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.  Timed writing and analyzing previously unseen texts further challenge students’ reading literacy and writing fluency.   Students gain an appreciation of how texts relate to the world around them and to their own lives.  By spring, students will develop facility with inter-textual analysis, both within and outside of the text, identify “cultural conversations” that emerge, and more precisely analyze how meaning is cultivated in a text.

  • English 3: Rebels

    We are 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 on the bus.  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 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, 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.


    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.


    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.


    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.


    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 students’ understanding of what’s happening in the world around us and have them enter into the conversations about it by exploring: Who’s writing about it, what they’re saying about it, and why it’s important. 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.

  • 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. 

  • 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

  • Lyric and Lifeline

    NOTE: This will be a Spring course. 

    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.  

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • Epic Spring-The Odyssey/ 2S

    Instructor: Margaret Ramsey

    Enhance the epic nature of your senior spring by studying one!  Really, you shouldn’t leave high school without taking a tour through a classic hero’s journey! The Odyssey has influenced Western culture and literature for over 2,700 years and is a story with immense power to connect disparate people and cultures through its inherently human themes ranging from the quest for home, what it means to be a hero, grief, pride, love, and lust.  The primary goal of the course is to read and enjoy Homer’s The Odyssey.  As we move through the material, we will also pause to explore and assess the ways in which the epic has influenced other artists.  Thus, our study will span several centuries, places, and genres in order to garner a sense of the ways in which different artists manipulate the common story of The Odyssey in order to make statements about their respective cultures, their interpretations of the characters, or their conceptions

    of the human experience.


    Core text:  The Odyssey translated by Fagels.  Potential additional selections: Margaret Atwood’s Penelopiad; Zachary Mason’s Missing Books of the Odyssey; Walcott’s Caribbean‐based Odyssey; the Cohen brothers’ “O’ Brother, Where Art Thou?”; and Tim Burton’s “Big Fish.”

  • 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

  • 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.   

  • Ralph Waldo Emerson: The Wise Silence/2S

    Instructor: Margaret Ramsey

    How does one convey the experience and wisdom of the soul? In this course, we will conduct an intimate study of the writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882), a key author in American history and one of the founding fathers of the Transcendentalism movement. Transcendentalism was both an intellectual and a cultural movement that continues to influence our American philosophy and sense of self. Deeply tied to nature and the inherent genius of being, the transcendental ethos is invested in the individuality, worth, and truth of each being. Students will primarily study Emerson’s major pieces (“Nature,” “Self-Reliance,” “The Over-Soul,” “Experience,” “Circles,” “The American Scholar,” and more) as well as a few selected pieces from others in the Transcendentalist Club like Thoreau and modern-day writers influenced by transcendental thought. Emerson’s essays will inspire both deep personal reflection and thoughtful, philosophical analysis on the nature of the human spirit and capacity.

  • 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.