The Overlake English Department fosters a passion for learning through the study of literature and writing. By cultivating students’ abilities to think critically, read closely, and communicate effectively, we aim to inspire and empower students to become active participants in a diverse and global society.
The Overlake English Department values the power of student voice and student choice. Our classrooms are safe places where students experience mutual respect among peers and adults, where they feel heard, and where their opinions matter. We value risk-taking, as we believe that the best learning takes place on the edges of discomfort. We believe our role as teacher is to foster a community of thinkers while modeling the authenticity and curiosity we hope our students come to embrace.
To make this mission a reality for Overlake students, we focus on three core values:
- Community: We facilitate collaboration among students so that they a) carefully consider their peers’ opinions, b) approach writing as a collaborative process that enriches their thinking, and c) confidently and competently join existing conversations about the larger questions of humanity.
- Authenticity: We expose students to a range of perspectives in literature so that they a) see their identities affirmed and discover their voices, b) build empathy through exploring different experiences, and c) develop a deep appreciation for the variety of lived experiences around the globe.
- Curiosity: We create learning environments so that students a) feel safe and empowered to take risks, b) think and communicate, both critically and creatively, about literature and the questions it provokes, and c) develop a love for reading that extends beyond the humanities classroom.
Upper School students are required to take four full years of English. English 9 and 10 are required. Juniors and seniors choose one full-year elective. English Department Policy requires that all students in grades 5-12 bring print copy books with the ISBN specified by the teacher rather than other editions or e-readers for in-class studies. This allows students to access the page and paragraph being discussed easily and provides a richer and less stressful learning experience for all. If using a previously annotated text, please be sure to have your students annotate in a manner readily distinguishable from the notes already in the book.
- View the English Advanced Placement Criteria
Fifth grade English works in tandem with fifth grade social studies to create an integrated study of language arts and history. With myths, stories, and ancient civilizations as the focus, students consider the following essential questions:
What makes a good story?
- How does exposition impact a story?
- How do we determine the theme of a story?
- How does the protagonist’s central conflict help us determine the climax of a story?
- What makes a true friend?
- What makes a hero?
For language arts, students practice close reading skills, strategies for vocabulary development, and effective presentation techniques. Writing focuses on developing an argument through the use of evidence and analysis. In addition, grammar is taught as a fundamental part of the writing process, and students regularly address these skills within their written work. In conjunction with the ancient civilizations curriculum, students read a selection of short stories including "The Dog of Pompeii," "The Lady or the Tiger," “The All-American Slurp,” and "Ho-ichi the Earless." Students also read two novels, Same Sun Here, and a retelling of The Odyssey.
Sixth grade English seeks to promote a love of literature and writing through exploration of three thematic questions:
- How do we discover who we are, especially within the context of our heritage and families?
- How do we accept ourselves, including our strengths and idiosyncrasies?
- What is our responsibility to our community and society?
Through exposure to a variety of texts including poetry, short stories, novels, and plays, students learn to read critically for details, recognize figurative language, and interpret developments in plot, character, setting, and theme. In class discussions and activities, students use textual evidence to support their own thinking and evaluate classmates’ ideas. Texts include The Girl Who Drank the Moon, The Crossover, Wonder, A Mango-Shaped Space, Rain Reign, The War that Saved My Life, Gracefully Grayson, Wolf Hollow, The Giver, and various short stories and poetry.
Writing instruction includes both analytical, multi-paragraph writing as well as creative exercises in poetry and personal narrative. Within these forms, instruction emphasizes increasingly complex and varied sentence structure as well as careful word choice. With guidance, students will revise and edit their own writing as well as that of their peers, paying close attention to organization, style, and the proper grammar, usage, and mechanics of the English language. Finally, students will acquire and utilize new vocabulary through close reading as well as careful study of the vocabulary text, Sadlier-Oxford Vocabulary Workshop Level B.
Seventh grade English seeks to guide students in answering three essential questions:
- How do we determine a person's worth?
- What does it take to affect the world around us?
- What is real courage?
In order to explore these questions, students will read various novels, two plays, and a memoir. Among the texts used are Unwind, The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, To Kill a Mockingbird, Inherit the Wind, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and A Long Way Gone: Diary of a Boy Soldier. The reading is taught in conjunction with a study of writing, vocabulary, and grammar. Students will use these skills to grow as thinkers and communicators, developing precise and thoughtful analyses and engaging in various projects to help them clarify the relationship between their studies and the world they live in now. In addition, each quarter students will read and reflect on books of their own choice in several assigned genres. Ultimately, seventh grade students will finish the year with a greater understanding of how to express themselves constructively and effectively while continuing to foster their love of exploring worlds through reading.
