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 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.

  • English Language (AP)

    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.

    Prerequisites:

    To be eligible, a student has to have earned a B+ or above in first semester of English 2

  • English Literature (AP)

    AP Literature is a yearlong exploration of the human psyche and consciousness on the written page and its impact on modern culture. Students will delve into a range of evocative novels, plays, poems, and short stories so as to deepen their reading and analytical skills and to gain a greater appreciation of literature. Interpretation will be honed through longer take home analytical essays, class facilitations, and sustained class discussion in which student grapple with multiple perspectives. In addition, students will work towards perfecting the craft of timed expository writing as part of their preparation for the AP and SAT exams. This course is aimed at students interested in exploring great books and taking on greater independence as thinkers, readers and writers.

    Prerequisites:

    To be eligible, a student has to have earned a B+ or above in first semester of English 2

  • Contemporary Global Literature (H)/1S

    Instuctor: Wilson Taylor

    What is global literature? Why is it important, and what does it mean, to read the diverse literatures of our global contemporary? How does literature interact with historical and contemporary global issues, including the legacies of colonialism and post-colonialism? In what ways can literary narratives be political, even revolutionary? What is the legacy and responsibility of the United States in these questions and in these narratives? Through poetry, short stories, and novels by contemporary global writers — including Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Teju Cole, Zadie Smith, Junot Díaz, and Jhumpa Lahiri — this course interrogates concepts of personal and national identity (including questions of race, gender, religion, and language); globalization and global issues; colonialism, post-colonialism, Orientalism, and cosmopolitanism; immigration and assimilation; as well as the complex positioning of the United States in our global contemporary.

    Prerequisites:

    To be eligible, a student has to have earned an B+ or above in first semester AP English or permission of the instructor.

  • Dangerous Ideas/ 1S

    Instructor: Maren Adler

    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 or see? To what extent should society challenge, restrict, or outright preclude its citizens from access to “dangerous” ideas and who should decide? This course will take up these questions and more as we grapple with books that depict cultural, sexual and religious taboos. Students can expect to engage with a wide range of controversial novels, plays, and films (including Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov, We Need To Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver, Angels in America by Tony Kushner, and Suddenly, Last Summer by Tennessee Williams) all of which have been either challenged or banned. In addition to thoughtful reading and discussion of anchor texts, we will also develop our comparative analysis skills by incorporating anthropology, psychology, legal studies, and philosophy to help us understand and wade through the ethical dilemmas these texts generate.

  • Freak Character in American Culture(H)/1S

    Instructor: Margaret Ramsey

    The label of “freak” is a culturally relative term, marbled with overtones ranging from fascination and titillation, to repulsion and hatred, and even, ironically, to camaraderie and acceptance.

    In American culture, the freak show has a long, storied, and rich history, full of sociological and psychological implications. This course will explore the ways in which American artists have used the freak character as a means of critiquing, exploring, and celebrating the tension between our country’s diverse society and collective fear of “the other.” We will begin by establishing a sense for the historical and sociological context of the freak show in America and look at the freak character as depicted and promoted through the circus. Then, students will apply the theory of the freak character to more nuanced texts in which the “freak” character becomes an abstraction used to explore issues such as race, gender, sexuality, age, and disease. Material will include several theoretical and sociological texts, novels Geek Love by Katherine Dunn and The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison, films Freaks and Hedwig and the Angry Inch, and several short stories and current articles. As this is an honors class, students should expect more reading and writing and more challenging assignments than in the regular senior electives.

    Prerequisites:

    To be eligible, a student has to have earned an B+ or above in first semester AP English or permission of the instructor.

  • Investigations/ 1S

    Instructor: Cara Plamondon

    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. Additionally, we will read a variety of longer social/political commentaries on relevant topics from publications including 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!

