The primary goal of the English Department at Urban is to develop our students’ appreciation for the joys and possibilities of literary expression. A central feature of our classes is the close reading and discussion of literature – a form of critical inquiry that supports and honors diverse points of view and varieties of interpretation. Our other primary task is writing, with a goal to develop not only the student’s competence – a facility with syntax and structure – but their voice as well. We want our students to leave Urban with a sense of themselves as thinkers and writers – thoughtful and reflective, not merely capable but eager in expressing both their critical and creative sensibilities in writing.
Literature is also the province of culture, offering wonderfully wide-ranging and intimate means of exploring the human experience. Diversity and range are important to us, whether it's exploring the roots of human storytelling in Gilgamesh,or exploring American history and dialect in Their Eyes Were Watching God. In every case, we choose texts that warrant the sustained attention we give them, in classes designed to be rich, engaging and appropriately challenging.
Though Urban English courses vary in theme and subject, all share common goals: students learn to read carefully, to question actively and to think clearly. The curriculum includes courses in the classics, in the literature of non-European cultures, and in modern fiction and essays. The classes required of 9th and 10th graders, The Journey and American Voices, include a blend of literary traditions and cultural experiences. Juniors and Seniors choose among electives, and UAS Shakespeare is required of all 11th graders. A total of four credits is required for graduation.
In Urban Advanced Studies (UAS) English classes, the students are expected to have developed the basic reading, writing and critical thinking skills, as well as the daily habits necessary for success in the core curriculum classes. UAS courses challenge students to apply these prerequisite skills and habits with confidence to new contexts: texts that are more demanding in depth and narrative structure, books from a variety of cultures and literary traditions, and writing assignments that require students to develop and pursue their own questions. Students engage in increasingly independent and substantive intellectual inquiry. They deepen their understanding by making rigorous thematic connections within and between texts in response to reading and writing assignments, as well as during class discussions.
The Journey (English 1A and 1B) emphasizes the close reading of world literature and the preparation of a text for discussion. Students write frequently and in a number of forms, including expository essays and passage analyses, personal narratives and creative projects. Principles of English grammar are taught and reviewed. Required for Freshmen. (1 credit)
English 1A: Journeys examines themes and problems related to the ways that departures, journeys and homecomings influence the formation and development of character and identity. Celeste Ng’s Everything I Never Told You and Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing form the foundation of this exploration into the travels and travails of journey-making, as characters manage obstacles, friendships, family and their sense of home.
English 1B: Destination – The Middle East continues the investigations of English 1A: Journeys, and explores the themes and questions that emerge from studying literature from other cultures and traditions. This literature encourages students to challenge assumptions about culture, history and traditions – both their own and others’. Texts include Gilgamesh; selected Sufi poetry; short stories by A.B. Yehoshua; Men in the Sun; I'Jaam: an Iraqi Rhapsody; and Persepolis.
Composition (English 2A and 2B) is a two-course sequence designed to help students assume the habits and instincts requisite for strong writing. In multiple and regular assignments, students develop and hone their ability to craft clear expository prose in response to literature and ideas; several creative writing assignments challenge students to evoke or echo a pertinent theme. The grammar component includes common and complicated problems in syntax. Required for Sophomores. (1 credit)
English 2A: American Voices – Part I explores the complexity of American cultures and the nature of personal identity, examining a variety of 20th century American voices in several forms: poetry, short stories, the novel, essays and speeches. Authors include W.H. Auden, Langston Hughes, Adrienne Rich, Gwendolyn Brooks, Sherman Alexie, Flannery O’Connor, Annie Dillard, J.D. Salinger, among myriad others.
English 2B: American Voices – Part 2 deepens the exploration begun in English 2A, focusing on longer works of literature, including The Great Gatsby, Their Eyes Were Watching God, Maus and When the Emperor Was Divine. The primary conceptual work involves discerning the shared problems and themes evoked by these texts, as well as examining the distinct ways each author and work contends with them.
