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.
All 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.
English 9 and English 9: Exposition and Literature
For their ninth grade English course, students may be placed either in the English 9: Exposition and Literature class or English 9. These classes are intended as a foundation for their study of the discipline throughout Potomac’s Upper School. These courses help students better understand 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 they also provide opportunities for more personal and reflective writing. The courses develop 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. The pace of the two courses varies slightly and Exposition and Literature will provide more individual attention in slightly smaller classes. Students will be placed in whichever class their eighth-grade teacher recommends.
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); Julius Caesar, by William Shakespeare; and Coming of Age in America: A Multicultural Anthology, non-fiction essays, and poems.
English 10 and English 10: Exposition and Literature
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 the English 10 classes, 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. The pace of the two courses varies slightly and Exposition and Literature will provide more individual attention in slightly smaller classes. Students will be placed in whichever class their ninth grade teacher recommends.
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 11 and English 11: Exposition and Literature
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 central, 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. The pace of the two courses varies slightly and Exposition and Literature will provide more individual attention in slightly smaller classes. Students will be placed in whichever class their tenth grade teacher recommends.
Texts include: Hamlet, by William Shakespeare; Fences, by August Wilson; The Catcher in the Rye, by J.D. Salinger; 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.
Advanced Humanities Seminar: Critiquing American Icons
What were the iconic images of the 1950s and 60s? What myths do we associate with these icons? How did these images circulate among the US public? In what ways did citizens challenge, uphold and reshape iconography of the time? In this interdisciplinary course, students will approach these questions by examining a range of cultural and historical texts to understand how Americans have interrogated and critiqued some of the country’s most popular icons and ideas. In particular, we will investigate the way these interrogations coalesced in the new social movements of the 1960s—the “countercultures” of that decade: student activism, the classical civil rights movement, women’s liberation, gay rights, the anti-war movement, and others.
Adventure, Food, and Travel Literature
In an increasingly global world, the experiences of both physical and metaphorical travel are frequent fodder for writers. This course will examine the different avenues modern writers pursue as they weave stories of memory and meaning by traipsing through unknown territories, undertaking dangerous adventures, and exploring the allure of food. With each new text, students will engage in their own adventures and culinary experiences which will provide them with the material to write, present, and creatively imagine their own narratives. As they do so, they will continually reflect on the ways that non-fiction writers convey meaningful stories that ultimately contribute to our understanding of ourselves and others.
Comedy and Satire: The World Laughs With You
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. 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.
The dystopian tradition has shown itself to be an enduring and thought-provoking genre of literature. 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?
Ethics: Making Moral Choices
What does it mean to make the “right” decision? What constitutes a good life? How should we evaluate ethical problems? This course will introduce students to the basic ideas of moral philosophy, starting with the writings of early thinkers who meditate on values and moral considerations and progressing through more modern ethical systems. The final portion of the course will explore contemporary ethical debates. All the while, we will read works of literature to apply the competing ethical theories as they assess right and wrong actions.
Film and Literature
Most of us enjoy and are familiar with movies, but they are also worthy of serious study. This course will begin with a look at how to talk about and analyze film, learning the language of film and the possibilities for critical interpretation. Using literature as a lens, we will then move on to studying how films adapt the elements and conventions of novels, poems, and short stories for the screen, and how literature is subsequently changed by film’s unique abilities. We will examine several different genres (Western, thriller) and types of film (Hollywood, independent).
Flights of Fantasy
This class looks at the pervasive themes that appear in the literature of our imagination from 17th century fairy tales to modern works of fantasy fiction. Beginning with a study of "Little Red Riding Hood" across different time periods and cultures, students trace the ways archetypal stories (and the images that accompany many of them) have continued to shape our fears of the worst and dreams of the best in the stories we design for our children.
Introduction to Journalism
In this course, students will learn about the history of American media including the roles of and responsibilities of journalists including ethical and legal responsibilities. Students will learn to write various news and feature articles that inform and engage readers skills essential to writing across platforms such as sourcing and interviewing techniques and critical thinking about news values and audiences.
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.
This course will examine several works of literature using the lens of modern psychology. How do we understand the choices, motivations, and struggles of characters, and how do authors capture those psychological complexities on the page? Where is the border between cognitive tendencies and illness?
Modern Women Writers
This course addresses how the experience of gender shapes the work of women authors and to what extent the increasing participation of women authors has changed the kinds of ideas available in literature. This course will examine the work of modern women authors in poetry, plays, and novels. Short essays may include works by Joan Didion, Alice Walker, Jhumpa Lahiri, Gloria Naylor, Lorraine Hansberry, and Margaret Atwood.
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. What do these stories of mystery, procedure, and moral corruption have to say about us?
Myth: Where the Ancient Meets the Modern
This class will take a close look at the ancient stories that have been used to engage, explain, and guide human behavior and how they are manifested and interpreted in the modern world through art, film, and literature. Our close study of them is critical for understanding the implicit assumptions that underpin and unify civilizations. What is the purpose of myths? What is their importance over time? How do they apply to my life?
Poetry and Thought
William Wordsworth called poetry “the history and science of feeling”: poems convey powerful feelings but do so through a reflection on or ordering of feeling by thought. In this course, we examine how poems represent thought: how they bring in processes of thought and criticize prevailing forms of thinking. How do poems represent logic and persuasion? How do they relate thinking and memory? How do symbols and analogies relate to thought? How do poems suggest language shaping thought or thought shaping language?
Social Justice and Literature
In this course, students will examine contemporary American literature through the lens of social justice. Students will explore the role literary works play in social change and develop an informed awareness of various identity formations like race, gender, class, and sexual orientation.
Speech that Matters
Speech That Matters is an 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. This helps students to prepare for and understand the variety of occasions in which public speaking is appropriate and necessary. 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
This class examines three masterpieces by women that established women’s legitimacy as authors and initiated the idea of a uniquely feminine perspective on the way the world operates. How is their writing different from that of their male contemporaries as they looked at gender roles and societal conventions and expectations? We will also critically watch some of the many modern film versions of these novels.
This course studies recognized classics of twentieth century world literature from several non- Western cultures that engage major social, political, and economic changes. Students gauge the power of literature both to record profound societal changes and to create the public understanding that is crucial to addressing them. In addition to traditional and graphic novels, the course will encompass poetry, works in translation, and films.
Writing Fiction provides students the chance to encounter compelling short fiction, to analyze how it works, and to write their own stories. Students write informally on a daily basis as well as submit stories to the class for feedback. Each student will create a portfolio of his or her own stories. By crafting their own narrative aesthetic and experiencing the joy of making things up, students ultimately develop stronger and fuller voices.