MIDDLE SCHOOL COURSES
This course helps students understand literature by emphasizing critical thinking, close reading, the joy of reading, and symbolic interpretation. Students study texts such as The Wild Things; Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry; Pashmina; poetry; and short stories. Analytical writing assignments require students to use textual evidence to support their claims, and interior monologues challenge them to creatively explore the literature from various points of view. To encourage a love of reading, students engage in independent reading of their choice.
This course explores how characters try to find and remain true to their best selves when faced with external and internal pressures in texts such as To Kill a Mockingbird, Turtles All the Way Down, and Romeo and Juliet. Students write analytically, contextualizing and closely examining direct quotations to support their claims. They also write poetry and personal reflections that encourage them to connect literature to their own lives.
This course examines the journey of characters—in texts such as Fences, The Odyssey, and Life of Pi—who struggle with identity and attempt to be part of a harmonious society while confronting internal and external challenges. In class, students consider the world, their role in creating peaceful and meaningful lives, and how to create communities that thrive. The writing program includes analytical, personal, and imaginative assignments. Students continue to refine skills and learn strategies for developing a persuasive literary argument by formulating claims and supporting them with textual evidence and thorough, detailed explanations.
Creative Writing Workshop
This course encourages students, in a supportive workshop setting, to find and develop their creative voices. Students use vivid detail, dialogue, and expressive language to write character-driven short stories, dramatic scenes, and poetry. The class explores how writers and poets use different styles and techniques. Students experiment with these varied forms in their own writing through in-class exercises, journaling, and presentations.
UPPER SCHOOL COURSES
Students encounter characters caught in the struggle to be good while in conflict with external forces and their own passionate impulses. To imagine and evaluate such predicaments, students examine crux scenes—carefully crafted episodes in which characters are driven to make difficult choices. In the process, students refine their vocabulary of human motives, mental and emotional states, and ethics as they find themselves increasingly called upon to make aware and responsible choices of their own. Readings include a variety of voices across time and cultures, such as Frankenstein, Twelfth Night, The Handmaid’s Tale, Salvage the Bones, and selected short stories and poems. The writing program practices and refines analytical skills learned in the seventh through ninth grades. Students become more independent in discovering, developing, and defending their interpretations in persuasive essays. In addition, a study of language builds on students’ knowledge of grammatical concepts so that they may become more aware of their stylistic options as writers.
English III: The Living American Odyssey
Generations have struggled to come to America; new ones continue to line up at its borders. Why? What promise has American life presented to their imaginations? What has actual experience dealt both our ancestors and those who, to this very hour, seek to emulate them? What is particularly American—or not—about their varied responses to fraught pursuits of a better life? This course explores issues raised by the essentially American quest for a new kind of home in an often-inhospitable world. In addition to American poems, novels, stories, and plays, students read contemporary accounts of current on-the-ground events related to the struggles of immigrants. Readings may include Willa Cather’s O Pioneers!, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, Jhumpa Lahiri’s Interpreter of Maladies, Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad, and Brando Skyhorse’s The Madonnas of Echo Park.
English III: The Living American Revolution
The United States exists as an act of defiance against unjust rule. To fight for the equal regard of every human being is a collective calling, as set forth in Thomas Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence and carried out in the movements that would nudge America closer to its promises. That Jefferson wrote the declaration while owning slaves is a paradox that reflects the essentially disparate experience for Americans from different racial backgrounds. In this course, students imagine such struggles to fulfill our communal ideals and identify ways in which those ideals remain elusive. In addition to core readings of American poems, novels, stories, and plays, students consider the underpinnings of pivotal civil rights actions, both to deepen awareness of themselves as enmeshed in a national conversation and to strengthen their hands in helping to shape it. Readings may include Henry David Thoreau’s Civil Disobedience, Martin Luther King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper,” F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, Justin Torres’s We the Animals, and Bryan Stevenson’s Just Mercy.
