From the very first day of English 9, the emphasis in our English courses is on careful reading and critical thinking. As you learn to practice these arts, you’ll discover how much more pleasure you begin to take in what you read.
“I used to read books in black and white, but three years of Commonwealth English classes have taught me to see all the colors.”
Commonwealth’s sequence of full-year English courses in ninth through eleventh grades presents readers with a wide range of texts in carefully ordered juxtaposition.In your work in class and at home you focus on the authors’ language, their imaginative vision, and the artful strategies they devise.
“Of all the things I’ve learned at Commonwealth, close reading has transformed me the most. I could talk about the patience and confidence it’s given me, and how I can look at the same five lines of a poem about 100 times, and, magically, still get something out of it. I think we all know that it’s one of the most flexible, useful tools we acquire here.”
As each year progresses, you encounter increasingly challenging works and pursue great and elusive questions. You come to understand that questions, not answers, are the reward that literature offers.
“We know not to expect other people to answer the tough questions for us. And we know that we will need time to answer those ourselves… if indeed we ever do answer them.”
Centered on close reading, a changing roster of half-credit electives (mostly for eleventh and twelfth graders) addresses your more specific literary interests (Shakespeare, for example, or Modernism).
“Reading Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, I ended up so deeply immersed in the book that a new idea of reading’s worth started circling in my mind. Keeping a critical distance and asking questions are crucial. Yet it’s the act of throwing yourself wholly into a book or idea, letting yourself be seduced, that makes reading and thinking so attractive. Heart and critical intellect come together at Commonwealth.”
As a senior, you have a choice of English courses: the more traditional English 12 or Reasons for Writing, where you will use your critical reading and writing skills in a variety of modes that are not strictly literary—for example, the personal essay, science writing, the editorial, argumentation.
“The idea that picking something apart completely can make it more interesting might be counterintuitive. Sometimes it doesn’t work; after teasing out so many different strands, all you’re left with is a bunch of raggedy threads and a comment from your English teacher telling you that you made a lot of good observations but didn’t quite bring everything to a conclusion. Sometimes, however, you can make connections that blow your mind.”
Reading, thinking, talking, listening. This class provides the foundation for your four years
of Commonwealth English classes: you learn how to read with sustained attention—to listen carefully to the particular language of a text, to perceive its impact, and to express what you have discovered in short, well-constructed essays.
In class discussion, you work with your classmates on trying out and refining your ideas about a reading. You get plenty of practice writing—and plenty of feedback, too—with frequent one- to two-page analytical essays; sometimes you will have the opportunity to imitate or parody distinctive styles of writing.
Texts may include: The Iliad or The Odyssey (dovetailing with the ninth-grade Ancient History course); Shakespeare, Much Ado About Nothing, Romeo and Juliet, or Julius Caesar; Brontë, Jane Eyre; Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities; Twain, Huckleberry Finn; Thomas, Under Milk Wood; Naipaul, Miguel Street; Rhys, Wide Sargasso Sea; Kingston, The Woman Warrior; Dillard, An American Childhood; and a smorgasbord of folktales, short poems, and stories.
Students say...“Freshman year I learned to glean the most information I could out of a small block of text. I learned to read not just for plot, and soon realized that the books I was reading were full of subtleties to be discovered—words begging to be underlined, connections waiting to be made.”
The plot thickens! As a tenth grader, you will refine your skills as a literary critic. You work with a variety of texts in which you encounter narrators who cannot be trusted, plays in which no character is “right,” and heroes who are not necessarily sincere (or even particularly “heroic”). You learn to piece together an argument based on increasingly complicated textual evidence; close reading will help you to find your way and draw conclusions about complex matters even in the absence of a trustworthy narrator’s strong helping hand. And in your essays, you’ll focus on how to describe clearly the perceptions you uncover.
Texts often include: Shakespeare, Macbeth or Richard II; Dickens, Great Expectations; short stories by Hemingway, Lawrence, Mansfield, Welty, Lahiri, and others; essays by Orwell; dramatic monologues; and Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God, or Kincaid, Annie John.
