An Opportunity for Questioning

Upper School English teacher Shelby Stokes challenges students to take ownership of their learning.

Riverdale English classes aim to promote the habits of thought that are necessary for effective reading and writing. Students follow a common program in grades 6 through 11, culminating in Constructing America, the American studies course taught jointly with the history department. Students are encouraged to become active participants in their own learning through close reading and critical discussion of literature, and frequent practice in writing, both formal and informal. The department’s sequential writing program aims to help students become increasingly fluent, precise users of language with primary, but not exclusive emphasis upon the development of analytical skills. In literature, students study the principal literary genres and the fundamental themes and concerns of serious literature. The department views the reading and writing that is the heart of the English curriculum as liberal arts, that is, as means of empowering students to live fuller, more complete lives.

Please select below for either required or elective courses.

English 9—Required

English 9

The course aims to help students acquire the habits of thought that make for effective reading and writing so that they develop as intelligent, critical readers and as competent writers of personal, creative, and analytical pieces. Students work extensively on paragraph structure at the beginning of the year and by mid-year are producing full-length analytical essays. The texts studied include Charlotte Brontë's "Jane Eyre," Tim O’Brien’s "The Things They Carried," Nikolai Gogol's "The Nose" and "The Overcoat," Shakespeare’s "Othello," and Henrik Ibsen's "A Doll's House," as well as a wide selection of poetry drawn from "The Seagull Reader." Short stories and essays are determined by individual teachers.

Vocabulary study draws on words from class discussion, as well as selected from the literature studied. Grammar study begins with a review of parts of speech and moves on to the parts of the sentence, independent and dependent clauses, and the use of modifying phrases and clauses. 

English 10—Required

English 10

“Never again will a single story be told as though it’s the only one.”  – John Berger

In English 10 we gather texts that tell striking stories, and we also examine how these stories are told. We explore other ways the “single story” can be told—from a different perspective, in a different genre, mode, or even medium. Thus each text in the curriculum has a “twin text,” another work that tells a similar story but in a different way, a different form, with different emphases. We juxtapose these texts with the aim of uncovering untold stories, contemplating the craft of the writer, and opening up discussion of issues relevant to the characters’ lives and our own.

Writing in English 10 spans a variety of genres: analytical, personal, and creative. Short written responses to homework reading sharpen the reader’s eye and hone writing skills. Full-length essays (three to five pages) challenge students to formulate a thesis and support that thesis with close interpretation of well selected passages. The art of the personal essay is introduced with model essays that showcase the blend of narration and reflection that is particular to this form. Creative writing assignments tend to be imitative, inviting students to appreciate an author’s craft by using the stylistic devices and following the formal constraints of the original.  

Constructing America—Required

Constructing America

An interdisciplinary course, team-taught by teachers from the history and English departments, that introduces juniors to the history of American civilization and culture. The focus is on the ways in which Americans have—from the founding of the Massachusetts Bay Colony to the Gulf War and beyond—asserted the special nature of American society even while they have contested and interrogated the meaning of such “exceptionalism.” The course seeks to investigate and understand the various modes through which Americans have explored a sense of American uniqueness by examining a variety of political and literary genres: treatises, essays, letters, speeches, sermons, diaries, fiction, and poetry. It examines political texts—e.g., the Declaration of Independence, the Gettysburg Address, Letter from a Birmingham Jail—from a literary as well as a historical perspective, with attention to their uses of rhetoric and literary devices. And it likewise examines literary texts—e.g., the poetry of Whitman and William Carlos Williams, the prose of Herman Melville and William Faulkner—from a sociological as well as a rhetorical-aesthetic perspective, with attention to their capacity to illuminate moments in the nation’s political, and intellectual transformation.

Crucial questions investigated include: How have Americans defined national identity? How have they contested fixed and stable understandings of “the American” and sought to replace them with plural and shifting identifications? How has the national literature enunciated the evolving relationship between creativity and politics, entertainment and education? How can narrative modes be read as reflections of American experiences? How have Americans imagined and represented the defining differences between American literature, sensibility, landscape, and humor and those of Europe and the rest of the world? How have philosophers and poets, politicians and journalists, elite and dispossessed classes conceived of America as a place of particular opportunity, providence, and oppression? How have the actual experiences of various categories of Americans mirrored and/or contradicted these conceptions? 