Each semester an essential question guides the English 8 curriculum:
- 1st semester: Testing our mettle: How do we show resilience?
- 2nd semester: What does it mean to be human?
Through literature, writing assignments, and discussion, eighth graders consider these age-old questions, seeking to understand more about themselves, others, and characters in our texts. Novels typically include Midnighters, A Separate Peace, Of Mice and Men, A Gathering of Old Men, and Half Brother. In addition, students study other genres, which may include short stories, non-fiction, poetry, vignettes, and drama (Romeo and Juliet, “Thunder on Sycamore Street”). The program emphasizes a formal approach to writing via structured paragraphs and multi-paragraph essays, with special attention to word choice, sentence structure, provable root sentences, effective transitions, introductions, and conclusions. In addition, students write poetry and short stories, practicing creative writing techniques such as the use of figurative language, line breaks, rhyme, character development, tag lines, dialogue, and story structure. Eighth graders further develop communication skills through leading discussions, presenting their writing and delivering speeches. Literature and writing components are supplemented by continued study of grammar, usage, mechanics, and vocabulary.
The theme for English 9 is finding one’s voice, which we will explore through the essential questions: What is your unique voice and how is your voice shaped? Throughout the year students will be challenged to find, use, and expand their voices, as well as to examine the voices of the authors we study. This course features a variety of active learning opportunities including seminar-style discussions, group presentations, formal speeches, dramatic vignettes, and impromptu speeches. Writing projects include formal analytical essays, short stories, and poetry. Students will exercise their vocal chords, their keyboards, and their brains! Evaluating the process will be as important as evaluating the final product, and students will self-reflect on their progress as readers, writers, speakers, and critical thinkers throughout the duration of the course. Readings will include a variety of classic and modern short stories, as well as key texts such as Macbeth and Lord of the Flies. Students will also read works from authors of diverse backgrounds such as “The Flowers” and House on Mango Street. Throughout the year, students will read a collection of modern poetry by a variety of authors. Grammar, vocabulary, and the basics of preparing for and writing a research paper are also integral skills in the course. Join the journey and find your voice!
English 10 explores the elements of literature and the power of language through a diversity of works from across the world and literary time-periods. Students practice short and longer formal literary analysis essays, journaling, and creative writing with a particular emphasis on developing a deliberate and effective writing process. Based on teacher and peer feedback, students analyze and track their writing progress from one assignment to the next and set goals for improvement on subsequent essays. In the classroom students develop speaking, listening, and critical thinking skills through seminar-style discussions, collaborative work, and oratory practice. Students have the opportunity to participate in a formal debate as well as lead the class as teacher-for-the-day at the end of the year. Major texts may include summer reading, Othello, My Children! My Africa!, The Kite Runner, and additional short stories and poems. Formal writing conventions and the study of vocabulary are also emphasized in the course.
“Sweet is the Swamp with its Secrets”: American Transcendentalism Then and Now
Emily Dickinson writes, “Sweet is the swamp with its secrets.” She revels in every aspect of the natural world and finds mystery, inspiration, and her own humanity through experience and analysis. This course will explore the varieties of experience in nature across numerous expressions of American culture. Essays, reflections, novels, poems, and a play will become bridges for class members to explore how nature and place impact identity, culture, sexuality, race, and philosophy. Students will engage with the texts and in nature. Students will write to reflect and analyze, build on prior knowledge, and synthesize ideas over the school year through the essential question: what is the value of nature? In the process, students will build upon and systematically organize their own “aesthetic” pertaining to the natural world. We will read from the American Transcendentalists: Thoreau, Whitman, Dickinson, Melville, and Emerson. If transcend means “to go beyond”—American Transcendentalism heartily sought to engage in both the physical world (matter matters) and the world signified “beyond” the thing itself, those secrets of Dickinson’s swamp and the physical world and its “metaphysical” sides. Writing assignments will include: literary analysis, personal essay, the research paper, poetry, free writing, and a strong focus on revision.