  • Keepin’ It Real Fake: Who Are We Really/1S

    Instructor: Jesse Brugos

    How does society influence human behavior? To what extent does an individual’s biological make-up account for his/her identity? Does the pursuit of the “America Dream” lead individuals and groups to mask their true selves? This course will focus on contemporary representations of race, class, gender, and sexuality in the United States, and the diverse ways in which human identity is constructed. As we “read America,” students will explore their own voice and compose their own memoir. Major texts include Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides, The Human Stain by Philip Roth, Two or Three Things I know for Sure (summer reading) by Dorothy Allison.

  • Magical Realism/ 1S

    Instructor: Tyson Morgan

    In 19th-century Austria-Hungary, a traveling salesman–a true nobody–wakes up and discovers that he’s turned into a cockroach. In 19th century Russia, a bureaucrat loses his nose, only to have it reappear later as a full-fledged human being who’s distinct from him–and who’s of a higher rank than him. In 20th-century Central America, as part of a trade deal, an ocean is hauled off from its native shores. In the Civil Rights-era U.S, a young African American man discovers that he has the power to fly.

     

    These are the premises of just a few of the stories we’ll read in this course. We’ll read works by several major magical realist writers–Franz Kafka, Toni Morrison, Haruki Murakami, Clarice Lispector, Gabriel Garcia Marquez–and we’ll constantly investigate what exactly magical realism is. Which political and social contexts tend to give rise to the genre? Why is the genre generally considered more serious than your typical fantasy or science fiction story–and should it be considered more serious? How has the genre crossed over to films such as Pan’s Labyrinth or Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, or to last year’s FX series Atlanta? And where do we see the genre going–how will it continue to help certain groups tell their stories?

     

    Analytical writing will form the backbone of this course, but there will also be some low-pressure opportunities to write creatively, adapting magical realist techniques, and to reflect personally on your own position in relation to these works. Here’s our likely reading list:

     

    The Metamorphosis, a novella by Franz Kafka

    Song of Solomon, a novel by Toni Morrison

    Autumn of the Patriarch, a novel by Gabriel Garcia Marquez

    The Handmaid’s Tale, a novel by Margaret Atwood

    The Hour of the Star, a novella by Clarice Lispector

    Magical Realist Fiction, a short story anthology

    Atlanta, a television series produced by Donald Glover

    Pan’s Labyrinth, a film

    Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, a film

  • Seafaring Literature/ 1S

    Instructor: Jude Morris

    Across history, accounts of exploration set at sea have fascinated authors and audiences alike. In addition to being a territory rich with adventure, seafaring settings enable writers to explore the boundaries of imagination, the psyche, and the human spirit.  This course surveys a variety of stories, novels, and poems set at sea, and psychological, political, and societal themes within this genre.  Primary texts: Rime of the Ancient Mariner (Coleridge), Benito Cereno (Melville), Lord Jim (Conrad), The Old Man and the Sea (Hemingway), Through the Panama (Lowry), All is Lost (Redford, film), and various short stories and poems. 

  • The Essay Reimagined: From Criticism to Comedy 1S

    Instructor: Nick Romeo

     

    The essay is a vast and sprawling genre that comprises a broader variety of forms and possibilities than most people realize. High schoolers in particular could understandably believe that essays exist exclusively as vehicles for mandated literary analysis and strained attempts to get into college. This course is an attempt to broaden students’ notion of the essay. It introduces students to the form’s varied possibilities by sampling some excellent examples from many styles and traditions. Each week we will read one or two essays, discuss how and why they are interesting or compelling, and practice writing short pieces that emulate some of the successful features of these essays. From Mark Twain to Virginia Woolf to David Hume and Bertrand Russell, the readings span the philosophical, the comic, the personal, and the frankly unclassifiable.

