An Independent K-12 school on a beautiful wooded campus, 3 miles from Washington, D.C.

English

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ll students must earn a full credit in English each year in addition to fulfilling summer reading requirements. Grade 12 students choose from a wide array of in-depth, semester-long courses that resemble college electives.

To see how a student progresses through English over the four years, please click here.

A full-time Writing Center, staffed by English teachers and student tutors, enables students to seek assistance at any time with writing assignments from all disciplines.

Department Philosophy

The Language Arts / English program at The Potomac School focuses on creating an understanding and appreciation of the richness and complexity of language through the integration of reading, writing, speaking, and listening. In all grades, students are exposed to and analyze quality literature and learn to communicate their ideas in a written and spoken form. We encourage reading both in and outside of the classroom and strive to create a community of proficient readers who engage with both fictional and expository material, thinking critically as they construct meaning and interpret a text. Understanding that writing is a process, the students build on the skills learned in the lower grades as they write for a variety of purposes and audiences. We invite each student to experiment with language to develop a unique voice and a passion for the written word. Oral language is developed in all grades, and we encourage the students to communicate effectively through speech, debate, and classroom conversations. As the students progress through the grades, they are exposed to content and skills that build on their prior knowledge and move them from concrete to abstract thinkers.

Course Descriptions

English Grade 9

English 9 is an introduction to literary genre intended as a foundation for continued work in the discipline throughout Potomac’s Upper School. This course helps students understand the structure and grammar of the English language; master the skills of reading, writing, speaking, and critical thinking; and gain self-awareness through reading and interpreting literature. Teachers emphasize expository writing, but also provide opportunities for expressive and poetic writing. The course develops students’ formal writing through a carefully constructed sequence of assignments that build in length and complexity throughout the year. Students learn to craft their writing through a focus on the many stages of the process, including several pre-writing methods, drafting and revision, and proofreading, and on writing to learn. In addition to these skills, students will gain experience in and familiarity with the habits of mind relevant to the study of literary texts and the craft of composition. Texts in the class share an essential question: What role do journeys play in shaping one’s identity in different social contexts?

Texts may include: Their Eyes Were Watching God, by Zora Neale Hurston; The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie; The Odyssey, by Homer (translated by Robert Fagles); The Taming of the Shrew, by William Shakespeare; and numerous short stories, non-fiction essays, and poems.

English Grade 9: Exposition and Literature

For their ninth grade English course, students may be recommended for the English 9: Exposition and Literature class. Students in this English section learn and apply strategies to improve critical reading and analytical writing skills, including retention and recall of information; development of ideas; composition of fluid sentences and paragraphs; and organization of essays. While students read much of the same literature and share many of the same assessments as those in English 9, the points of distinction—pace and emphasis—create an optimal learning environment for each student.

English Grade 10

An English class is a place for discussion, interpretation, argument, and rumination. Reading is a personal pursuit, yet community elaboration, explanation, dissent, and affirmation have, for many ages, enhanced the learning and enjoyment a reader can wrest from a piece of literature. In English 10, students read, evaluate, and write about plays, essays, and novels. The curriculum emphasizes reading comprehension, literary study and interpretation, along with systematic study and practice in writing techniques, composition organization, grammar, and vocabulary. Students respond to compelling texts with varied types of writing, ranging from informal and creative to highly formal and analytical.

Texts include: Brave New World, by Aldous Huxley; The Color Purple by Alice Walker; Night, by Elie Wiesel; The Oedipus Cycle, by Sophocles; Frankenstein, by Mary Shelley; and Macbeth, by William Shakespeare.

English Grade 10: Exposition and Literature

In the tenth grade students may be recommended for the Exposition and Literature class. Students in this English section learn and apply strategies to improve critical reading and analytical writing skills, including retention and recall of information; development of ideas; composition of fluid sentences and paragraphs; and organization of essays. While students read much of the same literature and share many of the same assessments as those in English 10, the points of distinction—pace and emphasis—create an optimal learning environment for each student.

