Upper School English

Menlo School’s library features “This I Believe” student writings. Photo by Pete Zivkov.

Reading. Writing. Thinking.

The English Department offers a curriculum rich in reading, writing, and discussion, from world literature to senior seminars. Our top goals include:

  • Emphasizing the link between close reading and interpretive/analytical writing
  • Enhancing students’ knowledge, understanding, and appreciation of literature of diverse cultures
  • Helping students communicate complicated ideas both orally and in writing
  • Helping students contextualize literature based on historical and political influences and realize the connections to contemporary issues
  • Encouraging students’ lifelong pleasure in reading and writing

Meet our Upper School English faculty.

CourseS

  • English 1

    English 1 students will work to establish their authorial voices while focusing on both reading and writing as active processes. In the fall, students will write a variety of expository pieces in order to deepen their awareness of their own opinions and values. Students then position themselves within larger cultural dialogues as we work on academic and literary arguments based on short stories, novellas, novels, and dramatic works. This practice will deepen their ability to recognize literary devices and will refine their ability to write logically and to support claims with evidence. Finally, students end the year with a focused study of rhetoric using op-ed pieces, speeches, plays, and fiction as inspiration. Students will become familiar with the fundamentals of grammar and punctuation, which they will practice throughout the year; they will also build their vocabularies through structured weekly practice.

  • English 2

    English 2 builds upon the foundation of English 1 in writing, reading, and grammatical instruction. Students will experience enhanced independence in crafting the structure of their writing, as well as develop greater complexity, specificity, and personal voice. Developing timed writing strategies further challenges students’ reading literacy and writing fluency. English 2’s curricular focus on American Literature produces many interdisciplinary opportunities with the History Department. Students gain an appreciation of how texts relate to the world around them and to their own lives. By spring, students will more precisely analyze how meaning is cultivated in a text, develop facility with inter-textual analysis, both within and outside of the text, and identify “cultural conversations” that emerge from our readings.

  • English 3: Rebels

    We’re all, to some degree, drawn to the idea of a rebel. Rebels are memorable. Rosa Parks became one of America’s most important rebels by refusing to give up her seat. Mark Zuckerberg committed an act of social rebellion when he dropped out of Harvard sophomore year to focus his career aspirations on the creation of what is now Facebook. The most memorable characters we know strayed from the norm in some courageous, even noble, way: Atticus Finch’s defense of Tom Robinson, Romeo’s and Juliet’s pursuit of forbidden love, Katniss Everdeen’s refusal to play the Hunger Games the way the Game-makers envisioned.

    In this course, we will explore the role of the “rebel” in society, largely through the core textual and film selections including Ken Kesey’s counter-culture classic, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Jon Krakauer’s Into the Wild, Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novel The Handmaid’s Tale and the film The Shawshank Redemption. We will examine how the social forces at play in these works provide us with insight into the society we live in now: here at Menlo, in Silicon Valley, in the United States.

  • AP English Language

    The purpose of AP Language is to prepare students to “write effectively and confidently in their college courses across the curriculum and in their professional and personal lives” (AP College Board Course Description). This rigorous course focuses on nonfiction writing, and students will become more proficient and comfortable both reading and producing complex pieces from a variety of fields (science, philosophy, popular culture, gender studies, etc.) and genres (e.g. essays, research, journalism, political writing, speeches, biography and autobiography, history, criticism). Students should expect to write frequently and in a variety of modes, since the course intends to develop their own awareness of audience, purpose and composing strategies. The course avoids a thematic or chronological approach in order to focus on essential reading, writing, and thinking skills involved in the study of rhetoric and composition.

    Prerequisite: To be eligible, a student has to have earned an A- or above in the first semester of English 2.

  • AP English Literature

    Designed as an inclusive survey course that covers literature ranging from the infernal world of Dante and the Shakespearean universe to poetry written in 2021, AP Lit is a playspace for students who are excited about vivid works of fiction that represent diverse voices, styles, and eras. We write frequent, short response papers of typically 1-2 pages in order to gain comfort with shorter-form writing and draw meaning from complex poems, plays, short stories, and novels that speak to the human condition. Beyond those noted above, authors will traditionally include T.S. Eliot, Ralph Ellison, William Faulkner, Yaa Gyasi, Jhumpa Lahiri, Toni Morrison, Mary Oliver, Olive Senior, Mary Shelley, Amy Tan, Voltaire, Richard Wilbur, and Tennessee Williams, to name just some. We also integrate film, music, and art study into our work in order to consider narrative structure, tone, setting, characterization, and symbolism from new and unusual angles. AP Lit is ideal for students who love reading and enjoy robust discussion, literary analysis, and deep philosophical inquiry.

    Prerequisite: To be eligible, a student has to have earned an A- or above in the first semester of English 2.