  • Wilderness & American Identity 1S

    It is impossible to remain indifferent in the face of the American wilderness. Frightened by its indifference toward human life, pioneers sought to “tame” it. Puritan settlers believed they should subdue the dark, heathen forest and cultivate in its place “a new Eden.” From the comfort of their cities, Romantics fetishized America’s wild, dramatic vistas, and nationalists celebrated the possibility of a national identity rooted in our unique American landscape. Even as the Industrial Revolution drove Americans into cities, we turned to sweeping portraits of places like Yosemite and Yellowstone to reassure ourselves that, yes, this was America, and we were all cowboys at heart. These ideas of wildness and the frontier are so entangled in the American identity that we still cannot relinquish the dream of them, even if the U.S. Census declared the frontier “closed” 124 years ago and even if less than 3% of the land in the contiguous United States is today considered “wilderness” at all. In this interdisciplinary course (part history, part ethics, part literature), we will use primarily nonfiction texts to explore America’s relationship with its own geography–how it has changed and how it hasn’t—since the project of non-native American settlement began.

  • Adolescence (Re)imagined/ 2S

    Instructor: Maren Adler

    High school is a pivotal time, containing the messy, personal, and (yes, sometimes) euphoric rite of passage known simply as “adolescence.” Given the extremity of this developmental period, it’s no surprise that artists continue to return to the teenage experience in their work. Ironically, though, few stories about teenage life are created by actual teenagers; whether it’s Gossip Girl or Beverly Hills 90210, these narratives often struggle to portray the authentic reality of their young characters. This course therefore seeks to empower students to reclaim their experiences by exposing them to visual and written narratives about teenage life (such as The Breakfast Club, and The Perks of Being Wallflower) so that they can develop their own stories. We will begin by critically examining the stereotypes and tropes that often represent teenage life, then move into reading and viewing the novels, films, and TV shows that give voice to more traditionally marginalized teenage experiences. Throughout, we will also consider the historical and sociological forces that have impacted the American teenager throughout the last century. Students will end the course by developing a creative project about teenage life (such as a one-act play, short story, pitch for a TV show, or section of a graphic novel), so as to commemorate their own high school experiences before they graduate.

  • The Art of the Essay 2S

    Instructor: Whitney Newton

     

    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.

  • Dystopian Fiction and Film/2S

    Instructor: Cara Plamondon

    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 authors. Students will explore the political and social climate that prompted the authors to generate their narratives and the current, cultural conversations that emerge from these texts. Literature selections include:  “Harrison Bergeron” by Kurt Vonnegut and George Orwell’s 1984. In addition, students will view and analyze mise-en-scene techniques of notable dystopian films, both classic and contemporary, by Academy Award-Winning Directors: Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, Alfonso Cuaron’s Children of Men, and Stephen Spielberg’s Minority Report.

  • Fiction Workshop/ 2S

    Instructor: Tyson Morgan

    In this course, you’ll be exposed to various forms of published fiction and try out various techniques of the craft. Most importantly, you’ll be sharing your own original, full-length stories in a workshop format. We’ll ask ourselves what makes for engaging sentences, dialogue, characterization, and plot, and how stories can take the form of legal depositions or how-to manuals. We’ll read a bit of science- and detective fiction, and we’ll also see what we can adapt from poetry and nonfiction. Expect to read and write constantly—we’ll do quite a few in-class exercises—and to feel very invested in your peers and their work by the end of the semester. Our major texts are listed below, but you’ll also be given handouts of various smaller pieces, from writers such as the following: Leo Tolstoy, William Faulkner, Katherine Anne Porter, Aleksandar Hemon, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, J.M. Coetzee, Raymond Carver, Jhumpa Lahiri, Edward P. Jones, Ryszard Kapuscinski, and Alice Oswald.