Students say...“Commonwealth English classes fundamentally change the way you interpret the written word. By the end of English 10, I had come to realize that we often put too much store in the idea that words have to make immediately obvious, straightforward sense.”
AP This year is devoted to listening to the enormous expressive range of the human voice as rendered in written words. We pay increasingly close attention to diction, tone, patterns of speech, the arc of an argument—to the way so much hinges on exactly how things are said by poets, characters, and narrators. Take Shakespeare’s Hamlet, whose intense urge to speak the truth drives him to express himself in a multitude of voices. We study literary works in a non-chronological order designed to allow particular voices to resonate with and build on each other. And we read at a leisurely pace, often aloud and together. We spend most of first quarter on lyric poems to sharpen your listening skills; then we move on to longer works. Focused critical essays analyzing passages help you uncover nuance and confront ambiguity. Texts often include the anthology Beginning with Poems (ed. Brower); Joyce, Dubliners; Shakespeare, Hamlet; Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby; Conrad, Heart of Darkness; and Walcott, Omeros.
Students say...“I remember reading Joyce’s Dubliners we might spend an entire class discussing only a single page. Whole conversations grew out of a single word. It was gut-wrenching. And it was the first time i had ever felt so engaged and moved by a piece of art.”
You are ready to consider the ways literary works relate to one another. You might, for instance, read a number of texts to see how the Romantic era in literature developed into our own. Or you might consider a theme (e.g., the search for an imagined paradise), a theoretical question (e.g., what comic or tragic possibilities are realized when things—societies, language—fall apart), or a genre or an idea (e.g., how the self is constructed in a variety of autobiographies).
Each section will have its own list of readings and its own subject to pursue. Courses change from year to year according to teacher and student interests. Texts might include poetry by Wordsworth, Keats, Whitman, Dickinson, Frost, Stevens, Moore, Plath, Bishop, Langston Hughes, and Berryman; Shakespeare plays; Milton, Paradise Lost; Swift, Gulliver’s Travels; Austen, Pride and Prejudice; stories by Hawthorne and others; Hardy, Tess of the D’Urbervilles; Conrad, The Secret Agent; Joyce, Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man; Forster, A Passage to India; Woolf, To the Lighthouse; Faulkner, As I Lay Dying; Bellow, Seize the Day; and Roy, The God of Small Things.
Students say...“It’s been a process; but now, in English 12, I trust myself as a reader enough to relinquish control and embrace contradiction and ambiguity. The more I do that, the more I understand.”
This class offers you the chance to read and then to write in a variety of forms beyond literary analysis: memoirs, journalism, science writing, and polemics on such topics as climate change. In the spring, you and your classmates will produce a New Yorker-like class magazine that is usually distributed to the whole school.
Possible readings: a compilation of autobiographical, journalistic, persuasive, and science writing by authors including Milton, Abraham Lincoln, Florence King, Louis Menand, and Steven Pinker; Shakespeare, Othello; Milton, Paradise Lost; Austen, Pride and Prejudice, or Wharton, The Age of Innocence; stories by Tolstoy and O’Connor; Stoppard, The Real Thing; and Williams, Style: Toward Clarity and Grace.
Students say..."After reading essays that were informative, elegant, shocking, and beautiful, it was my turn. In writing my personal essay for reasons for writing, I found my voice.”
- Fiction Writing
- Perfect Monsters: Creation and its Discontents
- Shakespeare: Language and the Self
- Shakespeare in Context
- Short Story
Picasso said, “Art is the lie that tells the truth”; in this course we’ll be trying to figure out what he meant. Our primary strategy will be to analyze various forms of successful (and perhaps less successful) storytelling and meaning-making, including your own and your classmates’. Frequent workshops will allow you and your classmates to articulate (kindly) what works and what doesn’t in each other’s writing.