Gender in American Literature: Man Up and Throw Like a Girl
What do we really mean when we say “man up”? What does it really mean to “throw like a girl?” What happens when girls do math and boys wear pink? In other words, what constitutes masculinity or femininity? How are male and female roles defined? From the music of Madonna to Macklemore, and from the classic television of I Love Lucy to The A-Team, twentieth-century popular culture has been preoccupied with these questions. And twentieth-century American literature has followed suit. Through a variety of literary genres, as well through popular culture, we will explore how gender identities, expressions, and roles are constructed and challenged. We will also consider the ways that our very understanding of gender has evolved to move beyond these binary constructs. We will spend the first semester examining traditional gender roles and binary definitions of gender, reading authors such as Kate Chopin, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Zora Neale Hurston, Tennessee Williams, August Wilson, and Ken Kesey. In the second semester, we will consider non-binary definitions of gender both as experienced by the individual and as lived out in society as a whole, reading authors such as Louise Erdrich and Ursula Le Guin. By exploring these questions, this course aims to provide a glimpse into major American time periods and literary styles. Students will also become familiar with key themes in American literature, including the pursuit of the American Dream, the lure of the past, the struggle for power, the desire for justice, and the hope of belonging. Ultimately, the goal is for students to see their own identity constructs mirrored in the literature they read and to see the relevance of American literary themes in general. Students will respond to these issues through formal literary analysis, informal journal responses, and online discussion posts. Opportunities for developing speaking skills include seminar-style discussions, formal presentations, dramatic monologues, and scene enactments. American literature students will also continue their study of vocabulary and grammar.
Radical Empathy: Finding Meaning in the World Around Us
This senior elective will explore central questions surrounding what it means to engage meaningfully in the world: What do we pursue in our lives and why are those things important to us? How do humans respond to hardship and pain? How do we develop and express empathy to others? What do people seek in their connections with others? The class will examine novels, short stories, essays, and poems with anchor readings from McCann, Deraniyagala, and Ishiguro. In addition, the class will use StoryCorps as a vehicle to connect the literature with the world around us. In addition to exploring the questions through the readings, students will grapple with their ideas in analytical and personal essays as well as the senior research paper. The course aims to support students as they grow as readers, writers, and thinkers; in addition, it will encourage students to ponder how the topics and questions unfold in their own lives.
This senior elective focuses on literary depictions of revolution and social change. In a world faced with increasingly complex environmental, social, and political problems, what should be our relationship to the world around us? Can literature change the world? In the first semester, we will examine environmental literature and themes of social justice in works by Rachel Carson, Pablo Neruda, Italo Calvino, Upton Sinclair, and Kazuo Ishiguro, and ask questions about the relationship between humans and the environment. How does the way we think and write about the environment impact our actions and policy decisions? In the second semester, we will consider satire as a powerful rhetorical tool for illuminating social problems and inspiring change. We will examine satirical literature from a variety of historical periods and regions, including works by Jonathan Swift, Lu Xun, and George Orwell. In this part of the course, we will continue our exploration of revolutionary literature by asking questions about the role of satire: how do we define satire? What is the impact of satire? And how do we account for its prominence today, in parody news programs such as The Daily Show and Last Week Tonight? Throughout the year, students will practice their critical reading, writing, and thinking skills in a range of writing assignments, from short in-class essays and brief reflections to analytical essays and the senior research paper. In both semesters, students will think about the possibility of literary revolutions and about how literature and art transform our world.
Bodies: Defining and Exploring the Limits of Humanity
Not all bodies are created equally. Or so we are led to believe. Some bodies are viewed as sympathetic, others as valuable, and still others are viewed as pests; the sovereignty of certain humans is often exerted both over other humans and also nonhumans. This course will draw upon myth, speculative fiction, journalism, and graphic novels (with authors such as Ovid, Franz Kafka, Octavia Butler, Alan Moore, and Kazuo Ishiguro) in order to question the boundaries of the human body and its place “at the top of the food chain.” We will interrogate the role of bodies in fictional as well as actual societies and will consider how we define a body. Questions we will explore include: What are the limits of the human body? How are our notions of identity tied up in the idea of an independent, finite body? And who exerts power over human and nonhuman bodies? One of the goals of this course is to think intentionally about the spaces that bodies occupy within literature and within the world at large so that we can consider when and how our actions affect other bodies. We will attempt to make visible the hidden frameworks that prevent us from seeing systems of exploitation, violence, privilege, and profit.
