Al Vernacchio, Department Chair
Recognizing the power of strong written and verbal communication, sophisticated reading, careful listening, and critical thinking, Friends’ Central School requires that all students take English every year. Skills are developed through a curriculum of challenging and diverse texts, both classical and contemporary. In discussion-based seminars, students learn to read carefully, listen with open minds, and speak authentically. Students hone their oral and written expression skills through repeated practice, support, and feedback. To encourage intellectual ambition and the risk-taking that leads to growth, we offer ample opportunities for students to revise and resubmit their work. We know that writing is thinking and that creating a satisfying piece of work requires a committed process of invention, drafting, and revision. When students graduate, they know themselves as writers and thinkers and leave Friends’ Central with personal strategies for the independent writing they will do in college and beyond.
While the grade 9 and 10 courses are yearlong, students in grades 11 and 12 select from a wide variety of seminar courses in the spring, giving them the opportunity to explore an aspect of literature in depth. Writers’ Workshop, a yearlong elective course, offers instruction and practice in persuasive, analytic, and creative writing for interested students in grades 11 and 12. Students are encouraged to participate in related activities such as Ink, the Friends’ Central Literature and Arts Magazine; Focus, the school newspaper; the Humanities Core team; and the Poetry Club. Older students are also invited to serve the community by working as tutors in our student-staffed Writing Lab. The English department sponsors two annual writing contests, one for fiction and nonfiction prose and the other for poetry and plays. The contests are open to all students in the Upper School.
- English I: The Journey Begins: Becoming Ourselves
- English II: In Pursuit of Justice: The Self in the World
- English III: Becoming American: Self Discovery, Self Invention
- English IV: Gods and Monsters: What is it to be Human?
Grade 9 English focuses on various literary genres, including study of the short story, poetry, the novel, drama, and film. Skills in writing and thinking are taught through purposeful class discussion and the medium of the five-paragraph analytic essay. Major works, largely focused on the individual’s quest to come of age in a complex, morally ambiguous world, include Life of Pi (summer), The Piano Lesson, The Catcher in the Rye, Persepolis, Macbeth, and selected short stories and poems.
Grade 10 English continues the development of skills in close reading and analytic writing (with increased focus on comparative analysis) with particular attention to the themes of witness and storytelling. Texts focus on how individuals
assert themselves and respond to forces much more powerful than themselves. In conjunction with this curriculum, students study and write personal essays. Major works include Of Mice and Men (summer), Nickel & Dimed (summer), Antigone, A Lesson Before Dying, Death of a Salesman, Things Fall Apart, Twelfth Night, The Things They Carried, Ru: A Novel, and the documentary film Catfish.
Grade 11 English considers American literature in relation to the social and historic context from which it emerged and in terms of several persistent themes in the American experience: the self-creation of identity, the pursuit of happiness, the quest for freedom, and the relationship between the claims of the self and of society. Most time is spent with authors of the 19th century, including Melville, Emerson, Thoreau, Dickinson, Whitman, and Gilman. Major works include The Great Gatsby (summer), The Scarlet Letter, Angels in America, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, and Their Eyes Were Watching God.
Grade 12 English examines central concerns about the nature and meaning of the human experience from diverse
perspectives in the Western tradition. Swept along on a tide of forces (biological, historical, psychological, social, familial), the texts’ protagonists seek purpose and meaning, fight isolation, and impose order on their experiences through the telling of their stories. The primary texts and films are explored through various critical lenses, including psychoanalytic, feminist, Marxist, and reader-response theory. Major works include Oryx and Crake (summer), Frankenstein, Hamlet, and Beloved.
English Spring Seminars
In the second semester, students in grades 11 and 12 select a Semester Seminar. These classes, focused on particular themes or genres, give students a chance to explore an aspect of literature in depth. Semester Seminars include:
- Watch What You Read
- A Fairer House than Prose: Exploring Poetry
- Survival is Insufficient: Contemporary Speculative Fiction
- Greatest Hits of US Literature
- Creating the American Self: Reading and Writing Essay and Memoir
- The "Big Book": The World of Midnight's Children
- Everything is Dangerous: Western Theatre From the Modern Period to Today
- The Modern to Contemporary Black American Experience
- Creative Approaches to Climate Change
This course pairs short stories and novels with their film adaptations. In some cases, it will look at literature that has been adapted to film. Alternatively, a book or short story will be read and then compared to a film that uses some of the same themes. Students will view the films on their own time (i.e., not in class).