Integrated Liberal Studies (ILS)—Required

Integrated Liberal Studies (ILS)

ILS, a required course for seniors, is a multidisciplinary examination of questions of fundamental human importance. The primary goal is to develop students’ critical thinking through close reading of primary sources, discussion-based learning, and analytical writing. During the first twenty weeks of the course, students read works in a variety of disciplines to explore two essential questions that have been central to human civilization since its beginnings and that continue to engage contemporary thinkers. One is an ontological question, “who or what are we as human beings?” and the other a moral and political question, “how ought we to live and conduct our lives?" These two questions, (“Self” and “Virtue” for short) provide the framework for detailed study and discussion of specific works and are intended to help students to formulate good questions of their own within these fields of discourse. The questions are examined through the lenses of different disciplines, such as Art, Literature, Philosophy, and Psychology to create a multidisciplinary perspective. Students study a set of core texts in common along with choices introduced by individual instructors. Among the core texts are Levi’s "Survival in Auschwitz," Plato’s "Meno," Aristotle’s "Nicomachean Ethics," the anonymous Buddhist text "The Questions of King Milinda," Montaigne’s "On Repenting," selections from the writings of Nietzsche, Freud’s "Civilization and its Discontents," W. E. B. DuBois’s "The Souls of Black Folk" (on double consciousness), de Beauvoir’s "The Second Sex," Ayn Rand’s "The Virtue of Selfishness," and Kenzaburo Oe’s 1964 novel, "A Personal Matter." In addition, instructors offer a variety of elective texts including extracts from Homer’s "Iliad," Saint Augustine’s "Confessions," Rousseau’s "Reveries of the Solitary Walker," Nietzsche’s "Genealogy of Morals," Borges’ "Everything and Nothing," Horney’s "New Ways in Psychoanalysis," Geertz’s "From the Native’s Point of View," Gopnik’s The "Philosophical Baby," and Truffaut’s film, "L’Enfant Sauvage." Two five-week units follow, dealing with “Human Beings and the Environment” and “Human Beings and Society.” In these units, students will examine major issues that they will have to confront in their future careers. This year the focus of these units will be climate change and social justice, using Kolbert’s "Field Notes from a Catastrophe" and Alexander’s "The New Jim Crow" as core texts. The intention is that students should draw upon the theoretical understanding they have developed in “Self” and “Virtue” to explore these topics. These units will allow students to make connections between the theoretical work of the first part of the course and their own questions concerning how we should act in tackling real-world questions. The course ends with a short elective unit in which each of the eight members of the ILS faculty will offer students different choices, such as in-depth reading and discussion of a major and substantial novel, the history of science, and opportunities for off-campus experiential learning. ILS assessment includes frequent impromptu writing, student-directed discussions and presentations to classmates, and the writing of interdisciplinary analytical papers. 

American Literature (Kildahl, fall semester)

American Literature

American literature reaches a level of maturity and self-assurance beginning in 1850 that permits us to say we have our “own” national literature, and also that we have examples of great and timeless masterpieces produced in this new country. This course will sample some of the masterworks that emerge during a roughly 75-year period from 1850 to 1925. This course will likely appeal to students who enjoyed the literature they read in Constructing America and who want to read further, sometimes in the same authors. 

The course will range over many genres—romance, realism, local color and humor, poetry both lyric and longer, and some non-fiction prose. Core texts will be Hawthorne’s "The Scarlet Letter," selected chapters from Melville’s "Moby Dick," poetry written by four American poets: Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, Robert Frost, and Wallace Stevens, and additional fiction of Edith Wharton, William Dean Howells, Mark Twain, and possibly one more (Sarah Orne Jewett or Ernest Hemingway).

The course is for people who want to read, like to read, and are willing to read. Class will be devoted to discussion and analysis, with a few films to support our reading. Assessment will be traditional: reading quizzes, in-class writing, and longer “take-home” essays. 

