Upper School Curriculum

Durham Academy Upper School — comprising grades 9 to 12 — provides a challenging curriculum designed to teach students how to think independently and how to think well. We want our graduating students to be able to read critically, write concisely and analytically, listen and learn, speak clearly and confidently, calculate logically and observe with a discerning eye. 

About 85% of Upper School teachers hold advanced degrees, and we integrate the latest technology to enhance student learning — from a 1:1 MacBook program for students, to membership in Global Online Academy, creating networked learning communities on campus and around the world.

But just as important as academic achievement is personal development. Our principles of community are grounded in attributes like empathy, integrity, curiosity and resilience. 

Advancing Beyond APs

While Advanced Placement courses may have once provided an elite-level academic experience, an ever-growing number of top independent schools, including Durham Academy, have recognized that they can offer their families a more robust learning experience. 

DA Upper School will fully transition to our Advanced curriculum in 2024–2025, with several Advanced courses piloted in the 2023–2024 school year. This internally designed curriculum will comprise our school's most advanced, rigorous, globally relevant courses that emphasize depth over breadth and that teach students to synthesize complex information and apply knowledge and skills to real life.

Learn More About DA's Transition to the Advanced Curriculum


    
Explore the Course Catalog

  • English
English 9: Innocence & Experience

In English 9, students acquire and apply the skills and habits necessary for a literate life. The course focuses on the thematic topic of Innocence vs. Experience, including how individuals and cultures signal childhood and adulthood, the role of knowing the self in maturing, and navigating difference and conflict as we come of age. Reading assignments include a diverse range of authors, cultures and genres and help students build foundational comprehension and interpretive skills, including developing an annotation style that supports the individual learner. Writing assignments, which include personal response and analytical modes, emphasize developing supportable interpretations from well-selected textual examples and expressing those interpretations clearly. Grammar instruction highlights understanding functional components of the English language to enhance clarity in writing.

  • Grade 9
  • English
English 10: Truth & Justice

English 10 builds on the essential literacy skills of English 9, moving students into analysis of how texts create their meanings and effects. The course focuses on the thematic topic of Truth and Justice, prompting students to explore ways of knowing, structures of power and mechanisms of justice. Reading assignments include a diverse range of authors, cultures and genres, and help students develop active and critical reading skills through close engagement with language, structure, and theme. Mastering the analytical essay is a focus of the course, with students moving from theme papers that address big textual questions to close readings that focus on how language operates within a work of literature. Class discussion encourages students to try out interpretations and develop understandings collaboratively. Students continue to hone their annotation skills, grammar, mechanics, and vocabulary.

  • Grade 10
  • Technology
CS I: Game Design

In the CS I: Game Design course, students will design and code games and learn more about project design, event scripting and animation engines. Students will gain exposure to working with both the Godot and Unity game engines as well as learning how to use a Python-based graphics and animation package called Arcade. The course is built on a series of units that will push students to solve problems and create content while also developing the design and technical skills necessary to build their own games. Students will utilize author Jesse Schell's Deck of Lenses to help frame and guide the initial designs of their games. During this time, students also learn how to use Godot, a free, online game development engine they will use for the first half of the class. In the second half of the course, students will migrate to using Unity, a cross-platform, professional game development engine. The format of the course is entirely project based and students will finish the class with a digital portfolio of their game creations.

  • Grade 9
  • Grade 10
  • Grade 11
  • Grade 12
  • English
English 11: American Literature Survey

In English 11, students continue to hone and expand their literacy skills, moving into comparative analysis, personal narrative, and civil discourse. Through active reading and analysis of diverse texts, students explore a range of American experiences, deepen their understanding of form and theme, draw connections to their own lives, and exchange ideas and perspectives with their peers. Writing assignments allow students to exercise their skills across a range of modes, including the Common App college essay. Students develop their research, synthesis and argumentation skills through a year-long passion project that invites them to do a deep-dive into a topic of their choosing. Students can expect more in-class reading review and writing instruction than AP Language and Composition offers.

  • Grade 11
  • English
AP English 11: English Language and Composition

AP English Language and Composition is a year-long, college-level course that uses American literature to study rhetoric, or how writers use language to move audiences. Through active reading and analysis of diverse texts, students explore the conflicts and aspirations that mark American identity and its rhetorical constructions and negotiations. Students learn to read as writers, sensitive to the relationship between a text’s rhetorical situation and the strategies the author chooses to achieve their purpose and appeal to their audience. As a result of taking this course, students move from consumers of texts to thoughtful participants in the ongoing conversation that is American culture. That is, this course helps students figure out what they think and how to say it in a way that convinces others, and how to productively listen and engage across differences. The year-long Passion Project invites students to conduct independent research on a topic of their choosing. Students entering this course must read at a high level and demonstrate skillful proficiency in analytical writing. Students can expect a heavier workload and higher expectations for reading and writing skill levels.

