English: Curriculum

In the early years of the Middle School our major aim is to foster the natural ebullience and imagination that make children love the experience of reading and the activity of writing. We fiercely engage in these activities for their own sake and not as preparation for a nebulous or required next step. We believe that we best serve our classes by choosing from our individual passions, and our texts often include fantasy and historical fiction, autobiography and drama; fourth and fifth graders may read Inside Out and Back Again or Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry, Shakespeare or Emily Dickinson. For the first time, a fourth grader discusses books with an entire class. Discussions are energetic and spontaneous, yet directed. Focusing on questions of plot and character, setting and language, children learn how to read and how to articulate their feelings and perceptions. Most of their vocabulary work is drawn directly from the readings so that new language has a context. All students read outside books, and most do not need to be prodded.

As middle school students mature, so does their curriculum. Beginning in the sixth grade, students think less literally, discuss abstract issues, move further away from immediate experience, and explore more subtly what motivates characters. Many students of this age, especially seventh and eighth graders, have a prodigious appetite for information and facts, and their capacity to take intellectual leaps grows dramatically. The readings become correspondingly more demanding, the approach to them more rigorous. While most texts are modern, many sixth graders encounter Shakespeare for the first time when they read and act A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Children in the sixth grade may read Harper Lee, Orwell, and Hansberry; many seventh graders read Macbeth and Annie John; eighth graders continue with classics and much twentieth-century literature (e.g., Shakespeare, Black Boy, The Catcher in the Rye).

Ninth graders, entering the High School fresh and curious, encounter sophisticated literature that they discuss thematically and stylistically. They investigate stylistic devices, symbolism, structure, thematic content, historical context, and author’s philosophy. Ninth grade English is a voyage around the world, exploring novels, stories, plays, and poems from as many countries and cultures as the year will allow. A variety of narrative perspectives, content subjects, and literary styles helps expand the reader’s sense of what’s possible on the page. Chimamanda Adichie, Kazuo Ishiguro, and Zora Neale Hurtson make regular appearances, while students may also encounter stories from Pakistan, Iran, Japan, and Latin America. The students’ greatest challenge—and our goal—is to narrow the gap between the bursting of insights in class and the sculpting of ideas in writing. Translating their vivacity and intellect to paper is sustained, exacting work which they practice in numerous specific essays. Grammar and vocabulary work continues to enforce reading and writing skills.

Sophomores encounter increasingly sophisticated texts and demands on the quality of their thinking and writing through an intensive study of several genres. The tenth grade English curriculum puts special emphasis on the nature of genres and forms, with forays into drama and poetry, short fiction and the novel. Authors include Shakespeare, Morrison, Lahiri, Fitzgerald and Baldwin. Committed to a high level of skills in reading, grammar, and especially essay-making, we have created a writing conference for sophomores—a fifth class period in which small groups of six to eight students polish skills and work on individual writing problems.

The elective program for juniors and seniors presents students with flexible but demanding courses engendered by teachers’ passions and studies. In selecting a course the student accepts responsibility for its content and our standards. Electives offer depth and breadth in the study of literature and writing from a range of historical periods and genres. For 2021-2022 students chose full-year courses from the following titles: American to Me; The Art of Hell; Black Literature: A Survey of the Strange and the Marvelous; Existentialism; Food Lit; Foreigners; Freedom and Belonging; Growing Up Female; House Divided; Magical Realism; Tragicomedy. The junior-senior essay, a critical paper or series of papers growing from the course work, is a major enterprise of the elective years.

While writing in the High School is predominantly nonfiction in most classes, we encourage and exult in our students’ creative work. Every English class participates in a week-long writing marathon, and all courses are threaded with creative assignments. Several times a year we invite published writers to read their work to high school students. Recently, we have had the honor of hosting such distinguished authors as Tommy Orange, Yaa Gyasi, Tayari Jones, Major Jackson, and Jennifer Egan. We exhort students to submit their best work to national contests and to the Saint Ann’s Literary Magazine, whose student staff meets in a seminar to select the contents and compose the book. At the end of the year the entire high school gathers at the Student-Faculty Reading. We read to each other, celebrate the writer and the writing, remember why we are here, and leave for the summer renewed and hungry for more.