Black American Literature (Stokes, spring semester)

Black American Literature

The position of African American writing in American society has changed a great deal. It has gone from being a marginalized voice to, in some cases, a canonical one. However, that journey is long and difficult, and it is not over. Nevertheless, even when the country and the world weren’t listening, African American literature was an essential component of the American psyche. While not a “complete” survey of works created by and/or about African Americans, this course will endeavor to examine different watershed African American works. We will read "The Autobiography of Malcolm X," Toni Morrison’s "A Mercy," August Wilson’s "Fences" and "The Piano Lesson," and Ralph Ellison’s "Invisible Man," as well as many poems and short stories by a diverse selection of writers including Phillis Wheatley, John Edgar Wideman, Langston Hughes, Yusef Komunyakaa, and Gwendolyn Brooks. We will also support our discussions of literature with music and a movie, Spike Lee’s "Do the Right Thing."

Colonizers and Colonized (McLain, fall semester)

Colonizers and Colonized

In this course, we will explore the rich and complicated artistic legacy of European Colonialism. Through our exploration of literary and cinematic works from Africa, South America, the Caribbean, Asia, and Australia, students will deepen their understanding of the economics, history, and culture of imperialism and the way Colonial power altered native peoples’ experience of themselves and their place in the world, creating a new sense of “otherness.” We will also think about post-colonialism and the ways in which European imperialism still resonates culturally and sustains global hierarchies of economic and political power, even as former colonies have become independent nation-states. Finally, we will examine the neo-Colonialist history of China, with a particular focus on Tibet. We will read historians like Jared Diamond ("Guns, Germs, and Steel") and Matthew Restall, and we will read excerpts from Edward Said and Frantz Fanon. We will explore works of fiction by authors like E.M. Forster, J.M. Coetzee, Leslie Marmon Silko, Jamaica Kincaid, Junot Diaz, Bessie Head, Chimamanda Adichie, and Viet Thanh Nguyen, as well as films like "Rabbit-proof Fence," "Dreaming Lhasa," and "A Passage to India."

Creative Writing (Banks, spring semester)

Creative Writing

A semester long course focusing entirely on writing our own poetry and short stories. We will both read and write, using mostly contemporary writers for inspiration and modeling. Many classes will mimic the typical workshop that serious writers will encounter in undergraduate and graduate studies. Class time will be devoted to discussing the various elements of craft involved in writing. If you take this class, be prepared to work hard and to listen to constructive criticism from both the teacher and your peers.

English and American Poetry 1600-2000 (Wellington, fall semester)

English and American Poetry 1600-2000

In this course we will examine some of the greatest short poems written in the English language. Beginning with the Renaissance poetry of William Shakespeare and John Donne and concluding with the late 20th Century works of Robert Lowell, we will see how poets of different periods have meditated on the meaning of life, the beauty and terror of nature, the process of growing up and old. We will think about how poets use verse to reflect on the challenges of the historical period in which they live and as a means of talking to other poets, both living and dead. Throughout the course, we will also have the opportunity to read and discuss new poems that have only recently been published. In addition to writing essays (in-class and take home) each student will be responsible for leading class discussion once during the semester.

Gender, Sexuality, and the Novel (Durocher, fall semester)

Gender, Sexuality, and the Novel

Using feminist and literary theory from thinkers like Gayatri Spivak and Judith Butler, we’ll track a few key novelists who shaped our understanding of both the modern novel and of femininity and masculinity from the early nineteenth century to well into the twentieth. In this class, we’ll read Jane Austen for a look at her response to the changing class structure and the shift in expectations for domestic life in nineteenth century England. While studying Virginia Woolf, we’ll look at how a loss of meaning and certainty after the First World War affected her understanding of gender and sexuality. We’ll also read selections from Jean Rhys and other modernist writers in order to see how post colonialism affected and was affected by the shift in gender expectations in the nineteenth and early twentieth century. Active participation is key to any successful course, so please come prepared to do quite a bit of reading. Assessments will take the form of oral presentations, in-class writing responses, and a longer, “take-home” essay we will workshop as a class.