English Grade 11

English 11 centers thematically on the development of the individual identity. In particular, students examine the forces that shape identity and the conflicts that can result when an individual’s values come into conflict with a society’s. The works they will read are largely American and British. The course incorporates a variety of voices to broaden the perspectives of students as they consider this important theme in different contexts and theoretical frameworks. The course will expand upon skills honed in grades 9 and 10. Written close analysis in the form of shorter passage examinations will allow students to develop concise and precise interpretations in their writing. Students will develop sustained critical analysis in longer essays. Class discussion is the backbone of the course, and students will need to participate actively and to use textual references in support of their interpretations. Discussions and group projects will also play a role in emphasizing active, multifaceted engagement with literature.

Texts include: Hamlet, by William Shakespeare; Fences, by August Wilson; The Catcher in the Rye, by J.D. Salinger; Linden Hills, by Gloria Naylor; and The Great Gatsby, by F. Scott Fitzgerald.

Advanced Placement English Grade 11: Literature and Composition

AP English: Literature and Composition is conducted as an introductory college-level seminar in the junior year. Students take the AP Literature Exam in the spring, and throughout the year they are asked to read, write, and think at a level demanded by the exam. Students should select this course based on their love of reading, facility with nuanced texts, and demonstrated skill in writing effectively about literature. The course is demanding, both in the pace of reading and in expectations for writing. Students are expected to drive class discussions and to come to class prepared not just to summarize readings of sophisticated texts, but to articulate nuanced viewpoints and cite evidence in support. Frequent written close analysis in the form of shorter essays will allow students to develop concise and precise interpretations in their writing. Longer papers will ask for sustained analysis examining broader thematic, stylistic, and cultural elements in literature, and revision will encourage students to see writing as a process. In addition to studying thematically related novels and plays, the students will explore several poetic periods. Admission to the course is by department approval.

English Grade 12

All Grade 12 students take two semester-long English electives, all of which require regular writing assignments in a variety of formats and lengths. In many respects, Grade 12 English courses resemble college electives: teachers guide students in their studies, but they also expect students to demonstrate a growing capacity to develop both independence and originality in their approach to their work.

Column Writing

Essay writing is an excellent way to make sense of experience as it unfolds and writing works best when it’s a regular practice, like yoga or gardening. In this course, students will cultivate the writing habit—one column-style essay every week—so that making sense of ordinary life will become part of their ordinary life. Each student will cover a specific beat--a place or a realm of endeavor--and write about what happens in that field each week. One class period each week will be devoted to peer critique, and another will be devoted to lessons designed to hone your skills as a professional writer. Most other class periods will be given to research, writing, and discussion of columns written by professionals. The goal of the course is to help students cultivate the connection between thoroughly developed thought and thoroughly developed prose and to let them practice the principles of sentence craft, making vessels out of words as potters make them out of clay.

Comedy and Satire

Victor Hugo believed that “Laughter is the sun that drives winter from the human face.” If laughter is the healthiest response for human beings, why do most great works of literature center on the tragedy of human existence rather than on celebrating its humor? In this class, we will examine the comedic as a defining element of human life in order to develop an understanding of its nature and function. Is it just, as British writer and actor Peter Ustinov suggested, that “Comedy is simply a funny way of being serious”? We will also look at the societal role of satire, comedy’s close cousin. In addition to reading texts, we will watch several films to understand how visualizing comedy enhances our appreciation of the humor. Texts may include works by Shakespeare, Oscar Wilde, Vonnegut, and Douglas Adams as well as The Onion, Dave Barry, and other modern comedic writers.

Dystopian Literature

Books and films like The Hunger Games are wildly popular today, but they emerge from a dystopian tradition that has shown itself to be an enduring and thought-provoking genre of literature. This course will examine the world of dystopian literature from some of its earliest works through some more contemporary ones. Along the way, we will attempt to answer some big questions about the genre. What is the appeal of imagining oppressive societies? What do dystopias show about our anxieties as humans? To what extent do these works emerge from particular historical periods and concerns? How do these works speak to larger truths about the individual, society, duty, and free will? We will begin with a look at More’s Utopia to get a sense what the origin of the genre is, and we will read a selection of other works which may include: Gulliver’s Travels, 1984, A Clockwork Orange, The Handmaid’s Tale, Never Let Me Go, and The Road.