Possible texts: Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend with one of the three movie versions of his novel, or Jon Krakauer’s Into the Wild with its film adaptation starring Sean Penn. Yann Martel’s Life of Pi can be paired with the Mexican film Pan’s Labyrinth, or The Turn of the Screw paired with a movie about ghosts and children, like The Others or The Orphanage.
In this course, students will learn to read poetry by first gaining an understanding of how poetry differs from prose.
Students will gain proficiency with formal and musical elements such as meter, rhyme, consonance, assonance, repetition, stanza structure, caesurae, and a variety of standard forms such as sonnets and villanelles. Close reading of the poems will reveal how imagery and figurative language enhance the ideas of the poems. The course will present some poems as part of a tradition of poetic ideas, odes or love poems, for instance, but will also read several collections of poetry to explore how studying a body of work differs from looking at a poem in isolation.
Possible texts: Citizen: An American Lyric by Claudia Rankine,Night Sky with Exit Wounds by Ocean Vuong
An extraordinary fertile and expansive artistic territory, fiction is a limitless field. Speculative fiction, the particular area of study for this class, uses somewhat recognizable settings and tropes to reveal difficult truths and potential solutions to problems we face today or may face tomorrow. Margaret Atwood, author of Oryx and Crake (from grade 12) and “Death By Landscape” (from grade 9), believes “speculative fiction” refers to stories about things that really could happen but just hadn’t completely happened when the authors wrote the books. This course will look to see what this type of literature has to teach us about ourselves and our world.
Possible texts: Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go; Mandel’s Station Eleven; Whitehead’s Underground Railroad; LeGuin’s The Lathe of Heaven; Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange; and stories by writers such as Borges, Link, Millhauser, Hand, and Vonnegut
What makes something a “greatest hit”? Is it popularity, impact, staying power, or simply being in the right place at the right time? Does a work of US Literature become a “greatest hit” because it falls in line with typical national values or because it calls those values into question? This course will study novels, plays, and short stories by a diverse collection of authors considered “giants” in US Literature. Some of these works are already established as “greatest hits”; others are more recent texts that have the potential to find themselves on that illustrious list in the coming years. Texts will be examined for both their literary merit and for how they contribute to the ongoing story of the social and political experiment we call the United States of America.
Possible texts: Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms, Tennessee William’s A Streetcar Named Desire, Alice Walker’s The Color Purple, Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland
In an essay, the writer’s voice bridges the space between personal experience and its public implications; in memoir, personal experience is explored more intimately, driven by the effort to simultaneously discover and create the self in language. In these essays and memoirs (ones we read and ones we write), we’ll explore this effort in the context of what it means to be an American. Both identifiably American and stubbornly personal, the contemporary writers whose work we will read are descendants of American authors we’ve read together (Franklin, Emerson, Douglass, Thoreau, and others) in ways that are both recognizable and new. Using classic and contemporary texts, we will experience the American self in voices intimate and public on subjects of national, political, philosophical, personal and social significance. And, as American writers ourselves, we will join the essayists and memoirists who have preceded us, capturing our own experiences in our own voices, creating our identities as we discover them.
Possible Texts: Best Non-Required Reading, Fun Home (Alison Bechdel), Hamilton the Musical (Lin-Manuel Miranda), The
Liar’s Club (Mary Karr), Pulphead (John Jeremiah Sullivan), The Partly Cloudy Patriot (Sarah Vowell), podcasts (e.g. The Moth and others).
In 1981, Salman Rushdie published Midnight’s Children, a magical realist account of the generation of children born at the stroke of midnight on the day in which two nations (India and Pakistan) were also being born: August 15, 1947. Published 35 years after that date, Midnight’s Children, the story of one of those children in particular, demonstrated how the English of the Empire could be transformed, simultaneously creating and expressing a national identity and defining the genre of post-colonial literature. Midnight’s Children is comic, political, exuberant, grandiose, allegorical, earthy, mythic, satiric, ambitious...and the precursor to today’s vibrant, varied literature of India and Pakistan. Poised midway between the events that inspired it and the literature being produced in India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh today, Midnight’s Children is a central text of global literature, both critically and popularly acclaimed.
