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. 
 

Explore the Course Catalog

  • English
English 9: World Literacy

Students acquire and apply the literacy skills necessary for success at the Upper School while studying cultural and literary content in fiction, mythology, poetry, drama and nonfiction from diverse cultures. Reading assignments help students build foundational comprehension and interpretive skills in annotation. Writing assignments, which include personal response and analytical modes, emphasize accuracy of interpretation based on validity of textual support and clarity of expression. Students use textual evidence to support claims, organize paragraphs around unified ideas, and develop clear and complete thesis statements. Grammar instruction highlights understanding functional components of the English language such as phrase and clause combination, apostrophes, pluralization, and subordination/coordination.

  • Grade 9
  • English
English 10: The Literature of Western Europe

This course complements the sophomore history course with an emphasis on major European writers such as Sophocles, Shakespeare, Dante, the Romantics, and Austen. The course considers the origins of the Western European tradition in a study of Greek mythology and tragedy and concludes with works from the early part of the twentieth century. Students study the process of writing – both analytical and creative – through drafting, revision, and guided instruction on matters of mechanics and substance. The course emphasizes learning to write a skillful literary analysis.

  • Grade 10
  • English
English 11: American Literature Survey

In the year-long American Literature Survey, students will explore a variety of American texts to encourage interest in and understanding of major authors and literary movements. Through active reading and analysis of short stories, essays, poems, plays, and novels selected to engage curiosity, students will examine what it means to be American. Students will enjoy lively discussions that will deepen their understanding of form and theme. Teachers will design debates and activities that connect texts to students’ lives. This course will provide tailored practice in reading and writing, including annotating skills, reading comprehension, and composing effective and organized prose. Students will complete a range of writing assignments, including personal response, personal narrative (such as a college application essay), and literary analysis. Teachers of this course have the flexibility to adjust the pace according to each class’s needs, including giving students choice in their assignments.

  • 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. Students entering this course must read at a high level and will write frequently to gain analytical proficiency with language and control over their ideas. 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. They also learn to read as writers, sensitive to how they themselves can learn from published authors. Because of this, students entering this course should be proficient with the fundamentals of grammar, organizing ideas, annotating texts, and selecting appropriate evidence to support their arguments. Students will read broadly from a survey of American literature. Rather than focusing merely on the content of these canonical novels, poems, plays, and nonfiction essays, students will learn to read these great works as models to be emulated in their own writing. Both their reading and their writing should make students aware of interactions among a writer’s purposes, reader expectations, and an author’s propositional content, as well as the genre conventions and the resources of language that contribute to effectiveness in writing.

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

Interested in human rights? Climate justice? Transnational migration? Decolonization? How race, ethnicity, and birthplace affect one’s citizenship status? 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 UK, Pakistan to the Carribean, 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: Gothic Literature

This course is an investigation of the Gothic, the literary style that the modern horror genre descends from. As such, the course will examine novels that are full of haunted castles, inhuman monsters, mad scientists, insane murderers, vengeful ghosts and other things that go bump in the night. We’ll begin with the first Gothic novel in English, Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto and then move forward chronologically, to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and Edgar Allan Poe’s American version of the Gothic. After a tour through the southern Gothic of Carson McCullers, we’ll finish the semester looking at two contemporary Gothic novels: Toni Morrison’s Beloved and Randall Kenan’s A Visitation of Spirits. At each stop along the way, we’ll think and talk about a series of questions that arise from the ongoing success of the Gothic tradition. Why are these stories so compelling? How can we account for the peculiar power and the perennial appeal of the Gothic mode? Why are we fascinated by these characters who face situations so extreme, so incomparable to the events of "real life"? How do Gothic stories change over time and across cultures? Are the things that terrify in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century the same as the things that terrify us now?

  • Grade 12
  • English
AP English 12: Introduction to Poetry

This course is a semester-long study of poetry in English, designed to make students more sophisticated readers of verse in all of its myriad forms. Throughout the course, we will investigate the role of poetry: What are its responsibilities? What are its possibilities? How can the poem both reflect and transcend context? Who are today’s poets? The course has two parts. In the first half of the semester, we’ll look at the choices that poets make when writing — choices about concepts such as rhythm, meter, and line breaks — and how those choices actually help to create a poem’s meaning. In the second half of the semester, our focus becomes poetic genre, with units that explore the sonnet, the elegy, and other major poetic forms. Throughout the course of the semester, we’ll be reading widely in terms of time period, nationality, and style, so as to give students a broad base of exposure to different poets and different poetic styles, a base that they can draw from when they take the AP exam. Finally, in December, the class will decide, collectively, on one poet whose work we want to study in depth. We’ll then spend a week focused on that poet. Major assignments will include in-class essays and creative assignments that ask students to approach poetry not just as a reader, but as a participant.

