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.


  • 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

    I think 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 Meta. The most memorable characters we know strayed from the norm” in some courageous, even noble, way: Atticus Finch’s defense of Tom Robinson, Romeo 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 Shakespeare to poetry written in the 2020s, 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 Margaret Atwood, Flannery O’Connor, Nella Larsen, Seamus Heaney, Paul Laurence Dunbar, Toni Morrison, Mary Oliver, Olive Senior, Joyce Carol Oates, Octavia Butler, Karen Russell, Sylvia Plath, and Emily Dickinson, to name just a few. 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.

  • On Being (1S)

    In this course, we will seek to capture and convey the wisdom found in the human condition. Our units will take on some of the major facets of life: joy, growth, loss, grief, despair, belonging, curiosity, connection, solitude, nature, and more. A wide selection of essays, poems, podcasts, short films, and art from authors, creators, activists, and leaders of different eras and backgrounds will inspire students as they work to hone in on, and articulate, their own life philosophies. Our study and our time together is designed to inspire deep reflection and the thoughtful development of a personal connection with our values and experiences. Flannery O’Connor is quoted as saying, “I write to discover what I know.” Likewise, students in On Being will write reflective weekly journals as a way to build towards crafted personal essays that express their particular wisdom with style and purpose. Our writing, like our reading and discussion, will be exploratory in the name of discovering our wisdom about living what Mary Oliver reminds us is our “one wild and precious life.”

    Instructor: Ms. Ramsey

  • Odysseys (1S)

    Countless literary and cultural motifs can be traced back directly to Homer’s epic poem The Odyssey, and this course aims to do just that. Whether we speak of Campbell’s somewhat problematic “Hero’s Journey,” coming of age, the nostos (homecoming), hubris (overweening pride), temptation, or sacrifice, The Odyssey has it all. What is more, there is probably no single text that has been more frequently and creatively reimagined in all its complexity, whether retold from another perspective (as in Maragaret Atwood’s Penelopiad) or completely transformed (as in Stanley Weinbaum”s A Martian Odyssey or Arthur Clarke’s and Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey). This course aims to help students to read ancient Greek epic poetry closely and critically in English translation; to understand it in its social, historical, material, religious, and performance contexts; to relate the cultures which produced it to our contemporary culture in its diversity; to speak and write clearly and coherently about the issues that emerge from critical reading and comparison of cultures. Most days will be occupied by Socratic-/seminar-style discussion of assigned readings and/or viewings, and the course will be capped by a research project in which students either analyze a modern text with Odyssean echoes not covered in class or write an original short story (screenplay, etc.) of their own that is informed by The Odyssey and/or other texts that have followed in its rich tradition in the almost three millennia since its initial creation.

    Instructor: Dr. Garvey

  • 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 (H) (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

  • Modern Poetry Workshop: Verse in a Burning World (H) (1S)

    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

  • Dystopian Fiction and Film (1S)

    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 prompted the authors 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 1984.

    In addition, students will view and analyze mise-en-scene techniques of notable dystopian films and shows, both classic and contemporary, including Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, Steven Spielberg’s Minority Report, 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

  • Medicine and Narrative (1S)

    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

  • Shakespeare Now (H) (1S)

    Shakespeare’s contemporary (and rival playwright) Ben Jonson famously declared that Shakespeare “was not of an age but for all time!” What Jonson meant, I think, was that Shakespeare’s works transcended their particular time and space (London, 1588ish-1616ish) to grapple with more “universal” human themes, such as power, sexuality and gender dynamics, otherness and identity. But much of the best literary criticism in the last 40 years has shown that Shakespeare absolutely was “of his time.” And Shakespeare’s plays have also proved remarkably adaptable as history has marched forward. For hundreds of years his plays have been performed and transformed to suit very, very different moments in countries across the world: from pre-Civil War America to the postcolonial Caribbean, from Postwar Japan to post-9/11 England.

    This course engages with four plays in four different ways: Shakespeare’s Now (Historicism, where we ask about the context in which Shakespeare actually wrote and performed); Shakespeare in History (where we look at an important adaptation of a play - say, Aimé Césaire’s “A Tempest” and decolonization); Shakespeare On screen (a film, such as Kurasawa’s Ran, a rewriting of King Lear); and Shakespeare RIGHT NOW (where we put on a play and decide how to make it relevant to 2023-24). Likely plays might include As You Like It (1599), Hamlet (1600), Othello (1603-04), Measure for Measure (1604), King Lear (1606) or The Tempest (1612).

    Instructor: Dr. Warren

  • 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

  • Global Mythologies The Journey Inward (2S)

    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

  • Investigations (2S)

    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 from it. First, we will explore non-fiction writing through the lens of investigative journalism, reading works on various “whistle-blower” topics, as well as viewing a “whistle-blower” film, The Insider and Frontline’s award-winning documentary League of Denial. 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!