Marginalized Voices

This course asks what it means to be privileged and what it means to be marginalized. By listening to the voices that have been historically pushed aside for reasons including race, ethnicity, class, gender, and sexual orientation, we will explore not only what can be learned from these voices, but also about the society that marginalizes these voices. Reading works such as Alexie’s The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven, Morrison’s Beloved, Kushner’s Angels in America, Yang’s American Born Chinese, short stories, essays, and poems and watching films, we search for a way to expand our understanding of identity. In addition to leading class discussions, students will respond to the texts in several different modes, from informal writing to the analytical critical essay, continually working to increase the power of and precision in their writing. Students will also choose to explore an issue one marginalized group faces and produce a formal research argument, which they will present to the class.

Masculinity in Literature

How does literature influence and reflect our ideas about what it means to be a man? This course will use masculinity as an interpretive framework to understand the many ways in which sexuality, gender, economic status, race, and cultural identity affect one's sense of identity. Is masculinity changing in the modern world, or is it the same as it has always been? Does being a man mean the same thing to all people, or is it a social construct? And what influence do these concepts have on the lives of women? We will read novels and plays that challenge the idea that masculinity is a monolith and at the same time examine the many assumptions that undergird the broader idea of masculinity. Some of the works we may read: Fight Club, Invisible Man, Othello, The Sun Also Rises,Topdog/Underdog, and A Streetcar Named Desire.

Media and Literature

How are we influenced by the media we interact with? Media allow us to preserve and share ideas, but can they also restrict the range of thoughts that can be expressed? How does control of the media lead to real-world power? Marshall McLuhan said, “the medium is the message.” In this course, we will examine many different kinds of media, with the goal of better understanding how media structure our individual and cultural identities. The course begins with a look at the origins of language and writing, and we will progress into analysis of novels, plays, podcasts, art, and social media. Some of the authors we will read may include George Orwell, Dave Eggers, Ernest Cline, William Shakespeare, and Michel Foucault. By the end of the course, students will tackle a self-designed project analyzing one particular variety of new media and its effects on users.

Mystery and Detective Fiction

Beginning with the origins of the detective story proper in the 19th century, students in this course will look closely at one of the most enduringly popular genres of fiction through some of its most famous and striking examples. We start with tales of the amateur detectives of Edgar Allan Poe (C. Auguste Dupin), Arthur Conan Doyle (Sherlock Holmes), and Agatha Christie (Hercule Poirot). Moving across the Atlantic and forward in time, we turn to hard-boiled stories of the private investigators of the West Coast by Dashiell Hammett (Sam Spade) and Raymond Chandler (Philip Marlowe). Finally, we will look at a variety of more contemporary takes on the mystery and detective story, in the form of the police procedural (such as Sara Paretsky’s V. I. Warshawski tales), the postmodern (Jorge Luis Borges’s labyrinthine mystery stories), and the satirical (Tom Stoppard’s The Real Inspector Hound). Along the way, we will take some time to screen film and television versions of some of these narratives to see how the genre and its conventions translate effectively into the audio-visual realm and how those versions affect our understanding of the written texts.

Myth: Where the Ancient Meets the Modern

Beginning with a close reading and study of myths regarding the origins of the universe, students will explore the enduring tales that tell the story of humanity. Because myths are used not only to engage and entertain the reader and listener, but also to establish standards for societal behavior, our close study of them is critical for understanding the implicit assumptions that underpin and unify civilizations. The course opens with a survey of world creation myths that highlights thematic similarities despite geographical and cultural differences. Students read Ovid’s Metamorphoses, which provides a wry inspection of classical Greco-Roman mythology. In addition, we read adaptations of Greek and Roman mythology throughout time, exploring “texts” such as paintings, statues, films, and drama. Students will complete writing assignments, creative exercises, and group projects. Throughout these endeavors, we will ask: What is the purpose of myths? What is their importance over time? How do they apply to my life today?

