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. Both 11th and 12 graders choose among electives. 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 9th graders. (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. Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing forms 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 Ayelet Tsabari and Buthaina Al Nasira, 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 10th graders. (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 and 21st century American voices in several forms: poetry, short stories, essays and speeches. Authors include Langston Hughes, Adrienne Rich, Gwendolyn Brooks, Tracy K. Smith and Danez Smith, 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 and Their Eyes Were Watching God. 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.
Elective Courses for 11th and 12th Graders
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 most deserve our attention. More than 70 million Americans bear the marks of the legal 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 criminalization. Against a backdrop of racism and mismanaged resources, many forces converge to give America the highest incarceration rate in the world: from policing, to policy, to the legal system, to the emphasis on “correction” rather than “rehabilitation.” As we learn about the root causes and possible solutions for this issue, the content of the course, will come primarily from those directly impacted. We’ll listen to podcasts and interviews, we’ll read first-person narratives, 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 partner with individuals and organizations that are working to change the experience of those impacted by the criminal legal system. (11th and 12th graders only) (1/2 credit)
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), poetry (Jackie Kay), and short fiction (E.M. Forster, Adam Mars-Jones, Diriye Osman) (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, Cathy Park Hong, Saeed Jones, Morgan Jerkins and Lindy West, along with excerpts from magazines such as Creative Nonfiction, The New Yorker, The Rumpus and Harper’s, 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 Faulkner introduces students to the tragic and lyrical vision at the heart of William Faulkner’s best and most difficult novels. Faulkner writes about the American South – the parochial anxieties and inheritances and contradictions of the “Lost Cause” culture – but also about the moral calamities intrinsic to southern (and by extension, American) history. Faulkner's work unearths the origins of whiteness while charting the legacy of slavery, exposing the roots and branches of racism. 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. This course also extends our view to a more modern, if still troubled Mississippi, through the work of Jesmyn Ward, winner of the National Book Award. The course features the novels The Sound and the Fury and Absalom, Absalom!, by William Faulkner; and Sing, Unburied, Sing, by Jesmyn Ward. (1/2 credit)
UAS Immigrant Literature: A Legacy of Innovation tackles everything from the complications and triumphs of interracial relationships, to having parents whose values are completely different to your own, to what it means to be one thing religiously and another thing culturally. What do we learn from belonging to more than one culture? Or feeling like we belong to none? And what can the dominant culture learn about itself from voices on the margins? The short stories, novels, graphic novels, poetry, films, plays and comedy specials covered in this course emerge from immigrants and their descendants the world over. These texts help us to look more deeply into the disorientation, excitement and insight gained from moving between cultures. Possible texts include: The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamid, Hasan Minhaj’s Homecoming King, The Arrival by Shaun Taun, and We Should Change Our Names by NoViolet Bulawayo. (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? Our texts will include short stories, graphic novels, novels and films. (1/2 credit)
UAS Modern American Literature examines the traumatic impact of historical oppression on the bodies and minds of individuals. In three contemporary American novels—Toni Morrison’s Beloved, Junot Diaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, and Tommy Orange’s There There—we see characters struggling to cope with the ways they have been fractured by their past, and we also see them discovering the power of love, community and storytelling to heal. We will try to glean from these novels a better understanding both of the lived reality of America’s histories of slavery, colonialism and genocide—and of the tools and wisdom we all might use to cope and to heal. (1/2 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 Shakespeare introduces students to the richness and complexity of William Shakespeare’s works, plays whose 400-year-old language is still alive and well and evolving on stage and screen today. 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 on the page and on the stage. We use film, performances and creative approaches to develop students’ ability to assess production choices and deepen their understanding from the directing, acting and audience perspectives. (For 11th graders only during 2021-22) (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)
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 10th, 11th and 12th graders. (1 credit)
Not Offered This Year; 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)
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 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 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 much of the term reading Fyodor Dostoevsky's The Brothers Karamazov; it's a giant, philosophical, spiritual, and utterly strange novel. We close with a number of short and subtle short stories by Anton Chekhov. Discussions and assignments demand both close reading and a constant wrestling with what 19th century Russians called the "accursed questions"—questions like: Should we believe that our suffering is ultimately valuable and for the good? What about others' suffering? And what kind of order (political, religious, familial) do we really need, if any? (1/2 credit)
UAS Toni Morrison is a class that disrupts and complicates stereotypes about people of color in America through selected works by the award-winning author Toni Morrison. With her groundbreaking lyrical prose, offbeat plots and nuanced characters, Morrison – the first Black author ever to win the Nobel Prize in Literature – explores Black joy, pride and beauty even while writing about the tribulations of adolescence, colorism and exploitation. In this class, students will craft stylistic and thematic emulations, analyze prize-winning literature, endeavor to solve real world problems, respond to critics, and celebrate the diversity and breadth of the Black community in Morrison’s books. We will read novels like Song of Solomon, Paradise and Sula, and watch the documentary The Pieces I Am. (1/2 credit)