UAS Shakespeare introduces Juniors to the richness and complexity of William Shakespeare. Students read three major plays and study additional scenes and soliloquies. The course approaches Shakespeare from both a literary and dramatic perspective as we read aloud, discuss and perform his works. Students study the texts through a close analysis of passages and explore themes, relevant literary concepts and character so as to deepen their understanding of Shakespeare’s language. Required for Juniors. (1/2 credit)
Elective Courses for Juniors and Seniors
Voices of Incarceration addresses the problem of “attention violence,” so named by civil rights activist Reverend William Barber II, describing how we turn our eyes away from the experiences of people who need it most. More than 70 million Americans bear the marks of the criminal justice system, and they—and their families—have been victims of that “attention violence.” This elective aims to turn the light of our shared attention upon them: their individual experiences, as well as the systems, beliefs and practices that created our current era of mass incarceration. Many forces converge to give America the highest incarceration rate in the world, from policing, to policy, to the justice system, to the emphasis on “correction” rather than “rehabilitation.” We’ll read the work of scholars and citizens in custody, and of oral historians and politicians. We’ll listen to podcasts and interviews, and we’ll meet with speakers who have been released back into their communities after spending decades under the surveillance of the state. Students will also work with The Beat Within, the Prison University Project and Restore Justice, organizations that are working to change the experience of citizens-in-custody by amplifying their voices, offering higher education and changing policy. (½ credit that can count toward English requirement or toward Service Learning 12 requirement) (Juniors and Seniors only)
UAS British Literature: Breaking Boundaries explores the work of British writers of the late 19th and 20th centuries who were the inheritors of a literary tradition that included gender-bending Shakespeare and the wild Romantics. Partly through the influence of these writers, the word “queer” began to shift in meaning; while social conventions might be rigid, literature and life suggested a more fluid, complex reality. In 1928, Virginia Woolf published a novel with a gender-shifting protagonist whose various lifelines span four centuries; as Orlando puts it, “I’m sick to death of this particular life. I want another.” Using Orlando as the central text, we will explore questions and definitions of identity, agency, self-expression, gender and sexuality in the works of authors who resisted easy or reductive labels and rejected comfortable conventions. We will place these authors in the context of their times, addressing historical and literary game-changers who pushed against boundaries and binaries to find more authentic, less defined spaces. Authors and works in addition to Woolf’s Orlando may include The Bell (Iris Murdoch) and Maurice (E.M. Forster), as well as some shorter works of fiction and nonfiction. (1/2 credit)
UAS Faulkner introduces students to the tragic and lyrical vision at the heart of William Faulkner’s best and most difficult novels and stories. Faulkner writes about the American South – the parochial anxieties and legacies and contradictions of the “Lost Cause” culture – but also about the moral calamities intrinsic to southern (and, by extension, American) history, chiefly but not uniquely racism and slavery. A deft storyteller, as well as a searching and profound philosopher, Faulkner lures us through the troubled waters of our nation’s past as a way of attending to the less circumscribed domain we call the human condition. The course features the novels The Sound and the Fury and Absalom, Absalom!, the novella The Bear and 10 short stories. (1/2 credit)
UAS Latin American Literature dives deeply into magical realism and its derivatives, both through the dominant writers of the "Boom" generation — Julio Cortázar, Gabriel García Márquez and Silvina Ocampo — as well as "Post-Boom" writers, such as Clarice Lispector and Julia Alvarez, who have also left their mark on Latin American literature. Their work is experimental and, owing to the political climate of the Latin America of the 1960s, also intellectual and political, using humor, passion, myth and emotion unabashedly. The course looks at the relationship between fiction and truth, imagination and freedom, and authorship and tyranny. Readings include One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez and a number of short stories and poems. (1/2 credit)
UAS Literature of Dystopia and Sci-Fi engages with the imaginations of authors and filmmakers as they render their “thought experiments” about oppression, individual rebellion, paranoia, morality, and the hazards of technological progress. This elective will offer a chance to debate, criticize and explore the critical warnings these texts offer. We will consider the question at the heart of science fiction and dystopian literature: What if? What if privacy were against the law? What if you were punished for your innate strengths? What if our attempts to improve our world actually destroy it? Writers may include Mary Shelley, George Orwell, Margaret Atwood, Ray Bradbury, Ursula Le Guin, Octavia Butler, Aldous Huxley, Isaac Asimov and Kurt Vonnegut. (1/2 credit)
UAS Modern American Literature concerns such American novels as Junot Diaz's The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao and Toni Morrison’s Beloved. The common condition is dispossession; the common problem a quest for wholeness and harmony amid pressures and social circumstances that thwart, fracture and disenfranchise. A serious and nearly constant challenge of the course is to attend to and understand the ubiquity and impact of the masks we wear and the homes we run away from and toward. (1/2 credit)
