Education [. . .] is a process of living, and not a preparation for future living.
—John Dewey, My Pedagogic Creed
In the Upper School English Department at Berkeley Carroll, we think it’s both. In line with our school’s mission, we aspire to raise students into confident and curious citizens of the world whose reading, writing, and speaking skills will prepare them “for success in college and for the greater endeavor—a life of critical, ethical, and global thinking.”
But we also agree emphatically with Dewey that education can help us to live meaningfully, not just in an imagined future, but now. And so we seek in all of our classes and interactions with students to help them discover that reading, writing, speaking, and collaborating are powerful ways to be alive.
Over their four years, students cultivate a joyful companionship with language and literature, reading a wide array of texts (from novels, plays, and poems to films, performances, and visual art) with the goal that they will develop their own tastes, a lifelong love of reading, and deeper insights into human experiences similar to and very different from their own. Through our shared reading, we seek not to “master” any work, but to understand each text on its own terms and savor all of its nuance and contradiction; we read for political & historical context and for each work’s particular literary integrity.
We alternate shared grade-wide curricula with chances for students to set their own curricular paths. Ninth graders build community and core literacy in a course that abounds with deep reading, writing sprints, and discussion; eleventh graders also spend a full year in a single course, diving into American history, culture, literature, and philosophy in our college-level interdisciplinary American Studies class, co-taught with the History department. Tenth and twelfth graders, meanwhile, choose from electives such as Will’s World (a Shakespeare class), The Political Writer in Exile, and Literary Horror: Oppression and Resistance, all of which center particular teacher expertise, student interests, and rich conversations among authors and traditions. All four years prize depth over breadth and foster students’ increasing powers of abstraction and analysis. Through regular drafting, workshopping, and revision, students learn that all writing is both critical and personal, and that expression across many different fluencies is a key to unlocking the self.
Who am I? Who are you? Who are we?
How can literature help us to live with unanswerable questions?
Who is a hero, and what are heroes for?
What is clear expression and how can we achieve it?
- Before the Stage: Looking at Plays as Literature
- The Craft of Poetry
- The Harlem Renaissance and its Discontents
- Identity and Independence: Nigerian Postcolonial Literature
- Novels of Jane Austen and the Brontës
- Voice & Style
- Will's World
- Women on the Edge
- Youth in Literature: Teenage Riot
How is our reading experience opened up when we look at plays rather than prose or poetry?
What do we learn when we isolate a text from its performance; is it even possible to do so?
Even though the casts of The Lion King or Les Miserables or The Book of Mormon are technically performing the same show night after night, no two performances are ever the same. Lines might get dropped or the audience could laugh harder than expected. Yet, the text, the play, is static; what the playwright put down on the page never changes. In this course, we will be discussing plays and what comes from looking at them as pieces of literature. We will become familiar with the terminology and style of playwriting, talk about how a play goes from nascent idea to a Broadway stage, and think about dialogue, rhythm and the subtlety necessary to make human voices sound "real" on paper. From monologues about Crown Heights to 2-minute long comedies, from Shakespeare to puppets, our critical lens will be geared toward understanding the role of plays in our literary canon and how, as Pulitzer-prize winning playwright Tony Kushner explains, theater brings us face to face with a more essential sense of what human beings truly are.
Texts will include work by Anna Deavere Smith, Paula Vogel, William Shakespeare and more.
What are the rules of poetry and how can poets break them properly?
I ask them to take a poem
and hold it up to the light
like a color slide . . .
I say drop a mouse into a poem
and watch him probe his way out . . .
I want them to water-ski
across the surface of a poem
waving at the author's name on the shore.
—Billy Collins, “Introduction to Poetry”
This is a course for people who would like to drop mice into poems, hold poems up to the light, and listen to poems hum. To be sure, we will deepen our familiarity with poetic devices and explore in detail how sound, rhythm, structure, and diction work together to make meaning in poetry—and to be sure, we will write some essays as we do this—but we will also approach poetry through as many side doors as possible, by imitating it, translating it, cutting it up and putting it back together, illustrating it, performing it, writing it, and by reading a wide variety of poets such as Li-Young Lee, Mary Oliver, Haki Madhubuti, and Gerard Manley Hopkins, as we explore how poetry can be a tool for expression and activism.
