In addition to being entertaining and inspiring, literature performs two crucial functions: it allows us to see ourselves for who we really are, and it offers us a window to view the world through another person’s perspective. Reading is an opportunity, a chance to gain understanding. With that idea in mind, we have chosen books for our four-year curriculum that offer students the necessary opportunity to explore, to think, to react, and to relate.
In selecting books for the curriculum, we chose those with characters who share some of the same struggles that students themselves might be facing. Our freshman book list consists of a host of characters who are making the difficult steps of youthful self-discovery, like Scout Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird, or Esperanza in The House on Mango Street. Characters in our sophomore year continue this focus on self-discovery, as they must acknowledge the connection between their actions and their consequences, as Amir contemplates his responsibility to an old friend in The Kite Runner, or George’s dilemma that he faces in Of Mice and Men. These Introduction to Literature courses focus on providing students with the opportunity to understand who they are, and how they can control who they want to be.
Beyond seeing themselves in literature, we also want our students to see the world, to learn how to think critically about what is happening around them. Our junior year American Literature course has recently undergone a radical restructuring shaped by the question: What does it mean to be an American in the 21st century? Students spend time exploring political and social concepts ranging from nationalism to radicalism, from class structure to gender constructs. With books like The Scarlet Letter, The Great Gatsby, and Travels with Charley, students are prompted to think about how the world works, and consider how they personally fit within that world. This level of thought continues into the senior year British Literature class, which, through challenging texts like 1984, Frankenstein, and Macbeth, requires students to consider the class’s core question: What does it mean to be a hero? By exploring a range of societies, from honor cultures to totalitarian regimes, students will think about how to act with nobility and selflessness, no matter what society dictates. This type of inquiry drives both intellectual and emotional learning, and helps our students solidify their understanding of self and society.
We in the BHS English Department believe that this work is important. Helping students to see that literature exists beyond the printed page, that stories both reflect and shape our lives, is important. Those stories are just the starting point, however. Students in BHS English courses will use the literature they read to help them identify topics to investigate and analyze in writing. They will learn how the selection of the right phrase, or dissection of a symbol or a structural element of a piece of literature allows them to create a clear and unique voice in their own writing. They will break down syntax and grammar to understand the power of rhetoric and help them articulate their own ideas. They will improve their public speaking skills through in-class debates and recitations. Through this work, students will become more independent and responsible, and learn the rewards of taking intellectual risks. We hope that through this work – through reading, through discussion with peers, through personal reflection, through writing and presentation, through original thought – students learn how to question and define themselves, question and understand the world around them, and find a way to live that makes them proud.
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