English III Honors: American Studies
As an English honors class, American Studies aims for a high level of interpretive insight based on the careful examination of literary texts. It explores the historical and cultural contexts of great works from our national literature. Assignments include readings that stress these contexts, opening up distinctive avenues for discussion and interpretation. American Studies is intended for strong analytical thinkers, and works are chosen to pose unique reading and conceptual challenges. In addition to American classics, students read contemporary works that seek to reimagine American history and culture. Recent course texts have included Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, Toni Morrison’s Beloved, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying, Victor LaValle’s The Ballad of Black Tom, Justin Torres’s We the Animals, Steph Cha’s Your House Will Pay, Chang-rae Lee’s On Such a Full Sea, and Jesmyn Ward’s Sing, Unburied, Sing.
Prerequisite: B+ in English II.
Students read poems and short stories as guides for writing their own. Poetry is the initial focus to make students sensitive to what good literary writing requires—vivid and precise detail purposefully selected and arranged. After emulating some masters and experimenting in formal verse and freer forms, students clarify and deepen their visions by revising their work. Later, the focus is on the whole task of creating meaningful short fiction, dramatizing characters’ conflicts in well-crafted scenes, experimenting in narrative points of view, and fine-tuning language in arduous revisions. Readings include Mary Oliver’s A Poetry Handbook, several poems by writers including W. B. Yeats, Elizabeth Bishop, and Langston Hughes, as well as short stories by authors including Anton Chekhov, Katherine Anne Porter, and Raymond Carver. The class culminates with a final project rather than with a final examination.
The only prerequisite for this class is curiosity about William Shakespeare. Shakespeare’s contemporary Ben Jonson wrote that Shakespeare was “not of an age, but for all time.” This class explores the ways in which Shakespeare was both “of his age” as a working actor and writer and “for all time” as a cultural icon. The basis of the course is a close reading of selected plays that mark major developments in the evolution of Shakespeare’s art. The class also examines contemporary forces that shaped the form, thought, and language of the plays. Writing assignments and projects focus on texts as thought-in-action and on the relationship of language to action. The course is conceived in a two-year cycle: the readings do not duplicate plays previously read at other grade levels and, within each two-year cycle, no play is repeated, so students in their junior and senior years may take more than one semester of Shakespeare. At least one film and excerpts from an audio version of each play are studied in connection with the text.
AP Lang: Imagined Societies—Utopias and Dystopias
In the fourth-century B.C. dialogue Republic, Plato imagined one of the first ideal societies. In 1516, Sir Thomas More’s Utopia gave these fictional societies a name. But what some visionaries see as utopian may perhaps be its counterpart: dystopian. Students explore texts that imagine perfect societies as well as those that extrapolate contemporary threats to nightmarish ends. Although fictional works and films are used as launching pads, the course is rooted in nonfiction, with an emphasis on argumentative writing and the study of rhetorical strategies. Each fictional text is accompanied by relevant essays, historical documents, documentaries, and other nonfictional pieces that treat the issue at hand. Along with the Republic and Utopia, course texts may include Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels’s The Communist Manifesto, speeches by Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X, allegories by Isaac Asimov and Octavia E. Butler, Jonathan Swift’s “A Modest Proposal,” Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, and Alan Moore’s V for Vendetta.
AP Literature: Same House, Different Worlds
Students read literature that explores the mysterious relationship between adults and children. What is the nature of the different worlds that children and adults inhabit? Where do these worlds overlap? Where do they remain untouchably separate? What happens when one world encroaches upon the other? To what extent do we remain our parents’ children, even after we’ve grown up? What do adults have to learn from the children in their lives? In addition to exploring the ways in which literature answers these questions and others, students reflect on how authors use the relationship between parents and children to illuminate larger themes, both social and personal. Works may include William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Tarjei Vesaas’s The Ice Palace, Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights, James Baldwin’s Go Tell It on the Mountain, Richard Yates’s Revolutionary Road, and Colm Tóibín’s Brooklyn.
AP Literature: Outsiders and Aliens
Humans are social beings. From birth, people create communities cemented by familial, social, political, religious, and civic ties. For some, however, full recognition and acceptance into mainstream society proves elusive. Students look at works of drama, fiction, and poetry that explore the stories of such outliers. What or who prevents us from fitting in? Does any power exist for those forced to society’s margins? What do these people’s stories reveal about human nature generally? What do they reveal about contemporary social and cultural realities? Readings may include William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Thomas Hardy’s Jude the Obscure or Tess of the d’Urbervilles, Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis, Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon, Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49, Richard Powers’s Galatea 2.2, Junot Diaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, and Zadie Smith’s NW, as well as short stories and poetry, both classic and contemporary.