How can works of literature participate in a political discussion?
How relevant is an author’s racial, historical and geographical background to his or her writing?
How do politics and culture influence an individual’s personal development?
How can we use literature to understand the effects of Western colonialism on the development of postcolonial nations?
How can literature challenge generalizations and misconceptions about “Africa”?
The bildungsroman, or coming-of-age story, addresses the moral, psychological, and spiritual development of the protagonist. In this course, students will focus on coming-of-age stories set in Nigeria during independence movements from the 1960s onward. Though we will examine some common threads of the Nigerian postcolonial experience, we’ll also use our readings to explore how identifiers such as gender, religion, ethnic group, race, and age might affect one's perceptions of key moments in Nigeria's history. Through reading the novels and stories of authors such as Chinelo Okparanta, Chris Abani, Sefi Atta, and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, we will discuss what it means to develop a sense of identity in the midst of political, social, and cultural upheaval. We’ll also read critical essays by scholars such as Edward Said, Frantz Fanon, and Chinua Achebe to consider the notion of postcolonial literature as an effort to rebel against centuries of western colonialism and oppression.
“I was only going to say that heaven did not seem to be my home; and I broke my heart with weeping to come back to earth; and the angels were so angry that they flung me out into the middle of the heath on the top of Wuthering Heights; where I woke sobbing for joy.”—Emily Brontë, Wuthering Heights (1847)
“I cannot fix on the hour, or the spot, or the look, or the words, which laid the foundation. It is too long ago. I was in the middle before I knew that I had begun.”—Jane Austen, Pride & Prejudice (1813)
Charlotte Brontë was not a big Jane Austen fan. “Why do you like Miss Austen so much? I am puzzled on that point,” she wrote to her friend, the literary critic George Henry Lewes in 1848. Austen’s novels, she continues, give her a feeling of claustrophobia: “[N]o open country, no fresh air, no blue hill, no bonny beck. I should hardly like to live with her ladies and gentlemen in their elegant but confined houses.” Indeed, Brontë cheekily begins her most well-known novel, Jane Eyre, with a scene of claustrophobia that subtly calls out the cramped conventions of Austen’s novels: “There was no possibility of taking a walk that day.”
But was Brontë right? Is Austen all petticoats and primroses, lacking entirely in atmosphere and authenticity? Or has Brontë herself in fact confined Austen into too narrow a critical box? In this course we’ll read the novels and explore the literary relationships and legacies of Jane Austen, Charlotte Brontë, and Emily Brontë to answer these questions and to discover the range of aesthetic approaches each of these great writers adopted in response to the rapidly changing world of early to mid-19th century England. We’ll encounter Austen’s adept use of free indirect discourse, a narrative technique whereby she inhabits subject positions in order to explode their false ideologies; we’ll discuss Emily Brontë’s grappling with the collision of Romantic and Victorian values; and we’ll explore Charlotte Brontë’s masterful feminist reworking of the traditional coming-of-age novel. Our major readings will be supplemented by several classic feminist readings—including those of Sandra Gilbert & Susan Gubar in The Madwoman in the Attic, Camille Paglia in Sexual Personae, and Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick in Tendencies. In all of this we’ll come to a greater understanding and appreciation of the complex literary history of desire charted by these breathtaking novels.
What is my voice as a writer?
How can close attention to grammar and style help me to capture that voice on paper?
How can I learn to give better feedback to fellow writers?
How does sentence length communicate feeling, from frenzied enthusiasm to controlled disdain?
When does punctuation do more than tell a reader to take a pause?
What makes the transition from one paragraph to the next poignant or hilarious or heartbreaking?
Voice & Style is a one semester English course that aims to help you become a more creative and confident writer, someone who sees the big picture and understands the value in details. While writing and revising personal essays, we will study grammar, punctuation, and usage; in each assignment, we’ll work to master a new skill or style. Revisions will happen through large and small group workshops, providing an opportunity to learn with and from your peers (and see the world through their eyes). We will draw our example texts from a wide spectrum of published writers, including R. Eric Thomas, Nora Ephron, and Roxane Gay. Our hope is that in this course you will learn what makes writing a flexible, powerful, and even exuberant tool for self-expression.