  • Grade 11
  • English
AP English 12: Contemporary Global Issues in Fiction

Interested in climate justice? Transnational migration? Decolonization? How race, ethnicity and birthplace affect one’s citizenship status and mobility? This course will explore how novelists from across the world working in recent decades incorporate these topics into their novels. All of these novels resist being categorized within a single nation’s borders (with one exception). These novels also share a preoccupation with whether it is possible to find a shared humanity — i.e. to create some form of justice — that transcends the boundaries of geography and identity both within and amongst modern nation-states. We will examine how these novels treat the notion of “otherness,” whether they suggest the possibility of organizing a global citizenry through mechanisms other than individual nations, and how the intersection of literary and political theory can help us illuminate what is in the fiction. Our (novelistic) journeys shall take us from the U.S. to South Africa, Nigeria to the U.K., Pakistan to the Caribbean, and in the process seek to discover an alternative to these very labels (national borders) we use to define our sense of where we are, as well as our sense of who we are.

  • Grade 12
  • English
AP English 12: Love and Money in American Literature

This course explores American literature that highlights the tension between love and money. The course starts with theoretical framing by Thorstein Veblen, including theories of conspicuous consumption and pecuniary canons of taste that students apply to Edith Wharton’s novel The House of Mirth. Other novels include Erich Segal’s Love Story and Phillip Roth’s Goodbye Columbus. The course features short stories by Charles Chesnutt, Zora Neale Hurston, Kate Chopin and John Cheever as well as poetry by Amy Lowell, Edna St. Vincent Millay and Dorothy Parker.

  • Grade 12
  • English
AP English 12: Postmodernism

Postmodernism begins with an examination of postmodern theory, with a focus on Lyotard, Hassan, Baudrillard, and Jameson. The course examines postmodern literary styles and experiments in novels, stories, and poetry. Students will analyze Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49 as well as short stories by Barth, Barthelme, Borges, Ferré, Wallace, Alexie, Chiang and ZZ Packer. The course includes a postmodern poetry project that will feature theory about postmodern poetry and poems by Ferlinghetti, Ginsberg, Koch, Ashbery, Berrigan, O’Hara, Notely, Coleman, Levertov, Armantrout, and Wang Ping. 

  • Grade 12
  • English
AP English 12: Shakespeare

Robert Graves once said, “The remarkable thing about Shakespeare is that he is really very good — in spite of all the people who say he is very good.” If you want to discover for yourself just how good he is, then this is the class for you. We will concentrate on a few select plays as a way of better understanding Shakespeare’s art, working through scenes in a manner that will allow students to realize the implications of the language by pursuing interpretations in a collaborative atmosphere. We will read two comedies, A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Twelfth Night, and two tragedies, Othello and Hamlet, as well as a selection of sonnets. We will approach each play from both our own moment — asking what Shakespeare can help us examine and feel as 21st-century readers — as well as important Early Modern historical and cultural contexts. Understanding the world that produced these plays will help us examine our own and consider how and why Shakespeare continues to speak to audiences 400 years after his own time on subjects ranging from gender, race, class, and power, to imagination, art, mortality, and truth. Expect reading, textual analysis, and class discussion to be supplemented by comparisons of stage productions and film adaptations, the occasional recitation, and some silly scene play.

  • Grade 12
  • English
English Strategies

This course will provide additional support to students taking English 9, 10, 11, or 12. The class gives extra instruction on and coaching of reading and writing skills. Students in the class will benefit from one-on-one support that meets them where they are and helps them continue to advance the literacy skills that will allow them to succeed in all of their classes – and beyond. The course is pass/fail and does not have its own coursework or homework. Rather than add to a student’s workload, it is designed to support them in navigating their reading and writing assignments with greater confidence, independence, and success.

  • Grade 9
  • Grade 10
  • Grade 11
  • Grade 12
  • English
English 12: Contemporary Fiction & Nonfiction

In this course, we examine the current backdrop of literature in the United States. We’ll look at the factors that influence literacy (who reads?), learn about the publishing process (what is there to read?), and consider the impact of various reading experiences (what do we get out of reading?). Students will come into contact with a wide variety of authors, themes, and writing styles, both fiction and nonfiction, in order to further their understanding of the modern literary landscape, understand why it looks like it does, and speculate about what its future might hold. We will continue conversations about the Western canon that have started in previous classes, and we will confront the fact that literacy and reading in the U.S. are complex, multifaceted issues. We will also seek out and explore other communities of reading, both local and online, as often as possible. Throughout the semester, students will engage with reading on their own terms by choosing most of their own (contemporary) reading materials.