  • Contemporary Global Literature: Stories from the Other Side (H) (1S)

    How does someone other than yourself view an object, interpret a text, see the world, and understand their place in it? What does it mean to be a “global citizen,” and why is it important to read the diverse literatures of our global contemporary? In what ways can literary narratives be political, even revolutionary? In addressing these questions, this course uses contemporary global literature to examine concepts of personal and national identity formation. It will challenge students to understand how global literary forms not only reflect social values and norms, but also challenge and reconstitute them with crucial implications for gender, ethnicity, national identity, and our complex positioning in this global contemporary. In doing so, we delve into the works of numerous non-Western authors such as Chimananda Ngozi Adichie, Pablo Neruda, Junot Díaz, and Jhumpa Lahiri; furthermore, we decipher critical theory texts from the likes of Ferdinand de Saussure, Viet Thanh Nguyen, Michel Foucault, Frantz Fanon, W.E.B. Du Bois, Judith Butler, and Edward Said.

    Instructor: Mr. King

    Prerequisite: Senior honors prerequisite is an A- from an AP or permission of English 3 teacher.

  • Dangerous Ideas: Insanity in Film & Society (H) (1S)

    Societies are built on the assumption that their citizens will work to stay within the confines of what is considered acceptable. From a young age, we are taught to control our impulses–to share, follow the rules, and generally seek to better ourselves at minimal cost to others. But what if the danger lies not solely in what we do, but also in what we think? In this course, we’ll interrogate what fictionalized portrayals of madness can teach us about both self and society. Students can expect the class to run as a college-level film and cultural studies course with an emphasis on critical theory, specific visual analysis, and the ability to think abstractly about challenging content. There will be opportunity both for class discussion and for students to develop their own theories about movies entirely free from teacher and student input, and so intellectual and emotional maturity and a willingness to take risks are required. Films we’ve done in the past have included Parasite, Fight Club, Ex Machina, Girl, Interrupted, Black Swan, Get Out, and Vertigo, and more. We’ll grapple with charming yet murderous narrators; unearth the capitalist critique in underground boxing dens; evaluate the fine line between ambitious dreamers and potential sociopaths; and analyze the experience of marginalized populations through a gothic and psychological lens. By the end of the course, you will see society with new eyes, able to marvel at the ways in which writers and filmmakers employ taboos to reveal complex critiques of our “civilized” society.

    Instructor: Ms. Jinnett

    Senior honors prerequisite is an A- from an AP or permission of English 3 teacher.

  • Investigations (1S)

    By building a course devoted to non-fiction, I hope to both broaden and challenge your understanding of what’s happening in the world around us by exploring: Who’s writing about it, what they’re saying about it, why it’s important, and to enter into the conversations that emerge out of it. First, we will explore non-fiction writing through the lens of investigative journalism, reading works on various “whistle-blower” topics and viewing two “whistle-blower” films, The Insider and Spotlight, winner of the Academy Award for best film in 2016. We will explore how the media reports on current events and read a variety of social/political commentaries on relevant topics from publications including The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, The Atlantic, Scientific American, Vanity Fair, and The Economist. As a capstone experience, you will each conduct your own in-depth investigation into a topic of your choosing. Bring your opinions!

    Instructor: Ms. Plamondon

  • Fairy Tales: Reinventing the Spinning Wheel (2S)

    “Once upon a time….” So begins perhaps the most pervasive storytelling mode in our world: that of the fairy tale. We use fairy tales as pedagogical tools for teaching values of right vs. wrong, as “means to conquer the terrors of mankind through metaphor,” and even as vehicles of resistance against the dragons we encounter every day. This course aims to immerse students deeply in the various modes of the great fairy tale tradition. It will ask students to engage their critical analysis skills as well as their creative writing skills. As scholars, we will interrogate western fairy tale canon in conjunction with non-western folklore and fairy tale tropes, “Disneyfication,” and the increasing ubiquity of fairy tales in contemporary pop culture. As creative writers, we will emphasize becoming “chefs” rather than “cooks,” intentionally using elements of narrative and poetic form and content to create specific effects in our creative retellings.

    Instructor: Mr. King

  • Cafe Society: Paris ’20s & ’30s (1S)

    Paris enjoyed a thriving arts and literary scene in the interwar years, attracting many American intellectuals to live and work in the famed City of Light. Writers such as Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, James Baldwin and Gertrude Stein, as well as jazz musicians and stage performers converged in Parisian cafes, bookstores, and nightclubs. In this course, we’ll read a selection of American expatriate writers associated with the “Lost Generation” and the Harlem Renaissance. We’ll explore the vibrant intellectual and cultural scene of Paris, including visual artists, musicians, and performers. As a culminating project, we will host a cultural salon, in which each student will assume the persona of a literary figure of the time period. At the end of the semester, we’ll watch Woody Allen’s nostalgic comedy, Midnight in Paris, a film full of references to the writers, artists and thinkers who left their indelible mark on this beautiful city.