UAS The Naturalist as Writer: Environmental Change and Justice considers fundamental questions about humanity’s relationship to nature, wilderness and ecological change. These include: What is the nature of environmental crisis and injustice? What happens to human and non-human beings and our relations with each other in a state of climate change, extinction, environmental illnesses and inequities, and ecological degradation? What are the root causes of our current conditions, and what are our options and pathways for reconstruction? To consider how writing itself can form ecological consciousness, we will read fiction, poetry, philosophy and natural histories about environmental destruction and the possibilities of different futures. Readings include: Rachel Carson, Silent Spring; Sandra Steingraber, Living Downstream; Deborah Bird Rose, Wild Dog Dreaming; William Cronon, The Trouble with Wilderness, or, Getting Back to the Wrong Nature; excerpts from foundational American environmental writers such as Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson and John Muir; Octavia Butler, Parable of the Sower; Rebecca Solnit, Savage Dreams; and Valerie Kuletz, Tainted Desert. Students will write reading responses and generate visual projects; compose a personal history of their interactions with nature; and write analytical essays on the fiction, poetry and essays we read. (½ credit)
UAS Poetry: Form and Meaning uncovers some of the mystery in reading and analyzing poetry by exploring a variety of poetic forms, from traditional sonnets to experimental performance art. The goal of this course is to engage in active study of the exciting and complex worlds that poems create. We'll investigate the freedom found in structure and the limitations of working without meter and rhyme. We'll write critically about poetry and honing our skills of poetic analysis; at the same time, we will grapple with the challenge of writing our own poems. Readings may include poems by William Shakespeare, T.S. Eliot, Elizabeth Bishop, e. e. cummings, Allen Ginsberg, Anne Carson, Michael Ondaatje, Sharon Olds, Derek Walcott and many others. (1/2 credit)
UAS Advanced Shakespeare: Power Plays is a course for Seniors who want to continue their study of Shakespeare in an in-depth course. This class will draw on students' knowledge of Shakespeare from their junior course and will further their understanding of his work on the page and on the stage. We delve more deeply into Shakespeare's plays and language, addressing character, theme and structure of scenes and plays. Students will be expected to work more independently on close textual analysis, performance projects and essays. We will explore some of Shakespeare's most memorable characters and address the play of power in his histories and (dark) comedies. (1/2 credit)
The following course does not fulfill the Urban English requirement:
Journalism engages students in learning and practicing the fundamentals of news reporting, writing and editing while examining issues such as free speech, censorship, media ethics and the future of multimedia. Students report, write and produce a newspaper and website, including podcasts and video. Texts include Inside Reporting and The Associated Press Stylebook; students also regularly read The New York Times, the San Francisco Chronicle and Newsweek, as well as essays on journalism ethics and prose style by Tom Rosensteil, Samuel Freedman and Jon Franklin. The course meets all year during E periods and participating students earn one full English credit for their yearlong commitment. Open to Sophomores, Juniors and Seniors. (1 credit)
Courses Offered in Alternate Years
Examining the Good Life will ask: What makes a good life? What kinds of happiness and fulfillment can we achieve in our lives? If we try to feel good, will we do good? How does the way we imagine the universe – and our self within it – shape our quest for happiness and fulfillment? We’ll read a wide range of philosophical arguments (from ancient Greece, India and China, to modern Europe and America) and short stories, watch a few films, conduct an interview, and write analytically and creatively in order to help ourselves articulate and reconsider what it is we want from life. (1/2 credit)
Politics and Language is designed to help students achieve greater clarity, control and precision in their writing. The course centers around how language and rhetoric are used to persuade, inform, manipulate and activate an audience. We examine current social and political issues, including immigration, mass incarceration, racial justice and American politics. Readings are drawn from current news sources – like The New Yorker, the National Review, New York Times and Wall Street Journal – as well as speeches and essays. Students choose some of their own topics and readings, and conduct conversations and interviews with audiences outside of the class. Writing assignments include a persuasive letter, a New Yorker-style profile, and other personal and opinion-driven essays. Across the term, we will practice revision and editing skills. Principles of English grammar are reviewed as well. (1/2 credit)
UAS American Romanticism delves into a body of literature that emerges from 19th century New England but concerns itself with the “true places” that aren't written down on any map. We’ll study the distinct styles, motifs, themes, problems and ideas in Nathaniel Hawthorne's short stories, Herman Melville's Moby-Dick, and the poems of Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson. While these works may seem, at first, to have little in common, we’ll endeavor to find the threads that connect them as they lead us into unmappable mysteries: life’s origin, meaning, and destination; the vast universe outside of us and the vast universe within us. We readers—like our authors and their characters – will explore such mysteries, as well as the limits of our ability to understand them. (1/2 credit)
UAS Creative Nonfiction explores this compelling genre through excerpts from classic autobiographies, modern literary memoirs, personal essays and autobiographical poems. As we read and analyze the works of writers such as Michele de Montaigne, Mary Karr, David Sedaris along with excerpts from magazines such as The Sun, Harper’s and The Atlantic, we study and replicate the elements that create an authentic voice. Writing will be both critical and personal—we will examine our own experiences, ideas and interests as a way of strengthening writing and investigating first-hand how to architect a narrative, create a scene, manage dialogue and connect effectively with readers. (1/2 credit)