Possible Texts: Along with Midnight’s Children (a definite), others include stories and essays by Salman Rushdie (from Haroun and the Sea of Stories, East and West, Cross this Line) How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia (Mohsin Hamid), The God of Small Things (Arundhati Roy), The Inheritance of Loss (Kiran Desai) and Granta 130: India.
Starting with the most widely recognized innovators of the modern period – Ibsen, Chekhov and Strindberg – this course will move towards an understanding of their legacy in 20th century theatre. We’ll read approximately one play per week in more-or-less chronological order as we assess the changes in both stagecraft and subject matter upon which contemporary playwrights continue to draw. Specific emphasis will be given to making connections between the plays studied and the larger modernist movement in literature, art, and music. While much of the work done will be analytical, students will certainly be encouraged to approach the texts as performance pieces as well – as actors, directors, and designers.
Possible texts: Anton Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard, George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion, Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire, Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Ernest, Caryl Churchill’s A Number, Wole Soyinka’s Kongi’s Harvest, Susan Lori-Parks’ The America Play
This course begins with literature published directly after The Great Migration as black families moved to northern cities in search of new opportunities and follows that evolution through the 21st century to living writers. Students will study texts from a variety of genres in order to consider the black American experience from many angles. Guiding Queries include:
• What does it mean to be black in America?
• What is the relationship between social movements and art?
• How have national conversations about race changed over time?
• How does our understanding of the American Dream change depending on our collective racial awareness?
Possibles texts: Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison; Passing by Nella Larsen; Citizen by Claudia Rankine; Essays of James Baldwin; Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison; Autobiography of My Mother by Jamaica Kincaid; The Color Purple by Alice Walker; Fences by August Wilson; poetry of Gregory Pardlo, Natasha Tretheway, Claude McKay, Terrance Hayes, Langston Hughes, James McBride, Richard Wright, Gwendolyn Brooks, Rita Dove; films include Do the Right Thing directed by Spike Lee, Moonlight directed by Barry Jenkins
Interdisciplinary in nature, this course will challenge students to engage courageously with climate change and the dilemmas it poses. Guiding queries include:
• What is nature? And how does our conception of nature shape our understanding of stewardship?
• What questions of spiritual crisis and renewal does environmental change provoke? And what steps can we take to address those matters of the spirit?
• What is the relationship between social justice and the environment?
• What is the role of art / writing in addressing climate change?
Students will study texts and media from a variety of genres, including fiction, non-fiction, print journalism, philosophy, poetry, and documentary film. The course calendar will feature guest lecturers from a range of professions who directly address environmental issues through their work. With their examples in mind, the class will culminate in a community action project aimed at engaging others in conversation. Students will have significant autonomy over the design of these projects. Proposals might include a public art installation, fiction writing, journalism, data visualization, a community organizing campaign – you name it.
Possible texts: Silent Spring by Rachel Carson; Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer; The World Without Us by Alan Weisman; The Road by Cormac McCarthy
This yearlong course is intended for those who wish to concentrate on the craft, purpose, and power of writing. The curriculum is flexible and varied, largely co-created by the instructor and students, and focuses on personal response, argument and opinion, and imaginative writing. Some examples of past activities include “letters to the editor,” journalism, flash (and Twitter) fiction, writing that investigates the intersection of the personal and the political, satire, poetry, and one-act plays. Each student keeps a writer’s notebook (journal) which forms the foundation for the course, and class time is often spent on writing activities. Students develop and revise several longer pieces each semester with the support of the class. In the spring, students submit proposals for final projects based on individual writing interests and work more independently within a traditional workshop format. Such pieces in the past have included multimedia forms (songs, films, visual art) that incorporate text, as well as collections of poetry or short stories, memoir, and analysis. There are brief readings for the course, chosen by the instructor and by the members of the class. A portfolio of work produced during the class, along with the writer’s notebook and class participation, forms the basis for grading. This course is open to students in grades 11 and 12 and does not fulfill graduation requirements in English.