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

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.

English II: In Pursuit of Justice: The Self in the World

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.

English III: Becoming American: Self Discovery, Self Invention

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.

English IV: Gods and Monsters: What is it to be Human?

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.

English Elective

Writers' Workshop

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:

Watch What You Read

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: Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness with the film, Apocalypse Now, or Jon Krakauer’s Into the Wild with its film adaptation directed by Sean Penn. Yann Martel’s Life of Pi can be paired with the Mexican film Pan’s Labyrinth, or The Turn of the Screw may be paired with a movie about ghosts and children, like The Others or The Orphanage.

A Fairer House than Prose: Exploring Poetry

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

Survival is Insufficient: Contemporary Speculative Fiction

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

Greatest Hits of US Literature

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 The Sun Also Rises, Carson McCullers The Member of the Wedding, Alice Walker’s The Color Purple, Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland and Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf

Creating the American Self: Reading and Writing Essay and Memoir

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)

Everything is Dangerous: Western Theatre From the Modern Period to Today

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 Modern to Contemporary Black American Experience

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 Trethewey, Claude McKay, Terrance Hayes, Langston Hughes, James McBride, Richard Wright, Gwendolyn Brooks, Rita Dove; films include Do the Right Thing directed by Spike Lee, and Moonlight directed by Barry Jenkins.

Game Theory: Sports Literature

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.   

Literature of the Holocaust

This course will examine literature written during the Holocaust and about the Holocaust.  We will see how historical accounts, fictional stories, essays, poetry, and even children’s books can be used as tools for survival, revolution, and remembering.  While not a comprehensive study of the Holocaust, this class will include historical information, discussions of the continuing impact of the Holocaust, and how the literature of the Holocaust draws from and influences other literature.

Possible texts: The Men with the Pink Triangle by Heinz Heger; The Shawl by Cynthia Ozick; The Sunflower: On the Possibilities and Limits of Forgiveness by Simon Wiesenthal; This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen by Tadeusz Borowski; Maus by Art Spiegelman.  

WWSD? Shakespeare and the 21st Century

Renaissance writer Ben Jonson famously said of Shakespeare that he was “not of an age but for all time.”  But what does that really mean? How is Shakespeare relevant today? It is true that his stream runs through popular culture.  Google Jon Stewart and Shakespeare and watch actor Patrick Stewart channel Shakespeare as he makes fun of the NFL referee strike.  Listen to rapper Will Power’s mashup version of a speech from The Tempest performed at the Olympics.  Watch She’s the Man or O or Ten Things I Hate About You. Or check out MacHomer, where the Simpsons play all the parts in Macbeth.  On a deeper level, though, we recognize ourselves, our challenges and our dilemmas in Shakespeare’s plays.  His characters put our most powerful and confusing feelings of love, jealousy, and anger into words. His take on the way distant wars affect politics at home sounds all too familiar to contemporary Americans.  In his plays, as in our own culture, sons struggle simultaneously to meet and to free themselves from their fathers’ expectations; wartime comrades discover that things are different once they are back home; and victims of discrimination learn that the law they are encouraged to rely on will not protect them. Using a few 21st century methods (yes, Twitter!) as well as some more traditional approaches, we will study four of Shakespeare’s most famous plays as we explore why Shakespeare still matters.

Possible texts: Henry IV, part I; Julius Caesar; The Tempest; The Merchant of Venice