AP English Language and Composition
As a junior year English course, AP Language and Composition focuses primarily on non-fiction texts from the American literary canon. Students respond directly to a wide variety of American readings from the early years of democracy to contemporary life: letters, speeches, essays, novels, short fiction, articles, and image-based texts. In addition to the chief emphasis on non-fiction and political rhetoric, other anchor texts for the course include The Great Gatsby and The Things They Carried. The course addresses the essential questions of the American experience: What is the American Dream of success, and have all groups had an equal opportunity to pursue it? What are the philosophical underpinnings of American social and political thought, and how do Americans approach and respond to conflict in these realms? In the fall, students delve into the elements of rhetoric that authors use to influence audience: the classical rhetorical appeals, tropes, schemes, tone, syntax, diction, imagery, and symbolism. Spring work includes mastering the formal elements of logical argument and the researched synthesis argument essay on an issue of controversy in American society. Students use these understandings and close reading habits to improve their own writing through emulation and adaptation. The end goal is for students to use the lens of rhetoric to comprehend and evaluate any text by analyzing language with critical precision.
For a complete course outline, visit the College Board AP English Language and Composition Course Description.
AP English Literature and Composition: The Meaning(s) of Life
AP English Literature and Composition provides students with a broad base for the discussion of the intersections of literature and life. The course is divided into interdisciplinary units, each approaching the problem of “meaning.” After an introductory unit in metafiction in which we experiment with the many ways in which texts, readers, and authors create meaning, we focus on three key issues:
- How do modern playwrights "rewrite" ancient Greek theater to give new meaning to the age-old question of fate vs. free will, how can individuals shape their legacies, and how can we atone for and be forgiven for our wrongdoings?
- Given the sense of alienation that characterizes our times, how can we learn to "fit" into our global or local social networks, and at what cost? What does existentialism tell us about the search for the meaning of life?
- How can we avoid solitude and reach out in solidarity to others in our search for a larger purpose? Will our meaning always escape us, or is it ultimately knowable? Is true meaning to be found ultimately in the search itself?
A popular saying about commitment claims: If you are not part of the solution, you are part of the problem. Thus, at the beginning of the second semester students will read poetry for insights into discovering the unique ways in which poetry makes meaning and empowers us to enact meaning in our own lives and to better the lives of others. We’ll then move on to a thought-provoking unit in which students choose their own seminar style topics and research them in literature groups to find answers to their questions and move towards solving the problems that confront us in our daily lives. Students will present their findings through podcasts, anthologies, or projects in the community. Throughout the year, we draw our challenges and inspiration from world authors such as Sophocles, Camus, Kafka, García Márquez, Luisa Valenzuela, Amiri Baraka, Rumi, and Toni Morrison. Special attention is given to developing expertise in close reading as students learn to attend to a work’s structure, style, and themes to prepare them for success on the national AP Literature and Composition Exam in May.
As the canon of American literature grows ever more diverse, to understand what defines the “American Voice,” we must examine the works of those American authors who challenge readers to consider characters or themes that are outliers. Amidst the norm of what constitutes American literature stands a number of “misfits,” that is, outsiders or rebels whose ideals and/or literary styles challenge norms through fictional characters and themes. This year-long course will examine these “modern misfits,” characters in American literature whose difference creates and defines textual content—characters who push the boundaries of fiction or society and who, in some way, have caused shock—while also studying the canon of American literature. Theme-based units cover period literature including works from the Depression and the Harlem Renaissance, two key eras for “misfit” characters, as well as larger essential questions such as “What is the American voice?” and “How is American literature shaped by diverse perspectives?” In answering these questions, we will read and respond to a variety of novels, short stories, plays, and poetry from writers as diverse as F. Scott Fitzgerald and Sherman Alexie. Additionally, students will examine a common theme in two works by an American author in a research paper, exploring one particular voice in the canon of American literature. Students will come to appreciate different literary styles of American authors, and will become familiar with key themes in American literature, including transcendentalism, the American Dream, oppression, protest, racism, rebellion versus conformity, sexuality, and loneliness. Ultimately, the goal is for students to see American literature as a diverse canon with a wide sampling of contributing voices, many of which are indeed “misfits.”