     

    Texts may include the following:

     

    The Dew Breaker by Edwidge Danticat, a collection of linked short stories

    Drown by Junot Diaz, a collection of short stories

    Missing Person by Patrick Modiano, a short novel

    The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway, a novella

    The Art of Fiction by John Gardner, essays on fiction writing technique

  • Lyric and Lifeline 2S

    Instructor: Margaret Ramsey

     Hip hop is a cultural force and a way of life. Our course will begin with a focused study of different elements of hip hop while exploring the early history of the genre, major “Old School” artists, and key social contexts. The second half of the course will put that background study to work as we conduct a deep dive on Kendrick Lamar’s albums (Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City, To Pimp a Butterfly and DAMN). Key themes in the course will include (but are by no means limited to) issues such as the relationship between self and community; the historical contexts influencing our current social and political atmosphere; youth culture; sexuality; class dynamics; economic disparity; the Black Lives Matter movement; incarceration; violence; the treatment of Black Bodies; mental health; death; and the power of intersectional art.


    As there is “no text without context,” students will be challenged to understand the poetics, narratives, and implications of the tracks through a variety of supplemental materials spanning several genres (fiction, non-fiction, poetry, sociology, history, film, documentary). In particular, students will kick off the course with Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me and “The Case for Reparations.” Students will also engage in a variety of writing assignments as a means of exploring their connection to, and understanding of, the artists’ themes and implications. No prior knowledge of hip hop is required for this course, and students are afforded the opportunity to write about artists and tracks beyond the ones we study in class.

  • Pop Novels/ Cult Films/ 2S

    Instructor: Jude Morris

    Hollywood enjoys a long history of adapting classical books to film.  Especially over the last 25 years, a good number of movies have been released that share the spirit and themes of the original novels they are based on, but completely update their story, settings, and characters into Americanized “pop culture” milieus.  The class will explore these forms of interplay between book and film, pop culture and literature, and creativity and entertainment.  We’ll read the original source novels in conjunction with their film adaptations, and study how meaning and artistic merit migrate between cultures and genres.  Primary film and book pairings include: Emma by Jane Austen and Clueless, Frankenstein by Mary Shelley and Edward Scissorhands, Don Quixote by Cervantes and King of California, Pygmalion by Shaw and She’s All That + My Fair Lady, and various other excerpts from novels and films.   

  • Science and Literature 2S

    Instructor: Nick Romeo

     

    Darwin read Dickens and Dickens read Darwin. The novelist Cormac McCarthy spends much of his time reading in the history of mathematics and science. These are just two examples of the rich interchange between science and literature. This course will explore how ideas from Darwin and Einstein influenced fiction in the
    20th century. We will read selections from Darwin and Einstein as well as novels by H.G. Wells, Philip K. Dick, and Cormac McCarthy.

  • Shakespeare/2S

    instructor: Wilson Taylor

    “A monument without a tomb,” wrote Ben Jonson, Shakespeare is “not of an age, but for all time.” Though William Shakespeare died four hundred years ago, the Bard continues to live with us — and we continue to live in a world informed by (in some sense, staged by) Shakespeare. In this class, we will study and explore three of Shakespeare’s plays and some sonnets, considering how Shakespeare speaks both to his time and our own. Through Shakespeare’s exquisite and exhaustive language, we will engage varieties of human experience while exploring selfhood and identity, life and death, love and hate, good and evil, heroes and villains, courage and cowardice, communities and kingdoms, and beyond. Class time will include both close reading and performance, and we’ll also enjoy contemporary adaptations of Shakespeare’s plays and try to attend at least one theatrical performance. 

  • The Stories We Tell/ 2S

    Instructor: Jesse Brugos

    Our study will begin in West Africa as we study the art of storytelling and the history of the oral tradition. We will read and listen to a variety of traditional African stories, and then, students will become Griots (storytellers) and craft their own African Tale. As we journey through the diaspora, we will examine the human experience as well as issues of race, identity, and belonging in the global landscapes. We will study a variety of genres—including fiction, poetry, film, and music in order to gain a deeper understanding of the diversity of cultures, beliefs, and perspectives of people.  A study of African and Caribbean culture would be incomplete without food, so as we devour the texts, we will sample the various cuisines! Texts will include and a Course Reader (a collection of short stories, essays, and poetry) as well as independent novel of choice).  The final project for this course will be a children’s book.