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.
To learn more about the values surrounding the essential skills in English classes, read the English Department mission.
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 three novels, Same Sun Here, Bamboo People, 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.
7th Grade English explores the following essential questions:
- How does the language we use to label others affect our treatment and judgment of them?
- How does language affect our identities and our perceptions of others?
- What is justice? Who gets to define justice? How do we respond to injustice?
Together, we will analyze a variety of texts (poetry, short stories, and novels), reading critically for author’s purpose, figurative language, and developments in conflict, characterization, setting, and theme.
We will read a variety of texts, including the novels The Outsiders, House of the Scorpion, To Kill a Mockingbird, Nothing but the Truth (and a Few White Lies), plus one more Human Rights themed novel for Literature Circles; various short stories; various poetry; and non-fiction texts.
Through class discussions and a variety of writing prompts, students will continue refining their ability to construct strong arguments supported by well-chosen textual evidence. This will be structured throughout the year with short, informal journal entries and reflections, formal paragraphs and essays, and interdisciplinary and artistic options. We will continue to build appropriate and sophisticated vocabulary and grammar choices in writing as well.
Vocabulary-building and grammar knowledge units will be yearlong, consisting of stand-alone lessons and practice opportunities through various assessments and writing prompts. Practice will be both in class through mini-lessons and discussions, as well as through the online IXL program.
We will build on communication and listening skills through class discussions, Socratic seminars, and speeches and presentations. Because of the demanding and sensitive nature of the topics we will be studying, we will present specific and targeted instruction on constructive questioning skills by seeking understanding first, assuming best intentions, and building empathy.
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 Your Voice which we will explore through the essential questions: Where does voice come from and what is the power of our voices? Throughout the year, each student will be challenged to find, use, and expand their voice, 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 and debates, dramatic vignettes, and impromptu speeches. Writing projects include formal analytical essays, short stories, journal-style creative writing, 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 Night, Macbeth, and A Raisin in the Sun. Students will read works from authors of diverse backgrounds such as The House on Mango Street and a variety of short stories and poems. Grammar, vocabulary, and the basics of preparing for and writing a variety of different paper formats are also integral skills in the course. Through long-term projects, students will learn executive functioning skills such as back planning, chunking, and time management. Join the journey and find your voice!
English 10 is the second year of a two-year sequence that introduces the fundamentals of close reading and literary analysis by examining different literary genres. English 10 picks up where English 9 ends, posing the question, “You found your voice. Now what?” To that end, English 10 is guided by the following four essential questions:
- Who do you want to be?
- What choices do you have to make?
- How do you express yourself?
- Where does that take you?
This year, we will build upon the reading, writing, and discussion skills established in 9th grade. Students will write personal responses and a variety of analytical essays; we take a process-oriented approach that equips students with pre-writing, writing, and editing strategies to tackle different types of writing. Building upon the discussion and public speaking skills developed during the 9th grade, students will take more leadership in group discussions.
The texts in English 10 expose students to different voices and possibilities about how individuals understand themselves within their respective worlds. Overall, we hope that students become increasingly comfortable with ambiguity and come to appreciate a variety of stories.
“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.
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 Fast Food Nation, 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.
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 people seek in their connections with others? Why? What do we pursue in our lives and why are those things important to us? How do humans respond to hardship and pain? What is authentic empathy, and what role does it play in our daily interactions with others? The class will read novels, short stories, essays, and poems, with primary readings from: McCann, Mandel, Asante, Deraniyagala, and Ishiguro. In addition to exploring the questions through the readings, students will grapple with their ideas in analytical and reflective writing. The course is designed to support students in the present and prepare them for the future. The material will push them to develop their reading, writing, and discussion skills so that they can think more deeply about their own experiences right now and be fully prepared for the challenges they encounter in the future.
This course explores how comedic texts and performers – from around the world and close to home -- challenge our perception of reality as well as our societal and political assumptions. Some feel that humor moves our society forward and humanizes the experiences of others, whereas others feel that humor reinforces stereotypes and solidifies divisions. We will examine the dangers inherent in such controversial expression and the power that humor can bring to marginalized voices. The course considers satire, parody, and humor found in essays, stories, poetry, drama, songs, political cartoons, memes, film, television, and stand-up comedy. We will also examine current libel laws, the extent of free speech, disgraced writers /performers, and possibly banned texts. Students will write analytical pieces, teach and provide class material, practice emulating humorous forms, complete the senior research paper, and perform or create a final capstone project that is seriously funny. Ellen DeGeneres and the cast of Saturday Night Live will fly in to teach several classes. JK. In her place, an Overlake alum has offered to make cameo appearances.
AP English Literature and Composition
AP English Literature and Composition is designed to provide students with a college-level approach to reading, writing, and critical analysis in advance of the National Exam in May. Students will examine a wide range of genres and periods, ranging from Antiquity to the 21st Century, in order to consider how and why authors create meaning in various texts. They will read poetry, prose, drama and satire, as well as philosophical works and literary theory in order to provide insight into questions of textual production, authorship, theme, and symbolism. Students will be asked to consider how certain topics, such as identity, power, trust, love, oppression, isolation, and struggle are interpreted by authors in different cultures and time periods. Moreover, they will be encouraged to reflect upon how these universal ideas relate to their own lives. Through their writing assignments and projects (including a longer research paper), members of the class will get the opportunity to engage with broad questions by means of close analysis. In other words, they will use their interpretations of specific texts as a way to think about universal dilemmas.