Students say...“Of all the things that are important to me, I find fiction writing the most mysterious. I can honestly say that, at this point in my life, the most important question I ask myself is, ‘How do I write?’ I have written many stories, yet I’m only beginning to understand some of the most basic techniques my mind uses to write one. I have therefore learned a great deal about myself.”
The centerpiece of the course is Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein: The Modern Prometheus, a creation myth, a tale of scientific audacity and would-be perfectionism, a morality tale, a creepy horror story, and the story of the consummate “outsider.” Other readings include a number of creation stories; Ovid, Metamorphoses; Milton, Paradise Lost; some nineteenth-century texts associated with the Gothic, the Romantic, and the Sublime; poems; and short stories.
We also view relevant artwork (Paul Fuseli, William Blake, Caspar David Friedrich) and films, including James Whale, Frankenstein (1931). Topics we consider include Creation and the Fall; innocence and experience; hope and nostalgia; the noble savage and his dark twin, the savage noble; and science vs. nature.
As we read, write, and discuss, we’ll focus our attention on the power of language and its ability (or inability) to draw the line between perfection and monstrosity, which is often perceived as the line between self and other. Is there in fact such a line? Who draws it, or tries to?
Students say...“As Satan stalks eve in the garden, Milton lays out curious connections between the two characters. The devil and first lady turn out to be surprisingly similar. Perhaps these similarities make Satan’s character more human, and eve more susceptible to Satan’s tricks. By the time the serpent flicks his tongue to speak, Milton will have laid out how Satan’s and eve's natures lead inevitably to the fall.”
In what ways do Shakespeare’s comic characters speak differently from—or similarly to—tragic ones? Can we hear a coherent personality through the tones of disparate sonnets? Do we listen to and judge the voice of a character differently when he or she addresses the audience in soliloquy? What does it tell us that at moments of great emotional complexity, the language of Shakespeare’s characters often becomes rhetorically complex? Think, for example, of Juliet’s elaborate and paradoxical condemnation of Romeo after she learns that he has killed her cousin: “Beautiful tyrant, fiend angelical, / Dove-feathered raven, wolvish-ravening lamb....” We address these and other questions by reading a selection of sonnets and several plays—Richard II, As You Like It, and Twelfth Night—as we explore the relationship between Shakespeare’s language and the variety of “selves” he puts on display. At the same time, we focus our attention on some of the particular features of both Early Modern English and the early modern theater that Shakespeare used to great effect. And as they arise, we’ll seize opportunities to consider modern performances.
Students say...“Reading Shakespeare with a teacher who is so enthusiastic and knowledgeable about the plays and the period was amazing. As we worked our way slowly through Shakespeare’s lines (commonwealth close reading!), she helped us discover and appreciate the beauty and depth of his language—and its playful aspects, as well. Now we all love puns!”
We often read William Shakespeare's plays in isolation, but Shakespeare responded to and was inspired by other writers; he was a part of a flourishing early modern literary scene. We place Shakespeare in that early modern context by reading him alongside some other prominent dramatists of the period. Students read full plays and some selections from longer texts, as well as the occasional contextual article or excerpt. We also look at scenes from modern productions where possible. Texts may include: Henry IV, Part One; Christopher Marlowe, Doctor Faustus; John Ford, Perkin Warbeck; John Webster, The Duchess of Malfi; a late play by William Shakespeare.
Students say...“Reading stretches my emotional muscles. It can make me laugh and cry…feel angry, happy, tense, relieved, disturbed, soothed, exhilarated, or calm. And I’m better for the workout!”
If you are a tenth grader interested in creative writing, this course will help you develop a writer’s eye for detail and ear for language. You will read and analyze short stories by a range of authors including Updike, Welty, and O’Connor, and write both prompted pieces and full stories. You will also keep a writer’s journal. In workshop-style class discussions, you and your classmates will share your writing with each other and learn how to offer—and accept—constructive criticism.
Students say...“The best stories seem to be those in which, each time a solution is uncovered, the reader becomes aware of more problems. I’d be willing to argue that all good writing consists of answers that bring questions.”