The teaching of English at Roxbury Latin is founded upon the classical concept of the “examined life”—upon the belief that a lifelong commitment to intellectual, aesthetic, and moral exploration and growth gives existence meaning and character. The English program provides a sequence of study designed to develop skills and attitudes essential to such a commitment: the ability to read and observe with discrimination, sensitivity, and pleasure; the ability to communicate information and ideas clearly, persuasively, and gracefully; the inclination to temper reason with understanding, to balance intellectual rigor and compassionate humanity; the urge to pursue the meaning of life but the perspective to recognize and relish life’s complexity and ambiguity.
Throughout the program, assignments and classroom activities encourage disciplined, thoughtful approaches to reading and writing, listening and speaking. Work in language emphasizes the development of a rich, flexible vocabulary and a confident grasp of mature, sophisticated syntax; it also seeks to foster a respect for language and, in time, a love of it—its capacity to define and describe and transform experience, its power to make the strange familiar and comprehensible, the commonplace mysterious and beautiful. Work in composition aims to build a concern for correctness, precision, and style.
While the program emphasizes the mastery of conventional organizational patterns for analytical and persuasive writing, it encourages students to recognize the creativity inherent in the best critical writing. It also provides opportunities for first-hand experiments in poetry and fiction—for a more personal rendering of individual experiences and ideas—opportunities that permit students to feel within themselves the interplay of experience, imagination, and language that animates the great literature they study. That study of literature stresses the close observation of specific words and details and the development of an actively questioning approach to an author’s perspective and purpose; at the same time, it encourages students to pursue an equally active personal, empathic involvement with literary characters and events. Through close study of a relatively few classic and modern works, students address increasingly subtle moral and philosophical questions, confront diverse and often ambiguous conclusions about the nature and meaning of human existence, and, ideally, come to a passionate appreciation of the power of literature to expand, deepen, and illuminate “real” life—to lift us beyond our daily lives toward some transcendent vision of “the good, the true, and the beautiful.”
Class VI English
Class VI English places major emphasis on the mastery of fundamental verbal and study skills: sentence and paragraph construction, vocabulary development, accurate spelling, effective memorization, concise summarizing, precise reading, systematic thinking, and disciplined listening. Analytical work in grammar, the first stage of a two-year program, introduces parts of speech, the components of phrases and clauses, and the basic patterns of English sentences. Instruction in composition focuses primarily on paragraph organization and development—on precise topic sentences, relevant supporting details, and effective concluding statements—but students have opportunities, as well, to experiment with poetry, fiction, and personal reflection. Assigned readings represent a variety of literary situations, from the realistic to the fantastic, and a variety of human behavior, from the heroic to the ridiculous. Although students do encounter important critical concepts and terms, the work in literature seeks less to introduce techniques of literary criticism than to foster precise observation, accurate recall, and simple vicarious appreciation of human behavior imaginatively recreated. The following books are studied in the course: Lee et al., Grammar for Writing; Gibson, The Miracle Worker; Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird; Shakespeare, A Midsummer Night’s Dream; Steinbeck, Of Mice and Men.
Class V English
Class V English provides continued instruction and practice in verbal and analytical skills. Units in grammar review principles and procedures taught in Class VI and extend them to analysis of subordinate clauses and verbal phrases; additional time is devoted to the rules and patterns of standard formal usage and mechanics. In composition, expository and descriptive essays supplement the continuing concentration on paragraph structure, with written work expanding to include analytical essays of multiple paragraphs as well as fuller examples of student fiction, poetry, and personal reflection. This course continues a four-year emphasis on vocabulary development and comprehension skills, promoted through the use of an online vocabulary study program and through a consistent concern with diction in required reading and writing. Reading assignments encompass a range of literary periods, styles, and genres, but most works explore the relationship between an individual and his or her social environment. Work in critical analysis concentrates most heavily on narrative structure, techniques of characterization, and the influence of setting on action and character. Works considered include the following: Lee et al., Grammar for Writing; Gaines, A Gathering of Old Men; Golding, Lord of the Flies; Hemingway, The Old Man and the Sea; Hansberry, A Raisin in the Sun; Masters, Spoon River Anthology; Shakespeare, Julius Caesar.
