Last Thursday, the Prep School English department held its annual Summer Reading Symposium for 11th and 12th grade students.
English students must think critically about what they read, write with clarity and style and enjoy grappling with literature and ideas. The English Department understands that classes must be meaningful, help our students express themselves and illuminate their world.
At each level, students read literature that challenges their thinking, describes a range of experiences and evokes connections to their own lives and choices. Courses spotlight subtleties of character, imagery and tone, honing students’ awareness and helping them understand the power of language and art. In addition to thoughtful analysis, students are often asked to emulate authors and techniques—a creative exercise that develops a nuanced appreciation of narrative, poetic and rhetorical styles. In teaching writing, the department values depth and voice over pat formulas, whether students are analyzing literature, developing arguments or describing their own experiences. Starting with shorter exercises to gain confidence and control with their prose, students then compose longer essays and projects from early brainstorming to rough drafts to polished work. Students learn to shape and deepen their ideas and to understand their own patterns of error. As students progress, they are given opportunities to develop their own approaches to assignments and even select their own texts. Building on this solid foundation, juniors and seniors choose from a range of dynamic elective courses. Each class allows for an immersion into an era, culture, style, or theme—a depth of study essential to a complete education. The freedom to choose motivates students, and when teachers design courses they are passionate about, students learn as much from their intellectual enthusiasm as from their expertise, creating an especially vibrant academic environment in the final four semesters of English.
Ninth graders continue their exploration of literary genres and writing styles, now approaching more complex fiction, nonfiction, poetry and plays—all of which evoke meaningful questions about society and about students’ lives. Much of the literature has a coming-of-age theme, so, in addition to analytical essays, there are plenty of opportunities for imaginative and personal writing. To encourage close reading of texts, students write passage responses focusing on language and imagery and then learn to link these observations to broader themes and conflicts. Students continually practice their writing—both in class workshops and at home—as they hone their own voice and style, and this work is anchored with continuing attention to the foundations of English vocabulary and grammar. In the spring, ninth graders engage in additional projects, from directing Shakespearean scenes to studying and writing nonfiction articles and memoir pieces. The curriculum varies according to teacher and year, but, in addition to short stories and poetry, recent works have included Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, Morrison’s Sula, Dickens’ Oliver Twist, Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, Shakespeare’s Macbeth, Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and Pudd’nhead Wilson, H. G. Wells’ The Time Machine, This Boy’s Life by Tobias Wolf and Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe.
Tenth grade is a formative year in our English program. Students are introduced to very different styles and eras of reading, including nineteenth century classics and more modern fiction in addition to a Shakespeare play, contemporary drama and poetry. These texts are important and intriguing in their own right, but also help prepare students for the range and depth of the upper level elective classes. Students continue to work on reading closely and crafting developed and interesting responses to literature. The tenth grade curriculum also contains intensive study and practice with expository writing—sophomores read excellent examples of great prose in essays and creative nonfiction, and they focus on style and voice while learning to express their ideas clearly and powerfully. Texts frequently vary, but in recent years they have included Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, Dickens’ Great Expectations, Shelley’s Frankenstein, Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, O’Brien’s The Things They Carried, Fair’s Consequence, Moliere’s The Misanthrope, Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar and The Tempest, and Butterworth’s The Ferryman. Students also read a variety of poetry and short stories (especially by Poe and Carver), as well as nonfiction by Orwell, Wallace and many others.
About our Electives program: A hallmark of Columbia Prep is the value placed on individual students and their interests. Beginning in the ninth grade, the curriculum offers many electives in art, music, theater, technology and physical education. As the students progress through high school, they are given increasing autonomy to choose their courses and, by the time they reach their junior and senior years, they are creating their entire academic programs in all subjects—English, history, math, science, world language and all other elective courses. Harnessing and building upon their passions within the context of the courses results in interested, successful and independent graduates who are ready for the next educational step in their lives. The elective system allows for flexibility in course offerings, so no two academic years are identical.
English Electives: Students must take courses in American literature, pre-20th century literature and world literature. These requirements are fulfilled through their elective choices, with guidance from their Deans, and allow students the freedom to follow their interest while ensuring a comprehensive curriculum. Some previous English electives offered in the Prep School have included:
New York Literature
Crime and Punishment
Race and Identity Through a Literary Lens
From Utopia to Dystopia: The Search for Idealism
London in Literature
Literature of the Modern Family
Ink On Your Fingers: An Appreciation of Journalism
Literary Journeys: A Means for Self-Discovery
Literature of the Iraq War
Nineteenth Century American Literature
Introduction to Dramatic Writing
Princesses, Monsters and the Madwoman in the Attic
The Iliad and War Literature
American Literature Today
From Slapstick to Satire
The AP English seminar offers the most challenging literature experience available at Columbia Prep and is designed to enhance the understanding and appreciation of some of the best works ever written. Students read poetry, fiction and drama from the 16th century to the present, take part in vibrant class discussions and write extensively in response to the reading. The work is demanding and, because it is a college-level course, students are expected to meet higher standards. The texts for AP English change frequently, but in addition to poetry packets studying work from the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, Romanticism and Modernism, readings have included Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, Ellison’s Invisible Man, Faulkner’s The Bear, Hardy’s Jude the Obscure, Milton’s Paradise Lost, Morrison’s Beloved, Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49, and Woolf’s To the Lighthouse. AP English has always asked for a course commitment beyond the AP seminar. If accepted, in the fall term students take AP English as a full class, but in the spring, they take a regular English elective (which in itself helps prepare for the AP test and for college-level work) and also continue with the AP seminar, only in a more independent form. Here, as in a college class, students will meet for approximately two sessions per week in smaller seminars.
In creative writing the only constraints are the limits of imagination and the ability to turn a phrase. This course encourages students to daydream, test their creativity and hone wordsmithing skills. The focus of the class will be on writing short stories, but some students may find themselves embarking on longer pieces. Along the way, the course looks at the work of some of the most revered short story writers, including Anton Chekhov and Guy de Maupassant; contemporary examples may be drawn from the work of Lorrie Moore, Mary Gaitskill, Colum McCann and Albert Bensoussan. Students will engage in the writing process from opening prompts through final drafts in a workshop setting, which means that they will collaborate in reading, discussing and developing each others’ stories in a supportive environment.
This additional class is for those students who enjoy reading books independently and who want to make continued reading part of the focus at Columbia Prep. Each student will be assigned a reading advisor, who will help negotiate text choices and the reading schedule. The work for the course will involve choosing intriguing texts, reading books independently, keeping an informal online reading journal and meeting with the reading advisor once per cycle. This course offers a great opportunity to pursue compelling fiction or nonfiction outside of the normal curriculum and in an independent and more relaxed setting.
This course offers students the time, structure and guidance to do what creative people and scholars have always done: follow the trail of personal interests, choose readings, design a course of study and produce interesting papers and creative projects along the way. Students might explore many books by a single author while also investigating background and biography; they might focus on an exciting time period, studying its literature, history, philosophy and art; they might read deeply into an idea, topic or theme—such as education, ethics, entertainment, poetry, sports, obsession, the rebel, the detective—and trace its influence in different ages and media, in both fiction and nonfiction; they might also figure this out as the course unfolds, letting one interesting source lead to the next. In class, in addition to conferences and presentations, students develop the collective skills of appreciating great prose whether it tells a story or crafts an argument; of producing sharp, compelling writing when responding to reading; and of keeping an intellectual journal (or “commonplace book,” as great minds like Milton and Darwin used to call it). The goal is to tap and nurture students’ natural curiosity.