What does it mean to grow up in Shakespeare’s world?
How does Shakespeare depict the relationship between adolescence and adulthood?
How can we use Shakespeare’s perspective on adolescence as a lens through which to view our own modern perception of growing up?
“I would my father look’d but with my eyes.”—Hermia, A Midsummer Night’s Dream
Across the course of his career as England’s finest playwright, Shakespeare repeatedly dramatizes narratives of growing up—exploring adolescence and its eternal conflict with adulthood. Issues of adolescence—from the transcendent to the trivial—all make their way into his plays: falling in love, staying out late, going to school, getting into fights with parents, even listening to bad music. In all of this, Shakespeare explores what it means and how it feels to grow up. In this course, then, we’ll attend to Shakespeare’s interest in the transition from adolescence into adulthood, and discuss how the concept of growing up organizes the major thematic and structural concerns of his plays. From his magical comedy, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, to his action-packed history, Henry IV, Part One, to his fantastic farce, Twelfth Night, to his complex romance, The Tempest, we’ll explore the diversity of growing up in Shakespeare’s world and try to uncover its relevance to our own world. Students will actively participate in class discussion, develop close reading skills through socratic seminars and short analytical essays, give presentations on key critical terminology, and of course spend a bit of time every week acting.
“When a woman says, ‘I have nothing to wear!’, what she really means is, ‘There’s nothing here for who I’m supposed to be today.”
― Caitlin Moran, How to Be a Woman
How and to what extent is being a woman a performance?
What are gender norms, where do they come from, why do they persist—and what happens when women and men resist them?
What is a heroine’s journey, and how does it serve and/or challenge society?
What spaces can women make or find for themselves in a patriarchy?
In this course, we’ll hear about (and from) several women who live on the edge of what various societies recognize as normal, right, or sane, exploring the reasons why these women might seek or resist that edge, and why society might want to draw them back or keep them on the margin. Through class discussions, written analyses, and fiction exercises, students will explore the danger and charm, the limits and freedom of radical behavior for women. We’ll also explore the degrees to which gender identities themselves can be both restrictive and freeing.
What’s distinctive about the adolescent mind?
What can teens dream up that others can’t?
This one semester course will examine the lives of revolutionary girls and boys in literature— it promotes the idea that Joan of Arc, Malala Yousafzai, Chris McCandless and other young folks envisioned a world that was beyond their immediate grasp. This course will also examine the evolution of the adolescent mind, using literature that explores the physiological, psychological, and sociological reality the modern teenager.
What does “American” mean?
What are the contingencies that shape history?
How can literary texts help us to read the past, and vice versa?
Who narrates history?
How and to what extent can we shape history?
America is a country, but it is also an idea. The American Studies course is devoted to the study of that idea and the country that produced it—where both began, and how both have changed. In this course we will study 200+ years of American thought. How did the United States become "America"? What ideas form the bedrock of this idea of America? What makes America different, and for that matter, what do we believe makes us different that isn't really different at all?
The purpose of this co-taught, double-credit course is to encourage students to become independent learners and thinkers as well as thoughtful, engaged citizens. We hope that students will be able to draw from their classroom learning to understand what they see outside the classroom. To that end, we explore many questions of power, identity, and justice, with a particular focus on the histories of race and gender in the United States. With an eye toward college preparation, this course fosters reading, writing, discussion, and research skills. Coursework will culminate in a research essay and walking tour located in New York City, as well as a double-period final exam.
What questions does one ask oneself in order to interpret a work of art?
How does historical context influence the progression of artistic style over time?
*11th grade students who want to take an additional course in the humanities may have the opportunity to choose from the English and history departments’ 10th and 12th grade elective offerings.
- Creative Writing: Fiction
- Creative Writing: Playwriting
- The Essay
- Media Literacy: Critical Thinking in the Age of Information Overload
- Novels of Richard Wright and James Baldwin
- Political Writer in Exile
- Satan in Literature
- Stories of the South
- Theories of the “Self”: Nietzsche, Freud, and Existentialism
- Truth, Beauty, and Goodness
How can we use language to capture the uncapturable?
