Geoffrey Chaucer to Joseph Conrad. Along the way, they look at Shakespeare, John Donne, John Milton, Jonathan Swift, Alexander Pope, the Romantic poets, Emily Bronte, Alfred, Lord Tennyson, Robert Browning and Gerard Manley Hopkins. Will they have time for Dickens, Eliot, or Woolf? That depends on the speed with which students choose to move through these seminal writers. They spend enough time to attain a critical introduction to each and then decide if they want to move on or dig more deeply. The approach will be largely a critical/analytical one, although some essays may be more informal than others. Students are expected to keep up with the reading and to add to the seminar atmosphere of the class.