    Instructor: Dr. Longust

  • Gothic South (1S)

    “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” -William Faulkner

    As the summer of 2020 made abundantly clear, even 159 years after Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, slavery and its effects continue to haunt this country like uneasy ghosts that still cannot find rest. The American South remains particularly impacted by the institution of chattel slavery; thus, its literary canon, in particular, is haunted by ghosts (literal and metaphorical) and marked by a compulsive need to look backward to somehow make sense of this monstrous sin that we (Americans)–Or is it they (Southerners)?–committed. This course will explore the region itself and our national relationship to it through the extraordinary fiction that continues to emerge from the former plantations, cotton fields, swamps, towns, and cities of the American South. Novels and short stories will comprise the bulk of our reading, accompanied by some theory and even some country music lyrics. Note that this course is not for the faint of heart. Authors may include Edgar Allen Poe, Charles Chesnutt, William Faulkner, Erskine Caldwell, Eudora Welty, Flannery O’Connor, Jesmyn Ward, and Suzan-Lori Parks, among others. The course aims to expand your imaginative schema of the region, to challenge your assumptions about it, and to help you cultivate a relationship with a part of the United States whose fate remains integrally entangled with ours.

    Instructor: Ms. Newton

  • Modernist Poetry Workshop: Verse in a Burning World (2S)

    The first decades of the twentieth century represented a major inflection point in world history, as the comfortable traditions of previous centuries crumbled in the face of accelerating social and technological change. This is the period that gave birth to the literary revolution we call Modernism, which sought radically new forms of expression in order to articulate the human experience in an increasingly inhumane and unpredictable world. Today we stand at the dawn of a similarly tumultuous new age, and this course will examine the works of the Modernist poets as inspiration for our own poetic innovation. Students will analyze a wide range of Modernist poetry and experiment with various poetic techniques as they compile a portfolio of their own verse throughout the semester.

    Instructor: Mr. Bush

  • Global Mythologies The Journey Inward (1S)

    We are a species of mythmakers, and thus our societies are founded in and dependent upon shared narratives. Whether we call them myths, legends, or religions, these narratives reveal much about the human mind and our global cultural heritage. This course will provide a wide-ranging exploration of myths across time and space, from the ancient Indian Vedic texts to West African cosmologies to the stories of the Greco-Roman pantheon and Biblical accounts. Examining various traditions through a comparative lens will help us to better understand the origins of our supposedly modern cultures and provide insight into our continued reliance on shared mythological narratives.

    Instructor: Mr. Bush

  • The Art of the Essay (2S)

    If the thought of writing another closed-form analytical essay causes you to convulse in fear, you should probably take this class. We will spend all semester experimenting with alternative essay structures, reading, analyzing, and mimicking work by some of the great essayists of the 20th and 21st centuries. We will steal the best storytelling tricks from the fiction writer’s toolkit, and we will borrow strategies of persuasion from classical and contemporary rhetoricians. The course will be built on the workshop model, meaning that you will have to be both brave and nice: over the course of the semester, each student will courageously share his/her original work and will respectfully respond to the work of peers. Expect to be reading, writing, and critiquing constantly, but also expect to kind of sickly enjoy it.

    Instructor: Ms. Newton

  • Dystopian Fiction and Film (2S)

    With the re-emergence of dystopian fiction as the most popular genre for young readers, students will be exposed to dystopian classics that paved the way for more contemporary works. Students will explore the political and social climate that compelled writers to generate their narratives as well as the current, cultural conversations that emerge from these texts. Literature selections include: “Harrison Bergeron” by Kurt Vonnegut and George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. In addition, students will view and analyze mise-en-scene techniques of notable dystopian films and shows, both classic and contemporary, including Steven Spielberg’s Minority Report, Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, and selected episodes of the acclaimed British television series Black Mirror. Students will generate personal and social commentaries, a presentation of a dystopian film, and a research-based, capstone paper with the working title “1984 and Today’s Society.”

    Instructor: Ms. Plamondon

  • Delight: Celebrating the Small Wonders of Life (2S)

    When we think of delight or wonder, we might think of extraordinary, “mountain top” experiences, but the truth is that peak, high-intensity moments do not comprise most of our daily existence. Our lives are, in fact, made up of thousands of small moments that are easy to overlook in the business of living. By more closely noticing and savoring these moments, we might enrich our daily existence immensely. Poet W.B. Yeats wrote, “The world is full of magic things, patiently waiting for our senses to grow sharper.”