Class IV English
Class IV English lays the foundation for advanced work in composition and literature. The program in writing provides a review of paragraph structure and extends those principles to the basic form of the short expository or analytical essay. Instruction in composition—and considerable practice with both literary and non-literary topics—emphasizes the selection and statement of a unifying thesis, the presentation of relevant supporting detail, the fluid use of transitions, and the employment of active diction and syntax. The course also includes a formal unit in public speaking, with each student researching, composing, and delivering in class an informative speech on a topic of choice. Regular work in vocabulary complements the focus on both written and spoken expression. In literature, work in poetry and short fiction continues to build the critical attitudes and approaches necessary for a mature exploration of artistic method and meaning; key concerns include narrative point-of-view, characterization, imagery and image pattern, symbolism, and juxtaposition. Several of the major works studied complement the materials of the Class IV history course by evoking the social, philosophical, and aesthetic concerns of some major periods in Western Civilization—Homeric Greece and the Renaissance in particular. In general, the reading serves to examine a number of quite distinct visions of heroic thought and action. Among the works studied are the following: Cisneros, The House on Mango Street; Homer, The Odyssey; Wilson, Fences; Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet.
Class III English
Class III English aims to consolidate and hone the logical and technical skills essential to college-level reading and writing. Composition assignments include critical, expository, and personal essays, as well as a persuasive speech, with some additional opportunity to create original poetry and fiction. Work on the essay emphasizes effective introductory and concluding paragraphs, the development of an authentic voice, and control of tone and style. Continued emphasis on diction and sentence structure seeks to foster more precise, direct, and forceful expression. In literature, students examine a considerable range of artistic styles and philosophical perspectives, with particular attention to the inseparable relationship of form and meaning. Assigned works serve to illustrate the tensions of structure and language that underlie great literature, as well as the tensions of human nature and human aspirations. Among the issues raised by a number of works are the nature of tragedy, the search for identity, and such opposing forces as innocence and experience, dreams and reality, idealism and cynicism, self-indulgence and self-sacrifice. Works considered include the following: Gioia and Gwynn, The Art of the Short Story; Arp and Johnson, Perrine’s Sound and Sense; O’Brien, The Things They Carried; Salinger, The Catcher in the Rye; Shakespeare, Macbeth; Sophocles, The Oedipus Cycle; Whitehead, The Nickel Boys.
Class II English
Class II English begins with an intensive review of the techniques and attitudes essential to mature critical reading and writing. Class discussions of short fiction, poetry, and drama raise questions and issues that students then set out to explore and resolve in substantial critical essays. Although the course undertakes a review of usage, mechanics, and essay organization, the most significant progress in writing takes place individually, as an outgrowth of comments on submitted papers, private conferences, and required revisions. Aside from an intensive study of a Shakespearean tragedy, the course focuses on a year-long exploration of significant thematic currents in American literature and culture. Even without formal coordination, the literary perspectives explored in English and the political and social issues raised in U.S. History serve to illuminate each other. Through the reading and through both critical and creative writing assignments, students consider some of the abiding myths of the American experience (the Frontier Hero, the American Dream, the Melting Pot) and some of the abiding tensions (individualism and democracy, freedom and bondage, nature and civilization, simplicity and sophistication). Among the works studied are the following: Akhtar, Disgraced; Douglass, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass; Transcendentalism: Essential Essays of Emerson and Thoreau; Conarroe, Six American Poets; Gioia and Gwynn, The Art of the Short Story; Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby; Morrison, Song of Solomon; Shakespeare, Hamlet; Twain, Huckleberry Finn.
Class I English
Class I English negotiates a transition between high school and college approaches to literature and composition. In the first semester, students rotate through a series of discrete units, each taught by one of their Class I English teachers, units that focus in greater depth on topics that have been introduced in previous years: the essay as a literary form, modern poetry, contemporary drama, and public speaking. The semester ends with the preparation and presentation of a final “wisdom speech,” a valedictory address from manuscript offering unifying insight, or collection of insights, gained from or reflected in one or more of the texts studied over a student’s time in the Roxbury Latin English classroom. In the second semester, students choose from electives structured more like college courses. Past offerings include “American Theatre: Culture, Identity and Politics” (which grapples with questions of power by focusing not only on who has it, how they get it, and what they use it for, but also on who lacks it for reasons of race, class, gender, or sexual orientation); “Classical Literature in the Modern World” (which considers the many functions of literature in the Classical world—as propaganda, subversive political commentary, innovative art, and more—as well as how those works might operate in light of modern social and social justice movements); “Fathers and Sons in Literature, Life, and Film” (which examines the stock patterns and realities of literary father-son relationships, as well as the distinguishing complexities that ultimately define any particular father, son, and father-son dynamic); and “Creative Writing Across Genres” (which engages students in myriad creative prompts in order to generate original material in poetry, short fiction, comedic monologue, song, drama, and creative nonfiction).