  • Grade 11
  • Grade 12
  • English
AP English 12: Issues in Modern American Literature and Society

There are many important issues facing our world right now: climate change, global health, economic inequality, social and racial injustice, and more. In this semester-long class, students will think critically about society and how literature can effect changes in the world. In addition to reading modern novels, you will conduct research and use your findings to analyze, in writing and discussion, literature and contemporary issues. This will be a discussion-driven course, and you should be prepared to pose questions, and respond thoughtfully to others’ questions, every day. At the end of the semester, students will choose novels to read independently and will write about their themes and how they relate to the ideas we’ve discussed in the class.

  • Grade 12
  • English
English 12: Escapist Literature

The world is stressful now. The world was also stressful in the past! Humans are resilient, and over time we have come up with thousands of ways to respond to our circumstances. One prominent way humanity responds to hardship, stress and boredom is through mental escape: by daydreaming or watching TV, by drawing or going on a walk, by playing games or writing stories — and, of course, by reading. In this course, students will choose their own books to read throughout the semester based on their personal definitions of escapism and pleasure reading. In addition, we will explore a variety of short texts as a class, from several genres and in several formats. We will treat genre fiction seriously, delving into its history of stigmatization and examining the ways different genres have evolved. We will discuss books across age levels, taking a trip to the Lower School to connect with favorite stories from childhood. The connecting thread? Everything we’ll experience fits within the category of escapist literature. Ultimately, all of our discussions tie back to two essential questions: 1.) What does it mean to escape? 2.) What constitutes literary value?

  • Grade 10
  • Grade 11
  • Grade 12
  • English
English 12: Hero to Anti-Hero

Using the book Looking at Movies: An Introduction to Film, this course analyzes a number of important films, some in their entirety and others through selected clips, as a way of helping students explore the major components of filmmaking as an alternative form of narrative. Screenplays, mise-en-scene, setting, sound, cinematography, editing and the language of filmmaking form the basis of class discussions. Students look at the work of some of the most important directors of the past and those working today, including Orson Welles, Paul Thomas Anderson, Greta Gerwig, Jane Campion, Joon Ho Bong, Terence Malick, Roman Polanski, Stanley Kubrick, The Coen Brothers, Spike Lee, Wes Anderson, Ang Lee and Sam Mendes. Students will also examine specific genres such as film noir, the western, science fiction, gangster, horror and comedy. In addition, students keep extensive notes through which they can trace their development as critics of film, write reviews and analyses and make short presentations. We will explore in both film viewing and projects the plight of women and artists of color as they try to overcome institutional obstacles and make greater inroads into the filmmaking business. We will also examine several works of literature (novels and short stories) and study their transfer to the screen and look at original screenplays. Some works considered in past years include, American Beauty, Memento, Lady Bird, The Power of the Dog, There Will Be Blood, Do the Right Thing, Run, Lola, Run, CODA, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, No Country for Old Men, Chinatown, Citizen Kane, Parasite, and Blade Runner.

  • Grade 10
  • Grade 11
  • Grade 12
  • English
English 12: Literary and Artistic Responses to War

This course examines the American literary and artistic responses to war, beginning in the first quarter with Vietnam and continuing in the second quarter with discussions of the ongoing conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. These conflicts have brought forth some of our country’s greatest literature, music and film. Students look at several key literary responses to these wars, including works by Tim O’Brien, Karl Marlantes, David Finkel, Phil Klay, and selected poetry and letters of combat veterans. The cinematic responses to Vietnam include Platoon, Apocalypse Now, Da 5 Bloods, Journey From the Fall, and The Deer Hunter, while those on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan will be drawn from among The Hurt Locker, Black Hawk Down, Baghdad E.R., Restrepo, and Taking Chance. Examining parallels and experiences of today’s veterans with those who served in Vietnam is a central part of the course. Writing response papers to the literature we read is an integral aspect of our work, as well as more creative projects on war photography and film. A number of local American military veterans representing both the gender and ethnic diversity of America’s Armed Forces will visit the class over the course of the semester and share their stories. In our debriefs of each visit, we will concentrate on individual experiences as a way of understanding the challenges each veteran had to confront. As one of the culminating exercises of the course, students will participate in the Veterans History Project by interviewing a veteran, collecting an oral history, and writing a response to the experience of the course as a whole that reflects what the students have learned. The class will also help plan our school’s annual Veterans Day Assembly.