Major Novels (Fischer, spring semester)

Major Novels

This course is a study of the novel from the realist tradition of Austen’s "Pride and Prejudice," from the modernist perspectives of Conrad’s "Heart of Darkness," Joyce’s "A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man," and Woolf’s "To The Lighthouse"; and finally from the postmodernist achievement of Ian McEwan’s "Atonement." The course pursues such topics as How has the writer used the novel to approach the question of "What is reality?" How does the novelist use formal means to go about representing reality? What is human consciousness and how does it work? What can be known about oneself and about others? How can one create oneself and create representation—as a writer, as a painter, as a storyteller? How do the familiar constituents of character, point of view, and development change from realist to modernist to postmodernist novel? What is the interaction of each novelist within the cultural context, whether it be the Enlightenment, British imperialism, Irish nationalism, modernism, or post-modernism? Short essays, reading quizzes, creative writing and a class presentation constitute the course assessments.

Masterpieces of Western Literature (Murison, fall semester)

Masterpieces of Western Literature

A course offering students the opportunity to study major works in the principal literary genres from the time of Homer to the 21st century, including epic, drama, poetry, the novella, and the novel. Works studied will include Homer’s "Iliad," Virgil’s "Eclogues" I & IX, selections from Boccaccio’s "Decameron," Shakespeare’s "As You Like It," Shakespeare’s "King Lear," Milton’s "Lycidas," Gray’s "Elegy in a Country Churchyard," Conrad’s "Heart of Darkness," Eliot’s "The Waste Land," and Sebald’s "Austerlitz."

Modern Drama(s) (Miness, fall semester)

Modern Drama(s)

It would not be an exaggeration to say that the last 100 years have produced some of the best pieces of dramatic literature—commonly known as playsin human history. In a century that has been rocked by dramatic political upheavals, immense technological growth, devastating wars, and the consequences of extreme utopian and dystopian thought, drama has served as one of the most prominent and productive genres of literature in which humans have asked difficult questions about themselves and offered equally complex answers. Through an examination of 14 of the best plays of the past century, we will grapple with the way that artists from the United States and Europe have grappled with everything from racial, cultural, and gender differences to the limits of language and free will. The nature, merits, and limitations of naturalism, expressionism, existentialism, absurdism, and realism will be explored. The course will also include at least two trips to off-Broadway and/or Broadway plays.

Texts studied may include Tracy Letts, "August: Osage County"; Martin McDonough, "The Pillowman"; Eugene O’Neill, "Long Day’s Journey Into Night"; Anton Chekhov, "The Three Sisters"; John Guare, "Six Degrees of Separation"; Harold Pinter, "The Homecoming"; Edward Albee, "Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?"; Arthur Miller, "A View from the Bridge"; David Mamet, "American Buffalo"; Tom Stoppard, "Arcadia"; Samuel Beckett, "Waiting for Godot"; Donald Margulies, "Loman Family Picnic"; Tennessee Williams, "The Glass Menagerie"; and August Wilson, "Fences."

Rites of Passage (Banks, spring semester)

Rites of Passage

You're living it; why not study it? See what “the experts” have to say about adolescence and take this moment to put your own opinions on this turbulent, exciting period of life into writing. You will have the opportunity to read psychological studies of adolescence and to assess works of literature and film in terms of their portrayal of the developmental “tasks” of adolescence. Our readings will be selected with consideration of the two major categories of an adolescent's psychological work: separation and individuation. How do the characters we encounter manage the task of breaking away from family? How comfortable are they in their own skins? What mechanisms are in place in the surrounding culture for integration into larger social frameworks and consolidation of their developing identities? Of course all of these questions relate to you as well, so analysis of books, poems, and films will be accompanied by personal writing and multi-media explorations of identity. Readings will expose you to various cultural and historical contexts as you explore questions of gender and sexuality, relation to tradition, and the uses of transgression. Texts and films include but are not limited to: J.D. Salinger's "DeDaumier Smith’s Blue Period,” Joyce Carol Oates’ "I.D.," Russell Banks’ "Success Story,” Mary Karr’s memoir "Cherry, Pump Up the Volume,” "Boys Don't Cry,” "Megamind," "Whale Rider,” "What’s Eating Gilbert Grape” and "Smoke Signals."

Science Fiction: Utopias and Dystopias (McLain, spring semester)

Science Fiction: Utopias and Dystopias

We will explore the world of science fiction through novels, stories, film, and television, focusing in particular on the ways in which writers and producers of science fiction imagine a better (or in most cases worse) version of humanity and the world. We will begin by reading perhaps the earliest work of science fiction, Mary Shelley's "Frankenstein." Other texts will include Orwell's "1984," Huxley's "Brave New World," and works by authors like Margaret Atwood, Ursula Le Guin, Octavia Butler, Philip K. Dick and others. Films will include "Brazil," "Metropolis," "The Matrix," and others.