Poetry and Place

How does where we are influence who we are? This course means to offer a fresh look at how a variety of poets from a variety of locations and times understand the idea of place. What role does place play in our identity? How do poets understand and represent different landscapes? This course will function as a discussion-based seminar, but will offer opportunities for extending our study of poetry, including field trips, creative writing exercises and workshops, as well as outside study of local poets. We will specifically examine place in the poetic imagination using several approaches: regional and national; real and visionary; urban and pastoral; historical and contemporary. In our examination, we will place poems of apparently different traditions and styles in contact with each other, with the hope that this interaction will offer new insight and understanding. Among the poets we will look at: Bishop, Oliver, Dove, Heaney, Baca, Wordsworth, Keats, Whitman, Hughes, Lowell, Wright, Crane, Stevens, Frost, Eliot, Williams, Alexander, and Walcott.

Shakespeare's Wise Fools

Shakespeare’s plays present us with two kinds of fools: the natural and the artificial. Though the natural fool has the potential to provide the audience with cheap laughs and easy jokes, the artificial fool possesses the wit and intellect to challenge our understanding of the way the world works. In this course, we will explore both types of fools as we seek to make sense of a few of Shakespeare’s comedies and tragedies. Of course, since Shakespeare’s plays were meant to be performed, not merely read, we will spend much of the semester up on our feet acting, breathing life into the characters and their words; all students are expected to be willing to read parts regardless of their level of acting experience. In addition to daily discussions and close textual analysis, the class will engage in monologue and scene performances as well as take a trip to a local theatre to see a live production. Plays studied will likely include As You Like It, King Lear, and Twelfth Night.

The Short Story

This course is designed to help students explore the complex relationship between narrative method and message in the short fiction genre. Our study will begin with a brief investigation of the early forms of the genre, as in the frame narratives of Geoffrey Chaucer. Our focus then shifts to the nineteenth-century, when the popular modern genre truly began to take shape with the works of Herman Melville, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Edgar Allan Poe. We will read stories by major literary voices of the modern era, as well, including Anton Chekhov, Alice Munro, Franz Kafka, D.H. Lawrence, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, James Joyce, Richard Wright, Flannery O’Connor, William Faulkner, and John Updike. Students will write several critical essays, participate in daily discussions, research focal authors, and share presentations with the class.

Speech that Matters

Speech That Matters is a senior English elective in which students study and practice the art of public speaking, presentations and persuasion. Public speaking is an important life skill, and those who intentionally develop the skill have advantages in communications and leadership. The course helps students to prepare for and understand the variety of occasions in which public speaking is appropriate and necessary.

The habits of good prepared speaking are made available to students through examples, consistent practice, and individual feedback. Students discuss the nature of public discourse by reading and watching historic speeches. Students are assessed on their delivery of a variety of speech types: object narratives, value speeches, persuasive speeches, procedural speeches, retirement speeches and toasts. Meanwhile, students engage in exercises where improvisation, taking risks, and messing up helps to build their confidence before an audience.The course culminates with the students' crafting of a longer and more in-depth persuasive speech. Throughout the course, students reflect in writing on their own growth as speakers, readers, and learners. Speech That Matters provides opportunities for seniors to grow as writers, to exercise creative composition, to face personal fears, and to develop stronger voices.

Women in British Literature

During the eighteenth century, a few daring British women began to write and publish their novels. By the nineteenth century, a few stood out as artists who equaled the creative genius of the best male writers. In this class, we will examine Pride and Prejudice, Jane Eyre, and North and South and discuss how the writing of women is different from that of their male contemporaries as they looked oppositely at gender roles and societal conventions and expectations. We will also critically view some of the many modern film versions of these novels and question why modern directors continuously remake films about them with such fanatical adoration. Students will write both creative and analytical pieces inspired by the literature and films.

Writing Fiction

Writing Fiction provides Potomac students the chance to encounter compelling short fiction, to unpack it and analyze how it works, and to write their own stories. The course revolves around reading and responding to anthologized works by both canonical and contemporary authors (from Guy de Maupassant to Junot Díaz, from Flannery O’Connor to Marjane Satrapi). Students write informally on a daily basis as well as submit stories to the class for workshopping and feedback. Ultimately, each student creates a portfolio of six original stories and an author’s introduction. Students learn to invent characters, settings, and problems. By crafting their own narrative aesthetic and experiencing the joy of making things up, students ultimately develop stronger and fuller voices.