  • Grade 10
  • Grade 11
  • Grade 12
  • English
English 12: Race and Identity in America

This course will examine the power of race as a social construct — albeit one that is not rooted in biological reality — that has affected American life as much as any other human force or entity. Looking at race through the lenses of fiction, essays, poetry and film, we will explore ways race shapes us individually, collectively and nationally, seeking to understand America's persistent racial injustice alongside its egalitarian aspirations. We will consider the impact of the concept of race hierarchy on American culture and how we understand our own identities, culminating in writing a substantial personal reflection — in the spirit of memoir — as senior year comes to a close.

  • Grade 10
  • Grade 11
  • Grade 12
  • Performing Arts
Instrumental Ensemble

The Upper School Instrumental Ensemble studies music and musicianship through the rehearsal and performance of many genres and styles of music, in both the full ensemble and in smaller combinations. In addition to performance, in-depth exploration into other aspects of music and musicianship (e.g. arranging, songwriting/composition and recording) occurs throughout the year. Instrumental Ensemble is open to all instrumentalists (woodwinds, brass, strings, keyboard or percussion), but each student must already have basic proficiency on their instrument of choice. The class is aligned to be a natural next step for nearly all students coming from Durham Academy’s Middle School instrumental program. Participation in the Winter and Spring Concerts, Upper School Commencement, and other performances throughout the year are required components of the course.

This course must be taken as a one-year continuous course (fall semester first, directly followed by spring semester) to fulfill the one-year Fine Arts graduation requirement. It can be taken one semester at a time, for elective credit, only after the student has completed their one-year Fine Arts requirement.

PLEASE NOTE: It is possible (and even recommended) for Instrumental Ensemble to be taken for multiple years while at the Upper School.

  • Grade 9
  • Grade 10
  • Grade 11
  • Grade 12
  • Performing Arts
Vocal Ensemble

The Upper School Vocal Ensemble studies music and musicianship through the rehearsal and performance of many genres and styles of music, both a cappella and accompanied. In addition to performance, in-depth exploration into other aspects of music and musicianship (e.g. arranging, songwriting/composition and recording) occurs throughout the year. This class is aligned to be a natural next step for nearly all students coming from Durham Academy’s Middle School choral program, but there is no prerequisite for this course other than a desire to sing! Participation in the Winter and Spring Concerts, Upper School Commencement, and other performances throughout the year are required components of the course.

This course must be taken as a one-year continuous course (fall semester first, directly followed by spring semester) to fulfill the one-year Fine Arts graduation requirement. It can be taken one semester at a time, for elective credit, only after the student has completed their one-year Fine Arts requirement.

PLEASE NOTE: It is possible (and even recommended) for Vocal Ensemble to be taken for multiple years while at the Upper School.

  • Grade 9
  • Grade 10
  • Grade 11
  • Grade 12
  • Performing Arts
Auditioned Musical Ensemble: In The Pocket

In The Pocket is an auditioned music ensemble focused primarily on playing all genres of popular music of the 20th and 21st century. The ensemble is a collaborative effort between students and adult members. During the school year, the ensemble performs at various school functions as well as events not directly associated with Durham Academy. Auditions are open to rising 11th- and 12th-graders; rising 10th-graders must receive permission to audition from Upper School Music Director Mr. Meyer and Mr. Hoyt. Auditions are held in the spring each year for the following school year. In order to keep the group to a manageable size, auditions are normally restricted to replacing senior members who are graduating. Students who audition but are not accepted into In The Pocket are a good fit for Instrumental Ensemble or Vocal Ensemble, even if they’ve taken one of those classes previously.

  • Grade 10
  • Grade 11
  • Grade 12
  • Performing Arts
AP Music Theory

Students in this class will work toward a deeper understanding of the various building blocks of music and their relationship to each other. Why do pieces based upon Western harmony (including most pop music, classical music, jazz and folk music) work the way that they do? Students will strive to answer this question and its implications for listening and performance through development of their written skills (analysis, composition, notation) and musicianship (aural skills, sight-singing and harmonization). This class is an excellent fit for students who have taken at least one year of a music ensemble and wish to take their understanding of music to the next level. The work in this class is equivalent to that of a first-year college course in music theory, and culminates in the AP exam.

  • Grade 10
  • Grade 11
  • Grade 12