Shakespeare and Film (Fischer, fall semester)

Shakespeare and Film

In this course, we study a selection of Shakespeare's plays along with films which take their inspiration from them. Emphasis is on critically reading each play to understand its poetic, literary, and theatrical qualities and on study to understand the play's context. We will look at individual films derived from the play, asking: How has the adaptation or interpretation been achieved? How do the film's linguistic, narrative, symbolic, and visual aspects indicate faithfulness to — or departure from — Shakespeare's work? How are the differences significant? Is Shakespeare's poetic expression and the very architecture of his plays — his "art" — somehow at odds with cinema — a visual narrative medium and mass entertainment? Then again, how do deviations or even deconstructions express cultural or political critique? In works of "pure cinema" such as Kurosawa's "Throne of Blood or Ran," what are the affinities with Shakespeare? What is quintessentially cinematic about such works? At what point does a Shakespeare film stop being Shakespeare? On the other hand, is Elizabethan theatre, with Shakespeare as its exemplary artist, the art form of its times just as film or moving image is the art form of our time? We will learn the critical vocabularies to approach both the art of Shakespeare and the art of film. Reflections, short essays, creative writing, and presentations constitute course assessments. Plays and their interpretations include "Much Ado About Nothing," "Twelfth Night," "Hamlet," "King Lear," and "The Tempest."

Shakespeare: Comedies, Histories and Tragedies (Wellington, spring semester)

Shakespeare: Comedies, Histories and Tragedies

The course will provide an introduction to the main genres, themes and conventions of Shakespearean Drama and to the topics of perennial human concern that are the essence of Shakespeare’s mature vision. Although the primary focus of study is the plays themselves, attention is also devoted to the worldview of the Elizabethans and to the relationship between Shakespeare’s plays and more general philosophical concerns. The courses stress the importance of careful critical reading and of exchanging ideas through discussion. Students are encouraged to develop their own interpretations, and their critical writing provides the principal form of assessment. Plays studied will include Hamlet, Julius Caesar, The Tempest, and A Midsummer Night's Dream.

Shakespeare: Text and Performance (Desmond & Wellington, spring semester)

Shakespeare: Text and Performance

This course will do three things. First, we will read, discuss, and write about three or four Shakespeare plays. This part of the course will, in some ways, be a traditional, Shakespeare-focused, English class. However, even as we study the texts, we will begin to approach the plays as an actor does by exploring the voice and speech exercises that will be important later in the course. Second, students in the course will have an opportunity, in pairs, to teach selected scenes from one of the plays, "Romeo and Juliet," to Riverdale 8th graders, who will be studying the play in their English classes. Third, we will use the fourth quarter to rehearse and then perform selected, interconnected scenes from the plays we have studied. No prior acting experience is necessary.

Thinking About Thinking (Murison & Cox, spring semester)

Thinking About Thinking

An interdisciplinary seminar concerned with the nature of thinking, especially reasoning. The course will examine such topics as animal and human intelligence, language, logic, inductive and deductive reasoning, belief, and knowledge. The unifying theme of the course is classification or taxonomy, in as much as no thinking is possible without systems of classification and taxonomic problems are often the most contentious within scholarly and scientific disciplines, which are themselves the products of taxonomic decisions. In particular, the course will examine the ways in which human cultures have classified the world in a variety of contexts and disciplines, including philosophy, the biological and physical sciences, the human sciences, history, and literature. 

Writing Seminar (Banks, fall semester)

Writing Seminar

Though this is a writing-intensive course, coursework is designed to make maximum use of class time for the study and practice of writing and thus to minimize homework assignments. Short, focused exercises target writing issues and skills that the group deems most useful. Longer pieces center on particular modes of writing and draw on personal experience for their material. Several model essays are read and discussed throughout the semester with careful attention to diction, rhetoric, and tone. At the end of the course, students work with each other to edit and polish one piece of writing each for inclusion in a course anthology.


Riverdale Country School

Mind • Character • Community




5250 Fieldston Road
Bronx, NY 10471

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