Students Share Literary Odysseys

Community discusses English curricula

Students Share Literary Odysseys

Danielle Brennan, Arts Editor

Between stepping off the bus from Bivouac and receiving diplomas at graduation, Upper School (US) students read a variety of literature, from Shakespeare to contemporary works like “The Leavers” by Lisa Ko.

In English 9, freshmen read Homer’s “The Odyssey,” Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet,” and “The Leavers.” In English 10, the book list depends on their teacher, but every sophomore reads the Bible, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby,” and Shakespeare’s “Macbeth.”

Juniors read books like Jane Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice,” Julie Otsuka’s “When the Emperor Was Divine,” and Kurt Vonnegut’s “Slaughterhouse-Five,” depending on their elective and the course level; some courses include British Literature, Aliens, African American Literature: Race and Identity, and Irish Literature.

As seniors, students take two semester- long elective courses in which they read texts like Ron Rash’s “Something Rich and Strange,” Herman Melville’s “Moby Dick,” or Shakespeare’s “King Lear,” depending on the course.

US English Teacher Sharon Krauss said the upperclassmen courses aim to provide something for everyone.

“Cohesively, we aim to provide a range of choices that is both wide and deep,” she said. “We’re trying to provide this buffet of choices that will appeal to all students, challenge them, ignite their curiosity, and kindle that once it’s lit.”

The ninth-grade course leaves room for one more novel left to the teacher’s discretion, like the currently popular “Black Ice” by Lorene Cary. Tenth grade focuses on the theme of diverse and diverging voices, leaving even more room for teacher-selected work beyond the required material.

A great teacher can make literature exponentially more enjoyable, Lisa Fitzgerald ’23 said.

“I really liked having [US English Teacher Wes] Williams because he understands older literature really well and analyzes it in a way that makes it easier to understand, so you get the most out of reading it.”

Lisa said she appreciated the range of literature in freshmen and sophomore years and gained insight from both older and more contemporary works.

“I really liked reading ‘The Leavers’ because it was more relatable, and it was more present- day and contemporary versus something old-fashioned, like Shakespeare,” Lisa said. “When we read older literature, [though,] I felt like we got a lot more out of it.”

Charlie Winikoff ’24 preferred modern work to older stories with more unfamiliar language, he said.

“I didn’t like ‘The Odyssey’ because it was very confusing. I understood it; it just took a while. The language is different,” he said. “It’s also a lot of people with similar names doing similar things, which was less interesting to me.”

He noted a difference in analyzing older and more contemporary texts.

“I think older texts are written around their themes, and with contemporary work we read, the themes form around the stories,” he said.

For Sara Berz ’23, “The Great Gatsby” was a favorite, she said, even though she typically enjoys reading works of Shakespeare in class.

“[Gatsby is] different from Shakespeare in that the story and the plotline is clear because it’s historical fiction, so you know the timeline and the time period,” she said. “It’s not unfamiliar, and you can really analyze the text without as much guidance from a teacher.”

Natalie Rudnick ’23 said she wished for more common ground among the literature in underclassmen courses, just as there is in upperclassmen courses.

“Trying to find books freshman and sophomore year that connect through a common theme would be more engaging.”

The 9th and 10th grade curriculum prepares students for more informed decisions about course selection in junior and senior years, US English Teacher Akemi Ueda said.

“I like the first two years being a common curriculum and then giving students more choice because the genres we read give you an idea of different types of literature and how they’re told,” she said. “That gives you a common language and understanding to analyze literature and talk about stories. That prepares you for junior and senior year to pursue something you’re really excited about and use those tools to go into more depth on something you’re interested in.”

Laura Cox ’22, who took British Literature, was pleasantly surprised by her interest in the course text.

“I really liked ‘Pride and Prejudice’ [by Jane Austen] because it was a lot more interesting than I thought [it would be], and the romance aspect was fun. It was also funny,” she said.

Julia Shephard ’22 said James Joyce’s “Dubliners” was her favorite book in Irish Literature because of the meaningful complexities in its language.

“[US English Teacher Althea] Cranston led me and nine other Irish Literature students through the intentional intricacies of Joyce’s language, and I learned that good writing imbues meaning into every word and sentence— often in more than one way,” she said.

Sammy Krem ’22 took the Aliens junior elective and felt guided, he said, by the comedic yet direct tone Trevor Noah used in his memoir, “Born a Crime.”

“The book is able to balance comedy with serious topics such as apartheid and racial injustice,” he said. “Additionally, the book is very conversational, and it feels like Trevor Noah is talking directly to you.”

Will Rice ’23 enjoyed examining modern global and American cultural themes, he said, while reading “Wade in the Water,” a book of poetry by Tracy K. Smith, in the Travelers and Transients elective.

“I like the way the poems connect to America. I feel like they say America is a very flawed country but also that there’s hope for improvement,” he said. “And I absolutely think it’s very important that we come to terms with who we are as a country.”

US English Department Head Ariel Duddy said the English department has worked recently to diversify the text taught at the US, a pursuit that began around a decade ago and was furthered by MasksAtBBN’s proposal to represent more perspectives.

Providing choice in junior and senior years, Ms. Duddy said, has its downsides since a student can choose a class that may not encompass as many perspectives.

“Part of what we need to do is think through, ‘are we OK with that?’ [Is it OK] that we may hit the mark better in [grades] nine and 10, but then students have the choice to take a class that has a more diverse range of voice or [doesn’t]?” Ms. Duddy described the English curricula as “evolving and thought-provoking” as they continue to grow and change. Check out the following book tower for more of the community’s favorite books.