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, poem, the novel, drama, and film. Skills in writing and thinking are taught through purposeful class discussion and the medium of the five-paragraph analytical essay. Major works, largely focused on the individual’s quest to come of age in a complex, morally ambiguous world, include Kindred (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 In the Time of the Butterflies (summer), Of Mice and Men, Antigone, A Lesson Before Dying, Death of a Salesman, Things Fall Apart, The Tempest, The Things They Carried, and Ru: A Novel.
Grade 11 English considers American literature in relation to the social and historical 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. Much time is spent with authors of the 19th century, including Melville, Emerson, Hawthorne, Douglass, 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. Major works include Oryx and Crake (summer), Frankenstein, Hamlet, and Beloved.
Fall: Essay and Memoir
Spring: Fiction, Poetry, and Drama
This course is offered in two semesters; students may take both semesters or choose either the fall or spring semester. This 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.
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:
- The Modern to Contemporary Black American Experience
- Greatest Hits of US Literature
- Watch What You Read
- Catastrophes of the Near Future: Speculative Fiction
- Game Theory: Sports Literature
- A Fairer House than Prose: Exploring Poetry
- Everything is Dangerous: Western Theatre From the Modern Period to Today
- Tales of Ninth Grade Revisited
- Memoirs by Women
- Everything Change
This course begins with the frame of Afrofuturism as a lens through which to see stories of Americans with African heritage. 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 privilege black voices? How does this challenge the hegemony?
• When and how do we label or name racial groups? What does it mean to identify as black?
• How do we have healthy conversations about race in multiracial settings?
• What does it mean to have a white and a black teacher leading discussions on race in a multiracial setting?
• What is the role of storytelling in the black experience/history?
Possible texts: Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward; Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates; Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison; Passing by Nella Larsen; Citizen by Claudia Rankine; Essays of James Baldwin; “Bloodchild” by Octavia Butler, Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison; The Color Purple by Alice Walker; Fences by August Wilson; poetry of Gregory Pardlo, Natasha Trethewey, Claude McKay, Terrance Hayes, Langston Hughes, James McBride, Richard Wright, Gwendolyn Brooks, Rita Dove; films include Get Out directed by Jordan Peele and Moonlight directed by Barry Jenkins
What makes something a “greatest hit”? Is it popularity, impact, staying power, or simply being in the right place at the right time? Is it popular because it falls in line with typical national values or because it calls those values into question? What is the relationship between the impact these works had in their time and how 21st century American readers experience them? This course will study novels, plays, short stories, and other texts by a diverse collection of renowned American authors of the 20th century, many of which comment on works studied in Becoming American: Self Discovery, Self Invention.
Possible texts include Tony Kushner’s Perestroika, Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, Carson McCullers’ The Member of the Wedding, Alice Walker’s The Color Purple, and Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf.
This course pairs short stories and novels with their film adaptations to examine the various ways writers and auteurs express their ideas, evoking our emotions and deepening our understanding of the human condition. The focus of study will be on personal and analytic responses to what is read and watched to develop students’ understanding and appreciation of the written word and visual media. In most cases, it will look at literature that has been adapted to film. Alternatively, a book or short story may be read and then compared to a film that expresses some of the same themes. Students will view the films on their own time (i.e., not in class).
Possible texts include Annie Proulx’s short story “Brokeback Mountain” and the film adaptation, directed by Ang Lee; Jonathan Nolan’s short story “Memento Mori” and the film Memento, written and directed by Christopher Nolan; Amy Tan’s novel The Joy Luck Club and the film adaptation, directed by Wayne Wang; Black Panther comics and the Black Panther film, directed by Ryan Coogler; Ted Chiang’s short story “The Story of Your Life” and the film Arrival, directed by Denis Villeneuve
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 texts. 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; Le Guin’s The Lathe of Heaven; Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange; and stories by writers such as Borges, Link, Millhauser, Butler, Hand, and Vonnegut
This course is for any student who has ever been emotionally overcome by the drama of a championship game, fascinated by the inside story about a team, drawn to contemplate both the poetry of an athlete at his or her peak and the tragedy of another whose talent and life unravels before us. What is the nature of this interest? What does sport provide us with besides the obvious clichéd metaphors? Great writers have contemplated the intersections between art and sport since ancient times and have produced some remarkable works of literature in every genre as a result. We will look briefly at this tradition, and introduce some of the central themes that continue to arise. We will then investigate the particularly American obsession with sport, and examine the reflection that athletes have provided us of our own social and cultural concerns, with specific emphasis on the impact of athletics on matters of race and gender.
Possible texts: The Last Shot, by Darcy Frey; Shoeless Joe, by W. P. Kinsella.
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
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 Earnest, Caryl Churchill’s A Number, Wole Soyinka’s Kongi’s Harvest, Susan Lori-Parks’ The America Play
The term memoir is rooted in the French word for memory. In a memoir, an author reflects upon a particular moment in or period of their life. Memoir does more than just tell a story, it seeks to convey the author’s experience of an event rather than simply report the event itself. Like memories, memoirs offer a closer and more complex picture of a person than even an autobiography can. This course will feature memoirs written by and about women, centering their experience.
Possible texts include Fun Home by Alison Bechdel, Girl,Interrupted by Susanna Kaysen, She’s Not There by Jennifer Finney Boylan, Just Kids by Patti Smith, The Woman Warrior by Maxine Hong Kingston, Why Be Happy When You Can Be Normal? by Jeanette Winterson, Redefining Realness by Janet Mock, Bastard Out of Carolina by Dorothy Allison, and Hunger by Roxane Gay.
In her self-published 2015 essay “It’s Not Climate Change – It’s Everything Change,” Canadian writer Margaret Atwood helps us to recognize climate change as a crisis that stretches far beyond the boundaries of weather, touching all aspects and forms of life. Interdisciplinary in nature, this course will challenge students to engage courageously with climate change by considering its artistic, social and spiritual implications. 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?
• What is the relationship between social justice and the environment?
• What is the role of storytelling and communication in addressing climate change? While students will study novels and short stories within the emerging genre of climate fiction (cli-fi), we will spend considerable time discussing and writing about other forms of text and media as well.
Possibles texts include Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler, The Dog Stars by Peter Heller, The Giving Tree written and illustrated by Shel Silverstein, The Lorax written and illustrated by Dr. Seuss, Climate Change: A Very Short Introduction by Mark Maslin, Selections from Everything Change: An Anthology of Climate Fiction, podcasts such as How to Survive the End of the World: Selected Episodes, Radiolab: “From Tree to Shining Tree”, and films such as Interstellar and Mad Max: Fury Road.