    In this class, we’ll encounter writers, poets, filmmakers, and artists who celebrate the small joys and ordinary wonders of their everyday lives. We will build a practice of noticing and documenting our own experiences of daily delight. Over the course of the semester, students will write a series of short reflections in different genres (essays, poems, maybe even song lyrics) about the humble pleasures in their lives. Poet Ross Gay calls this “scrounging for delight” and honing our “delight radar.” At the end of the semester, each student will curate the best of their reflections and compile them into a personal “Book of Delights” to serve as a keepsake or bestow as a (delightful) gift to someone else.

    Instructor: Dr. Longust

  • Poetry Writing Workshop (1S)

    Rip out the printed page. Riot with your words. Write the world as you wish it to be. In this workshop, we won’t just read world-changing poetry; we’ll author it. Whether you’re getting in touch with your inner poet or simply seeking new ways of communicating gracefully, this course is for you. You will train in a wide array of literary techniques that will spark your imagination and transform your language. The structure of each class meeting will vary from day to day and will include poetry critiques, surrealist games, reading discussions, collaborative writing activities, and publication workshops.

    Instructor: Dr. Blumenthal

  • Medicine and Narrative (2S)

    When it comes to the human body, scientific knowledge and narrative knowledge are seemingly at odds. The former demands dispassionate, objective observation; the latter invests our genome with the DNA of imaginative literature: symbol, image, metaphor. Yet clinical medicine cannot be practiced without a narrative patient history, and medical knowledge seems to strive for the archetypal shape of narrative: the medical crisis is a narrative “climax” of sorts that must be “resolved” by a cure. This course invites you to discover new ways of thinking about the relation between medicine and the humanities through close readings of memoir, fiction, poetry, essays, and media, as well as medical and scientific treatises. As you gain familiarity with topics such as disease and illness, disability, gender and sexuality, the human body, doctor-patient relationships, science and technology, equity in healthcare, pain, and bioethics, you will fashion original theories of narrative and healing at the vanguard of this emerging interdisciplinary field. This elective is designed equally for STEM students who are interested in healthcare and for humanities students interested in themes of malady, body, and identity.

    Instructor: Dr. Blumenthal

  • Intro to Playwriting (2S)

    Are you an actor or avid theatergoer? Do you consume films like they’re candy? Or have you ever wondered what it would feel like to see a real audience react to your words and ideas? Then this course is for you! We’ll spend our time exploring all the various ways that playwrights have used dramatic storytelling to portray such wide ranging topics as race and identity in America; the development of the atomic bomb; and the link between mental health and mathematical proofs (to name a sample few). Class will be designed around active participation and include a mix of reading plays out loud to discern why they are effective, playing games to loosen up our creative minds and bodies, and reading and putting our work-in-progress on its feet. By the end of the course, you will have been exposed to a wide range of playwrights from diverse backgrounds so that you can develop a portfolio of your own material to share with an authentic audience. Please be ready to laugh, take risks, play games, and read plays in the redwoods as often as the weather allows. 

    Instructor: Ms. Jinnett

  • Lyric and Lifeline (2S)

    Hip hop is a powerful, energetic, and evolving global culture. This course begins by exploring hip hop’s origin story from a historical, political, spiritual, and economic perspective. Then, we study the evolution of hip hop by examining major early artists, tracks, and stylistic elements. Finally, we close out the course with a deep-dive into Kendrick Lamar’s seminal albums: “Good Kid, M.A.A.D City” and “To Pimp a Butterfly”. As there is “no text without context,” students will also engage a variety of supplemental materials. In particular, students will read Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me, a spectacular book that came out in 2015, the same year as “TPAB”, to facilitate many thematic connections. This course does not require any prior understanding of hip hop or rap. The writing for this class allows students to approach hip hop culture from several angles as a means of exploring their connection to, and understanding of, the artists’ themes and implications.

    Instructor: Ms. Ramsey

  • East Asian Pop Culture: Anime, Kung Fu, & K-Pop (1S)

    This course aims to develop an aesthetic, historical, cultural, and philosophical understanding of various media forms in East Asian pop culture. We will study television, print media, film, and popular music in Japan, China, and South Korea. Course units will focus specifically on: (1) Japanese manga and anime & their reception in the West; (2) Chinese martial arts film; and (3) Korean dramas and popular music. We explore how these cultural products, having emerged largely through the combination of traditional and global forms of culture, have in turn profoundly affected popular culture around the globe. In addition to developing a shared scholarly vocabulary for critical discourse on film and contemporary critical theory, we will use an interdisciplinary approach to the study of culture to gain skills to speak and write with intelligence about the diverse perspectives we bring to our understanding, interpretation, and emotional response to pop culture artifacts.

    Instructor: Mr. King