AP Literature: Good Grief
A character in graphic novelist Dash Shaw’s BodyWorld declares to another, “Living is suffering, Billy. Now give your mom a nice big hug.” Is that right? Buddha seems to say as much in the first of the Four Noble Truths—that suffering is a condition of being alive. Writers have dramatized the many forms of human suffering—in tragedy, comedy, and modern hybrids of traditional genres—for the reader’s vicarious experience and reflection. This course challenges the assumption that life constitutes suffering by exploring the meaning that can be made out of harrowing experiences. Authors help students address questions from diverse angles: How is it that some people can overcome the worst predicaments, whereas others cannot? To what extent do we create and perpetuate our own crises? How much of our success in coping, healing, and emerging wiser depends on ourselves? What does compassion really require of us? Works may include the Book of Job, the Gospel of Luke, William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis, Nathanael West’s Miss Lonelyhearts, Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, Albert Camus’s The Plague, and Louise Erdrich’s Tracks, among others, as well as a variety of poems representing voices across time and cultures.
English IV: What's New
In this course, students read new literature to explore contemporary thinking on current issues, such as Gen Z identity, the tyranny of technology, and survival of the species in the face of pandemic and environmental collapse. Students encounter writings that approach such present-moment, life-determining subjects from a variety of perspectives, as well as critiques of these works, eventually publishing their own opinions in the first-ever Harvard-Westlake Review of Books. At the end of the year, students help select the course’s themes and texts for the following year. One early theme might be “Apocalypse” and include The Country of Ice Cream Star by Sandra Newman, Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel, The Dog Stars by Peter Heller, and Recursion by Blake Crouch. Another possible theme, “Borders,” would feature Exit West by Hamid Mohsin, Lost Children Archive by Valeria Luiselli, NW by Zadie Smith, and Freshwater by Akwaeke Emezi.
English IV: Criminal Minds
The foulest criminals fascinate us. In podcasts or television shows that serialize their seemingly unthinkable cruelties, their stories simultaneously disturb and compel. This course investigates the criminal psyche, exploring why people are tempted to commit such heinous crimes to achieve their ends. Students consider how to respond to such atrocities: How can justice be administered to deal with the apparently inexplicable extremes of human behavior? From Gothic mystery to contemporary thriller, an evolving genre presents the elements of craft that make such narratives so interesting. In addition to writing analytically, students try their own hands at the crime story, emulating techniques such as suspense, pacing, and voice to demonstrate learning. Works may include Edgar Allan Poe’s stories, Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca, Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep, Patricia Highsmith’s Strangers on a Train, Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, Attica Locke’s Bluebird, Bluebird, Celeste Ng’s Everything I Never Told You, and Jonathan Lethem’s Motherless Brooklyn.
Honors Senior Seminar: One Life's Worth
Writers have always wondered about the value of a human life. While some lives can appear more important than others, some seem to have no value at all. And if a life can be imagined as lesser than another or even completely worthless, how can such views be reconciled with our most basic sensibilities about sitting shoulder to shoulder in a learning community? This seminar challenges assumptions about human worth and worthiness. Placing works with deep roots in Western culture into conversation with more contemporary voices, students explore issues of power, privilege, and who sets the price on a person’s value; what self-value can have to do with it; and both how this conversation is changing and how to be part of it. Centripetal readings are Homer’s Iliad, William Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, Jane Austen’s Persuasion, and Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot. Readings around this core may include Khaled Khalifa’s Death Is Hard Work, Franz Kafka’s “A Hunger Artist,” Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own, Terrance Hayes’s American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin, Albert Camus’s The Myth of Sisyphus, and poems by T. S. Eliot, Gwendolyn Brooks, Charles Bukowski, Adrienne Rich, Christian Wiman, Ada Limón, and others.
Corequisite: Concurrent enrollment in an AP English IV course.