By Sarah Leonard ‘22
As the second semester of the 2021-22 school year begins and the course catalog for next year is finalized, the beginning of English seminars for juniors and seniors, as well as the propositions for next year, are a much-discussed topic. While the English curriculum for eleventh and twelfth grade is standard during the first half of the year (reading classics like The Scarlet Letter and Frankenstein along with more contemporary works like There There by Tommy Orange), teachers and students move into more specialized courses during the second semester. Some of the general topics have been taught for years (though the issues and materials discussed have evolved), and others have
been added in the past few years by teachers with a passion for the subject. It’s an opportunity for students and teachers to read about and discuss subjects that are often skipped over in
regular literacy courses, and to highlight writers and works that aren’t included in other curriculums.
The seminars began about twenty five years ago by then English department chair Mr. Kennedy, and were originally only a trimester. “The idea was to give both students and teachers a chance to pursue specific interests beyond the core curriculum that everybody teaches, so teachers offered possibilities they'd like to explore, and the ones students were interested in as well were offered,” says Ms. Novo, who has taught a very wide range of the seminars, including ones focusing on memoirs and Shakespeare. “As student interest has fluctuated and new faculty have joined the department, we've added new courses like Monty's climate lit class Love in the Anthropocene. I think it's fair to say it's been an organic process of discernment with the aim of offering relevant, engaging courses.” A few of the courses have been on the list since the early days, like Watch What You Read, an investigation of film as well as text taught this year by Mr. Soper which offers students a chance to analyze and discuss a whole new medium of storytelling. Another class, called The Fiction Issue and also taught by Ms. Novo, began as a trimester-long seminar in which students would read pieces from the New Yorker’s fiction issue, but has morphed into the writers workshop class, which is now a separate writing course.
One of the most popular seminars, Modern to Contemporary Black American Writers, has been taught for the past few years by Ms. Schumacher, who says, “The seminar was initially designed by other teachers that were here before me, so I didn't come up with the original concept. I did request the opportunity to teach it, though, because the topic of black writers and the black experience are close to my heart. I've definitely made it my own.” As for her curriculum, she says, “I have a tendency to switch up things every year. Mostly, I'm just trying to fine-tune the course and find the right balance.” She has made sure to include works by Octavia Butler and James Baldwin each year, in addition to drama from Black authors. “There are so many amazing Black playwrights who are often overlooked by mainstream society, and this year I'm trying to incorporate essays that offer a foundation for the diverse Black experience.”
Katie Dickerson, another teacher of the English seminars, has taught many short story focused classes in the past, though only Speculative Fiction this year. It’s a pretty broad topic that covers a lot of subject matter, but the main focus is on identities. “It’s not so much about the short stories as it is about the idea, and what different things people bring to the story. It’s also about how my identities, as a teacher, as a woman, as a white person, affect the way I read a story.” The texts have changed over the years, but the curriculum has included many fantastic reads such as The Semplica-Girl Diaries. Those participating in the class write two more analytical papers in addition to creative short stories of their own. “I really enjoy reading the short stories. We don’t get a ton of opportunities for creative writing in regular English classes, so it was really cool to get to know students through their fiction writing. There’s a little more room for different writing assignments in the seminars,” Katie explains.
Another one of the newer courses, Love in the Anthropocene, was started by Monty and Anna Schall in the Spring of 2017. “In 2014 I read a piece in the New York Times about a University of Oregon professor helping her students to make sense of the climate crisis through art and literature. It blew me away. My initial reaction was that I wanted to go back to graduate school so that I could take her class. It wasn’t until a few weeks later that it dawned on me that I could learn by teaching, and that’s how the idea for the seminar was born,” he says, and reflects how it has helped with his own climate anxiety. “Honestly, I needed it personally. Climate change used to leave me feeling pretty helpless. Finding a heart-centered way to help students come to terms with the enormity of it all was a game changer for my own sense of paralysis. It also put me on the road to action in other parts of my life.” Texts range from nonfiction, memoir-based books like Braiding Sweetgrass (the first book added to the curriculum) to darker speculative fiction like A Children’s Bible, and anything interesting he finds in the “Burning Worlds” blog by the Chicago Review.
Though the seminars range widely over topics and genres, they all contain the potential for incredibly important conversations and learning experiences, in addition to being subjects close to teachers’ hearts. They contain both contemporary and age-old questions and problems, looking at them through the lens of literature and bringing students the opportunity to grapple with them. Goals for the future also intertwine with their lessons: “I would like to make more opportunities to learn about activism in the climate seminar. Obviously, doing that while staying within the bounds of a humanities course will take some creative thought, but I think it’s doable and necessary. One angle I have in mind is to maybe pursue the topic through the lens of student journalism,” says Monty, while Mrs. Schumacker explains, “My hope is more of a wish. I wish that everyone held the stories of other people, those not like themselves --- racially, ethnically, culturally --- close to their hearts. I feel like we have so much to learn from each other, so much to celebrate in each other, so much to gain in better understanding the diversity of the world around us.”