How can we improve our skills as readers and writers of fiction?
Consider the craft of fiction writing as your passport to new worlds. Whether the trip is an extended journey in the pages of a novel or a stroll around the block in a short story, when you come to the last page you will have been to a place previously unknown. Over the course of the semester, be prepared to take trips with authors like Andrea Lee, Flannery O’Connor, Raymond Carver, Jamaica Kincaid, and many others. Through these trips you will learn to craft new worlds and cultivate your own literary voice and style. During in-depth craft lessons we will learn how to develop necessary elements of craft. This course will require students to produce a significant amount of new, creative work both inside and outside of the classroom. We will also dedicate significant time to the revision process so that by semester’s end, each student has a strong portfolio of his or her work. As part of the revision process students will be expected to participate in regular writing workshops where they will have the opportunity to provide and receive thoughtful criticism from their peers. Ours will be a classroom where fear has no place, only passion and a willingness to travel.
How do we write a fulfilling, useful scene, and what goes into the craft of successfully writing a full length play?
What are the limitations of the stage? How should that impact our writing?
What is the lasting impression theater can have on a society?
In her 2006 essay “Can Playwriting be Taught?” Pulitzer-prize winning playwright Marsha Norman explains that for many years, old playwrights—the “grayhairs,” she calls them—said that playwriting could not be taught. She argues, though, that “grayhairs” gave this answer, in large part, to keep younger people out of playwriting, to keep the craft for themselves. Norman goes on to explain that there’s much that can’t be taught: an interest in observing those around you and writing with compassion; a discomfort with lazy and vain writing; a desire to explore conflict/mistakes/surprises/murders/fights/secrets (“plays are not conversations,” she writes).
What can we learn, then? We will use the rest of Norman’s essay as a jumping off point, as she notes that aspiring playwrights can be taught to understand what an audience expects when they come to the theater, how to create a variety of useful scenes, and when to realize you have a rich subject at hand. In this course, we will split our time between reading both plays and essays on the craft of playwriting and writing our own pieces (scenes and one-acts, mostly). Students should be prepared to write and share their creative work, analyze (in writing and discussion) various texts, and think about their personal goals for storytelling.
Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? — Edward Albee
Topdog/Underdog — Suzan-Lori Parks
I Am My Own Wife - Doug Wright
Where can self-reflection lead me?
How much help can I get with my writing, and how much am I self-taught?
How does an audience shape my writing?
Most Berkeley Carroll seniors have written dozens of literary critical essays; this course offers students a chance to write more personal essays. Students will read and write narrative, definitive, and exploratory essays, paying particular detail to voice, detail, and structure as they pull together comprehensive writing portfolios. All students who join this class must be willing to read their work aloud and willing to give and receive constructive criticism.
How are news, advertising, entertainment, and social media constructed within our current social and cultural context?
What is the individual and cultural impact of implicit cultural messages conveyed through media?
How can we respond to existing media and create new media that responsibly represent our society and values?
How often have you heard that social media is destroying our culture? With each new innovation, a new wave of panic seems to set in. Before we were bemoaning selfie editing apps, we were worried about MySpace. Before that, email and the internet itself. Before that, VCRs, arcade games, television, radio, newspapers, and, yes, even books. Information overload has always been a cultural concern. But since the dawn of literacy, it’s been vital to be able to understand how and why media is created and its remarkable impact on our society.
In this course, we will examine news, advertising, entertainment, and social media as purveyors and influencers of culture. Engaging with critical texts, we’ll explore how the history of media has led to this current moment of information being so integrated into our lives. We will identify bias in news organizations’ varied coverage of current events and research their corporate structures to hypothesize how these biases are formed. We will investigate how advertisers and entertainment writers appeal to cultural values and reflect upon how those values correspond to our own. We’ll learn how to spot misinformation, product placement, and paid influencers and analyze their impact on individuals and society. Armed with these critical tools, we will create our own media products that better reflect our values and reality. Through class discussions and projects we will regain control of our economic and political decisions and learn to be ethical consumers and creators of media.