UAS Harlem: Veils of Identity Considering the complexities of multiracial identity, our class will explore the proliferation of Black literary and artistic achievements in America within the White gaze. We will examine the generational tensions, interracial exchanges and class controversies related to the expressions of “high” and “popular” culture, "passing" for white, and questions of racial representation and racial construction during the Roaring Twenties in Harlem, New York. We will also examine the systems of artistic organization in literary publications of the times and their coming to terms with DuBois’ idea of “double consciousness” and living "within and without the Veil" of racial identity. Texts may include The Souls of Black Folk by WEB Du Bois, The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man by James Weldon Johnson, the novels Quicksand and Passing, both by Nella Larsen, The Harlem Renaissance Reader for poetry, and various essays and short stories in the course reader. (1/2 credit)
UAS Introduction to Creative Writing is a multi-genre introduction to the art of creative expression through language. How do we create realistic characters? What are the essentials of convincing dialogue? How do we write stage directions? What role does language play in creating tone and mood? How do I work with perspective and point-of-view in crafting narrative? In answering these and other writing-related questions, this course will explore the conventions of writing fiction, poetry, plays, and screenplays while offering students the skills they need to tap into their creativity within these genres. Through critical reading, writing exercises, peer workshops, and instructor feedback, students will develop techniques that support effective drafting, editing and revising; they will also explore their creative strengths, develop a vocabulary with which to articulate those strengths, and experiment with their emergent personal voice. To support our work, we will read from Stephen King’s On Writing and The Art of Series to explore elements of craft, from syntax to plot development, from cultivating creativity to exercising professional responsibility. We will also read, analyze and critique our own work with an eye toward iterating and revising to develop a sizable portfolio of polished writing by the end of the term. (1/2 credit)
UAS Joyce and Woolf focuses on the early modern period in the writings of James Joyce and Virginia Woolf, both of whom contend with the quest for meaning and connection in an increasingly dissonant, complicated world. Joyce investigates the problematic nature of identity (against the complicated history of Ireland) and the beauty and inadequacy of language. Woolf, equally concerned with the problem of affirmation, invents a "form for a new novel" to express and explore her sense of the tension inherent in a life shadowed by death. We will read short stories and two novels by each author, including Joyce's Dubliners and A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, and Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway and To the Lighthouse. (1/2 credit)
UAS Modern Irish Literature: Identity on The Page and Stage examines the works of 20th century and contemporary Irish authors who engage in rich, layered awareness of identity. Considering that "Irish" in 20th century Ireland could be read as "loyalist," "nationalist," "bog Irish," "Protestant," "Catholic," "revolutionary" and/or "terrorist," the aim of this class is to develop a deeper understanding of what it means to construct a political, personal and national sense of self. The course will address some historical context in order for us to understand the complexity of Ireland and help ground the unique and varied voices of the writers we will read. The literature will include poetry and prose by several authors, including W.B. Yeats, J.M. Synge, James Joyce, Roddy Doyle, Sean O'Casey, Eavan Boland, Seamus Heaney, Bernard McLaverty, Mary Dorcey and Brian Friel. (1/2 credit)
UAS Nigerian Literature explores the literature and cultural forms of a nation with remarkable diversity: languages (Igbo, Hausa, Yoruba, English, among many others), ethnicities (more than 250), and religious belief systems. This region hosted some of humanity’s earliest civilizations, its recent history includes colonialism and civil war, and Nigeria is now the largest economic power on the continent of Africa – these factors contribute to the content and complexity of its literature. As we dive into the diverse perspectives of this nation, we will read works by authors such as Chinua Achebe, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Wole Soyinka, Mfoniso Udofia, and Noo Saro-Wiwa, as well as other artists whose works exist outside of conventional publishing formats. Through these literary voices we will listen to how some Nigerian writers dramatize and express their inner and outer landscapes; how they inherit and integrate the legacies of their past; and how they view themselves against the broader backdrop of other African nations and the increasingly globalized world. (1/2 credit)
UAS Russian Literature: Dostoevsky and Chekhov introduces students to the rich literary tradition of 19th century Russia through two of its great writers. We spend several weeks on Fyodor Dostoevsky's big novel, The Brothers Karamazov. Then we read about 20 short stories and two plays by Anton Chekhov. Assignments and discussion emphasize close reading and informed interpretation of a body of literature that provokes us to entertain questions and problems whose sources lie in the philosophical foundations of existence and the complexity of human character. Like the writers, we are most concerned with the intersections. (1/2 credit)
UAS Toni Morrison examines the works of the Nobel and Pulitzer Prize-winning author Toni Morrison, who examines the struggles of teenage boys coming of age in America; the damaging effects of white beauty standards; and the impact of parental expectations and history on adolescent lives. With lyrical, colorful, heartbreaking and uplifting prose, Morrison – the first black author ever to win the Nobel Prize in Literature – writes about intersectionality, adolescence and not fitting in, exploring the ways in which marginalized people both carry generational pain with them and create their own inner strength to overcome and succeed. The course features the novels Song of Solomon and The Bluest Eye, Morrison’s critical works on marginalization and liminality, Playing in the Dark and Origin of Others, and a variety of essays and short stories. (1/2 credit)