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Course Overview: American Literature

The English program is excited to introduce the Exploration Phase Two course: American Literature. While other courses take a theme-based approach to selecting and organizing texts, our course for Exploration Phase Two starts with the early foundations of American literature and then moves chronologically through significant literary periods up through contemporary times.

Throughout each journey, and in each quest, students investigate how freedom is defined, be that in a single text or in a time period or in a specific genre. This exploration of freedom mirrors the work students are doing in Social Sciences and creates opportunities for cross-discipline conversations and analysis.


Journey 1: Early American Literature 

Students read not only works from this time period, but they also read works that take place in this time period. These shifting contexts help students develop critical-thinking questions around context, audience, and perspective.

Types of activities and artifacts students will complete:

  • Read Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, a play which takes place during the Salem Witch Trials but has just as much to say about freedom during 1950s McCarthyism as it does about religious freedom.
  • Read or listen to the songbook for the recent Broadway musical Hamilton, while pondering questions such as “What happens when this time period of American history gets translated for a modern audience?”

Journey 2: Nineteenth Century American Literature

This journey directly addresses the theme of freedom with a central focus on the genre of slave narratives.

Types of activities and artifacts students will complete:

  • Read The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass.
  • Choose a contemporary novel to read that addresses the subject of American slavery.
  • Consider how contemporary authors talk about slavery now, as well as how their aims and motives are similar and different from Frederick Douglass.

Journey 3: Early 20th Century American Literature 

With so many literary texts and new literary movements to choose from, students craft their own quest sequence based around their interests. As before, students focus their reading by continuing to ask about definitions of freedom.

Types of activities and artifacts students will complete:

  • Read works by authors from the Harlem Renaissance, such as Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston.
  • Read pieces from the Modernist movement, such as Winesburg, Ohio and other works by modernist poets.
  • Read works that tackle the topic of the American Dream, such as Death of a Salesman or The Great Gatsby.
Students sit around. In front of them lay typed pages with handwritten edits.
In this course, students engage with historical and modern American literature through activities such as writing a piece in the style of a current nonfiction writer.

Journey 4: Contemporary American Literature 

Students explore new genres of interest to them. Whether it be graphic novels, creative nonfiction, dystopian novels, television, or “the great American novel,” students look for connections between these newer genres and the works they have already read.

Types of activities and artifacts students will complete:

  • Write an open letter inspired by James Baldwin and Ta-Nehisi Coates.
  • Compose a piece of writing in the style of creative nonfiction, inspired by the works of Alice Walker, Lindy West, Annie Dillard, Teju Cole, and Joan Didion.
  • Have a conversation with your mentor arguing that a television show can be appreciated like a great American literary work.

Over these four journeys, students move through American literary history, evaluating American freedom not just as an idea but as an experience.

As students consider American history and freedom from an objective and historically based viewpoint in Social Sciences, the English curriculum allows them to explore, what one mentor described as, the “emotional subcontext of the time.” Through both disciplines students will emerge from Exploration Phase Two with a nuanced and personal understanding of American freedom.


Read more about our relevant, project-based curriculum here.

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