Amusing Ourselves to Death by Neil Postman
Kill all Normies: Online Culture Wars from 4Chan and Tumblr to Trump and the Alt-Right by Angela Nagle
It’s Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens by Danah Boyd
An All-Consuming Century: Why Commercialism Won in Modern America by Gary Cross
“I would hurl words into this darkness and wait for an echo, and if an echo sounded, no matter how faintly, I would send other words to tell, to march, to fight, to create a sense of the hunger for life that gnaws in us all, to keep alive in our hearts a sense of the inexpressibly human.”—Richard Wright, Black Boy [American Hunger] (1945)
“It is the peculiar triumph of society—and its loss—that it is able to convince those people to whom it has given inferior status of the reality of this decree; it has the force and weapons to translate its dictum into fact, so that the allegedly inferior are actually made so, insofar as the societal realities are concerned. . . . The failure of [Wright’s] novel [Native Son] lies in its rejection of life, the human being, the denial of his beauty, dread, power, in its insistence that it is his [societal] categorization alone which is real and which cannot be transcended.”—James Baldwin, “Everybody’s Protest Novel” (1949)
I was somewhat surprised to find Baldwin a small, intense young man of great excitability. [Richard Wright] sat down in lordly fashion and started right off needling Baldwin, who defended himself with such intensity that he stammered. . . . Baldwin defended himself by saying that [Wright] had written his story and hadn’t left him, or any other black writer, anything to write about.”—Chester Himes, The Quality of Hurt (1972)
James Baldwin’s famous critique of Richard Wright’s Native Son not only inaugurated one of the great literary disputes amongst black intellectuals of the 20th century, but it also raised an essential question about the social function of the novel form in general: Should a novel be faithful to the social realities and political conditions it emerges out of, or should it seek to articulate transcendent human emotions and experiences that rise above historical categorization? Baldwin castigated Wright for (in W. E. B. Dubois’s words) “measuring [his] soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity.” But Wright was a more complex writer than Baldwin allowed, especially in his desire to find a literary form in which to express “a sense of the hunger for life that gnaws in us all . . . a sense of the inexpressibly human.” And Baldwin himself later noted, “I knew Richard and I loved him. I was not attacking him; I was trying to articulate something for myself.”
If this is true, then, in addition to revealing an intensely complex relationship—at once artistic and psychological, personal and historical—Wright and Baldwin’s disagreement challenges us to read dialectically: to treat their apparent opposition as in fact a productive disagreement which pushed the novel form to dig for deeper truths, to search for the transcendent within the historical. In this course we’ll embrace that challenge as we explore the cultural and artistic conversations that emerge in the literary works of these two great American authors. We’ll attend to each writer’s shifting sense of self as black artists in relation to each other, to their own communities, and to their country, and we’ll observe how each writer experiments with the formal conventions of the novel to close the existential and historical gap between the self and the world, and to find a language for what Wright calls “the inexpressibly human.”
Native Son (1940), Richard Wright
12 Million Black Voices (1941), Richard Wright
Black Boy (American Hunger) (1945), Richard Wright
Going To Meet The Man (1965), James Baldwin
Tell Me How Long The Train’s Been Gone (1968), James Baldwin
If Beale Street Could Talk (1974), James Baldwin
How and why does a book or other literary work become a threat to a country's political ideology?
Is the political writer's voice the same voice of the disenfranchised?
How does a writer's political identity shape his or her experience in the world?
What does it mean to leave home and never return?
Political: Of or pertaining to citizens; political rights
Exile: Expulsion from one’s native land by authoritative decree. Anyone separated from his or her country or home voluntarily or by force of circumstance.