    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 Workshop (2S)

    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

  • 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

  • Science Fiction and the Classics (2S)

    Were you one of those kids who could never get enough Greek mythology? Or maybe Percy Jackson or The Hunger Games were more your jam. Are you an unabashed Trekkie and/or Star Wars fan? Perhaps you fancy yourself a connoisseur of more rarefied sci-fi from purists like Isaac Asimov (of Foundation and I, Robot fame) and Frank Herbert’s Dune. If any of these pique your curiosity, then this is the class for you! Many sci-fi stories we know and love today actually have their roots in ancient Greek and Roman literature. As we journey (or trek!) from antiquity to the present, we will trace the development of science fiction as a genre, uniting the ancient Greek and Roman worlds with the modern science-fiction universe. Reading assignments will be of three types: (1) primary ancient and pre-modern sources; (2) critical essays by pioneers in the field of self-conscious science-fiction writing; (3) modern science-fiction short stories, along with television shows and feature films. Most days will be occupied by Socratic-/seminar-style discussion of assigned readings and/or viewings, and the course will be capped by a research project in which students either analyze a science-fiction text not covered in class or write an original short story (screenplay, etc.) of their own that is informed by Classical texts and themes.

    Instructor: Dr. Garvey

  • Literature and Science (2S)

    Science and literature have a deep and tangled history. The Roman philosopher Lucretius, for example, wrote one of the earliest scientific treatises… in verse. This seminar looks at the relationship between these two fields as it is played out in a number of different genres. We’ll read novels by writers such as Thomas Pynchon or Octavia Butler; poetry by poets like A.R. Ammons, Jorie Graham, Percy Shelley, Tommy Pico, Franny Choi & Rosalie Moffett; and creative nonfiction about fields such as chaos theory, set theory, climate science, quantum mechanics and evolutionary biology.

    That’s half of the class—the reading and the content. The other half is about your writing. In addition to short response pieces and in-class presentations, there will be three major writing assignments: a poem or short story that engages in some way with science; a close reading of a work of literature; and your own piece of “pop-science” writing, on a topic of your choosing.

    Instructor: Dr. Warren

  • Humanities I: Renaissance (1S)

    Why do humans often look to the past as they try to envision a better future, and what role can the arts play in driving social change? There’s a reason Gatsby famously exclaims to Nick, “Can’t repeat the past? Why, of course you can!” and it’s not a fluke that Faulkner claims, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” These American authors articulate a truth about being human, and this course will explore the causes and artistic and social consequences of this backward-looking impulse. This course takes an interdisciplinary, Humanities-focused approach – using primarily artistic primary sources such as visual art, literature, and music – to understand the causes and effects of this human impulse towards reviving the past.

    The French word “Renaissance,” or rebirth, describes this revival of art forms from older times in order to move society in a better direction. Our course begins with the Italian Renaissance of the 16thC, when artists (like Michelangelo) and thinkers (such as Machiavelli) reached back to the legacy of the Ancient Greco-Roman Classical World to develop a worldview that accommodated the growing powers of people outside the traditional power centers of the Roman Catholic Church or the nobility. We then examine the concept of Renaissance in 17thC Mughal India, Ming China, and Tokugawa Japan. The course concludes with student-driven projects examining how the concept of a Renaissance nourished African-American artists and thinkers in the 20thC Harlem Renaissance (Langston Hughes is one example) and 21stC Afro-Futurist (think Black Panther) movements.

    All students will conduct research about a Renaissance of their choosing. Non-Honors students will produce an Annotated Bibliography. Honors students will create the Annotated Bibliography and write a 6-8 pg. essay.

    Instructor: Ms. Gertmenian

    Students in grades 10-12 may elect to take this course for History credit (with or without an Honors designation in History only). Students in 12th grade may elect to take this course for English credit.

  • Humanities II: Self-Portraits (2S)

    What historical factors contributed to the birth of the self-portrait as a genre in 15thC Western Europe, its explosion in popularity in the 20thC? What might be the causes and consequences of our contemporary culture’s fascination with the selfie, the memoir, and the “me”-focused podcasts, videos, and live-streams? How does this trend towards self-representation in the arts and media relate to current social justice calls for identity-based visibility and representation?

    Through the pursuit of questions about self-representation such as these, this interdisciplinary Humanities course is designed to increase students’ ability to appreciate and understand literature, the visual arts, and music, while also enhancing their research and writing (both analytical and personal) skills. In the third quarter, we first study the birth of the self-portrait during the European Renaissance c.1500. We then leap ahead to read Oscar Wilde’s queer landmark novel The Picture of Dorian Gray and learn about Freudian id and its influence on the Modernist self-portraits of the 20th-c. The 4th quarter is devoted to British feminist Virginia Woolf’s extended essay “A Room of One’s Own” (1929) and Korean-American author Michelle Zauner’s memoir Crying in H Mart (2021).

    For the culminating project, all students will create their own self-portrait (visual, written, musical, or otherwise) and write an extended, historically- and theoretically-contextualized artist statement essay to accompany their piece. Honors students’ essays will be 10-12 pgs, while non-Honors essays are 6-8 pgs.

    Instructor: Ms. Gertmenian

    Students in grades 10-12 may elect to take this course for History credit (with or without an Honors designation in History only). Students in 12th grade may elect to take this course for English credit.