"And Justice for All" in American Literature
How do we, as a nation, define justice? Whose definition are we using? How has this definition changed? What are the relationships among justice, race, gender roles, and socio-economic status? These are the questions this class will discuss using the works of Martin Luther King, Jr., Susan Glaspell, Herman Melville, Langston Hughes, Harper Lee, and Sherman Alexie. As well, we will explore questions of justice in the legal system as outlined in the writings of Benjamin Cardozo and as portrayed in Errol Morris’s documentary The Thin Blue Line. Students will respond to these issues through analytical essays and short critical reading papers, journal responses and online discussion posts, and personal essays. Opportunities for developing oral speaking skills include seminar style discussions, formal presentations, and speeches. Skill development will heavily focus on critical thinking, close reading, and analysis. American Literature students will also continue their study of vocabulary and grammar.
Clashes and Conflicts in American Literature
The conflicts in our modern world seem to mount on a nearly daily basis. And yet, many that confront us are conflicts that American literature has tackled head-on for a hundred years, if not more. Some occur outside of our borders while others exist as clashes between marginalized individuals. This year-long course will examine some of the conflicts essential to an understanding of the American psyche that resonate in our experiences today. Theme-based and period-based units, from the Roaring Twenties to Post-War America to the Vietnam era and beyond, will explore such questions as the following: How do we reconcile the past with the present? How do we maintain our humanity in the face of tragedy and grief? How do we ensure just outcomes in the face of conflicting values? How, in fact, do we define justice at all? In answering these questions, we will read novels, drama, short stories, and poetry from writers including F. Scott Fitzgerald, Langston Hughes, Ken Kesey, Susan Glaspell, Anna Deavere Smith, and Tim O’Brien. By exploring these conflicts as expressed by authors and experienced by their characters, this course aims to provide a glimpse into major American time periods and literary styles. Students will also become familiar with key themes in American literature, including the pursuit of the American Dream, the lure of the past, the quest for truth, the struggle for power, the desire for justice, and the hope of belonging. Ultimately, the goal is for students to see the relevance of American literary themes in their own lives and perhaps to develop tools to understand some of the ever-growing conflicts mounting around them. Students will respond to these issues through formal literary analysis, informal journal responses, and online discussion posts. Opportunities for developing speaking skills include seminar-style discussions, formal presentations, dramatic monologues, and scene enactments. American Literature students will also continue their study of vocabulary and grammar.
Madmen/Madwomen: Psychological Approaches to American Literature
In her astonishing eight-line poem, “Much Madness is Divinest Sense,” the famous American poet Emily Dickinson radically flipped our understandings of “madness” and “sense”: often what the majority perceives as “mad” in fact opens new avenues for vision and progress. Nowhere is this truer than in our study of American literature where some of our “craziest” characters have occasioned our greatest insights. In this course students will discuss and interpret major American literary texts through the lens of selected theories and principles of major psychological thinkers such as Freud, Jung, Lacan, Skinner, and Piaget. Some of the questions we will ask include: How is madness related to creativity, to rebellion that brings about positive change, and to overcoming oppression? How can analysis of our perceptions of the gap between lucidity and insanity tell us about how we face issues of race, gender, and poverty? How does fiction resemble a dream, and how can both help us to better understand who we are? To explore these questions, students will read texts selected from authors such as Fitzgerald, Cather, Kesey, Dickinson, McKay, Miller, Wilson, Gilman, Williams, Plath, and Poe, which incorporate many of the essential themes of American literature. Our objective will be to broaden our awareness of ourselves in relation to society through fiction and non-fiction; our tools will be the formal literary essay, the in-class timed write, group presentations, the literary research paper, and the personal essay.
Northwest Voices in American Literature
Regional literature has long been a source of study for literary scholars. Northwest Voices will focus on the work of writers and poets from Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Northern California, and related areas to explore how the Northwest is imagined and represented as a region, either as the direct subject of works or as an influence in the writer’s voice, theme(s), symbolism, or tone. This course will bring up bigger theoretical questions such as: What makes an area a “region”? What does it mean for writing to be anchored in specific places? In what ways do writers affiliate (or disaffiliate) themselves with regions and why? How are regional identities complicated by racial, gender, or class identities as well as by political and environmental concerns? How do these complications enrich the writing? All of the primary texts will be representative of Northwest writers and poets with the goal of introducing students to the rich literary culture of our region and to provide students with critical tools to examine literature of other regions. Students will write literary analysis papers in addition to writing creative short stories and poetry. A key component of this course is the research process. Each student will complete a formal research paper on an American author. After the research paper, the course reading will begin with Sherman Alexie’s Reservation Blues, which will be accompanied by a number of short stories and poems from regional writers and poets.