“The reason Milton wrote in fetters when he wrote of Angels & God, and at liberty when of Devils & Hell, is because he was a true Poet and of the Devil’s Party without knowing it”
—William Blake, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell
“But what’s puzzling you is the nature of my game”
—The Rolling Stones, “Sympathy for the Devil”
From William Blake to the Rolling Stones, some of history’s most imaginative artists have fallen under the dark spell of Satan. But what, precisely, is the nature of his game? What new perspectives on good and evil, authority and resistance, control and chaos, does the devil allow these artists to embrace? What are the origins of the devil’s place in literature, and why does he continue to occupy a central space in popular music, horror films, and even teen fiction? In this course we’ll explore the long literary and artistic legacy of the Devil, tracing his tangled trajectory from Greek mythology through Christian doctrine to Renaissance tragedy and finally to twentieth- and twenty-first-century popular culture. Students will use Satan as a lens through which to examine concepts such as authorial intent, counter-narratives, anti-heroes, and sublimity; in uncovering the evolution of evil in literature, students will gain a new perspective on literature’s relationship to moral and ethical good.
Prometheus Bound, Aeschylus
selections from The Bible
selections from The Inferno, Dante
The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus (1590s), Christopher Marlowe
selections from Paradise Lost (1667), John Milton
selections from The Marriage of Heaven and Hell (1790), William Blake
The Turn of the Screw (1898), Henry James
The Golden Compass (1995), Philip Pullman
The Innocents (1961)
Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975)
What are the traditions and characterizations of literature from the American South?
How do authors approach and explore the complex and disturbed history of the American South?
How do various pieces of literature either perpetuate or challenge our understanding of the American South?
In a July 2018 opinion piece in The New York Times, Nashville-based literary editor Margaret Renkl asks the question (and titles her column) “What Is a Southern Writer, Anyway?” Her wondering stems from the belief that “the South is no longer a place defined by sweet tea and slamming screen doors” due to the fact that the South is “far more urban, far more ethnically and culturally and politically diverse” than ever before. In trying to understand what makes Southern literature distinct, she argues: “truly great writers [everywhere]...know their communities from the inside out, as full members, and they tell the truth about what they know...but the South’s legacy of slavery and its overt and enduring racism make the truth a Southern writer speaks especially urgent…”
Through the rich and extensive (and urgent) literary tradition of the South, we will explore how Southerners have thought about and processed ideas of race, gender, class, the pressures of tradition, and the weight of their own complex history. In interrogating the South—its insidious and painful history, its perseverant pride and relentless hospitality—we can begin to see how literature has shaped the world we live in today.
In the Modern Era era when people came to feel unmoored—when industry replaced craft, science surpassed religion, urbanization and population boomed, and modern warfare and genocide of the World Wars traumatized—philosophers and artists grappled with important questions: what is the meaning of our lives? What is our responsibility in a seemingly meaningless, arbitrary world? What is good and right? These historical events and questions fundamentally shaped how philosophers came to understand the self. Our class will be an exploration of (1) how historical circumstances like the industrial revolution, scientific discovery, political revolution, and world wars shaped ideas, (2) how Friedrich Nietzsche, Sigmund Freud, and existentialists—like Sartre, Camus, Beauvoir, Fanon—specifically responded to these conditions by developing new ideas about morality and the individual, and (3) how these ideas continue to influence philosophy and even our own lives today. Our study will help us understand how humans responded to a rapidly changing and modernizing world, and how changes in the world might still affect our understanding of ourselves.
This elective provides seniors with an overview of influential texts and theories across world cultures in epistemology, aesthetics, and ethics. These three branches of philosophy will constitute the three distinct yet interrelated units of the course. When studying truth, we will ask, “How do we know what we know?”; when studying beauty, we will ask, “To what extent are notions of beauty socially constructed?”; and when studying ethics, we will ask, “What does it mean to be, or do, good?”
As students read excerpts of theory, they will not only deconstruct the texts and make connections across time and place, but also reflect upon their own beliefs regarding the nature of truth, beauty, and goodness. This course is thus designed to serve as a bridge between Berkeley Carroll, whose mission is to cultivate “critical, ethical, and global thinking” and the world beyond. Students will examine the people and institutions that shape high school students’ worldviews; consider contemporary social implications of the fields, from artificial intelligence to beauty standards to humanitarian aid & philanthropy; and interview non-academics on their experience of and views on truth, beauty, and goodness. An emphasis will be placed on acknowledging and addressing counter-arguments and alternate perspectives.
Course requirements will include at least one analytical essay and at least one creative work, which may take the form of a podcast, literary work, visual art piece, manifesto, community action plan, etc.