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

This course explores American literature that highlights the tension between love and money. Course readings start with theoretical framing by Thorstein Veblen, and include short stories by F. Scott Fitzgerald and John Cheever. Course novels include: Edith Wharton, House of Mirth, John O’Hara, Appointment in Samarra, Erich Segal, Love Story, and Phillip Roth, Goodbye Columbus. The course will also analyze romances complicated by money and class in films such as Metropolitan and Pretty in Pink.

  • Grade 12
  • English
AP English 12: Medieval British Literature

This course fulfills the first semester requirement for AP special topics. We've all heard about the so-called Dark Ages, during which art, learning, and even human kindness collapsed into the centuries-long void between the fall of Rome and the start of the Renaissance. This course challenges those assumptions and argues that this was a period of aesthetic, philosophical, and cultural magnificence. To make this point, students will read Old English elegies and war poetry, Arthurian legends, and parts of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales alongside some modern counterparts. Major assessments will include AP-style tests and essays as well as longer, analytical papers. If you are a fan of Monty Python’s Holy Grail, or if you have ever wondered who Lancelot and Guinevere really were, then this is the course for you.

  • Grade 12
  • English
AP English 12: Reading Gender in America

This course explores a broad range of questions concerning the relationship between gender—the set of cultural expectations placed on people because of their biological sex—and literature. For example, history tells us that gender roles change over time, so what role has American literature played in the establishment and transmission of gender norms in our country? Alternately, how have American writers used literature to critique, or even change, the dominant gender norms of their time? As we investigate these questions, we’ll read a variety of American novels, short fiction, and poetry that wrestles with questions of gender. We’ll spend time with the frustrated housewife of Kate Chopin’s The Awakening, the war-wounded veterans in Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, and the small-town “freaks” of Carson McCullers’s The Member of the Wedding. Finally, we’ll also see what happens when an American soldier takes his gendered expectations abroad in James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room. At every step along the way, we’ll consider how gendered expectations define and constrict both women and men. Students will work on a major research project — on a text of their choosing — over the course of the semester.

  • 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 begin with Titus Andronicus, Shakespeare’s bloodiest and most brutal play, and examine the elements that tend to make Shakespeare inaccessible to high school students. The dense language and obscure allusions will give way to a highly accessible and entertaining performance when we view Julie Taymor’s production of the play. Once students overcome the perceived barriers, we will take on more recognizable plays: Hamlet, Twelfth Night, and two other works by Shakespeare. Readings are complemented with films and at least one live performance.

  • Grade 12
  • English
AP English 12: Theory of Literature

What is a book? Why do we read books? Why do writers write them? What makes them good or bad? Though these look like simple questions, they are wonderfully complex, and they have been the basis for a 3,000-year-old branch of philosophy known as literary theory. In this class, we will think about and discuss some of the answers generated during this long-running discussion, and students will also develop their own responses and discover their reasoning for them. In this heavily discussion-based class, we read both pieces of literary theory (nonfiction treatises on the nature and forms of literature) and literary works such as poetry and novels. We will read works by Socrates, Aristotle, Wordsworth and Coleridge, Keats, Poe, Tolstoy, T. S. Eliot, Charlotte Bronte, and others. In addition, students will write frequent responsive essays and analytical reflections. Over the course of the semester, students will work on a portfolio that includes a research-based position paper and a work of creative writing. This portfolio will count as the semester exam for the class.

  • Grade 12
  • English
English 12: Aristotle and You

Imagine yourself the conductor of a runaway trolley. On the track ahead you notice five workers. You also notice a side track that only has one worker. Do you divert the trolley to the side track? Why? Now imagine a similar scenario where you are standing next to a large man on a bridge overlooking the tracks. Again you notice the trolley headed toward the five workers. Do you push the man off the bridge onto the track to stop the trolley? Why not? What do your decisions say about you as a person? This course draws from multiple writers and texts to answer questions about what sort of person one should be and how to determine what is the right course of action in a particular situation. We will read essays and short stories that seek to identify principles for decision making and ethical behavior in a personal, civil, and moral context. Students will apply ethical principles in a series of panel discussions and write essays on self-selected topics. Emphasis will be placed on classroom debate, position/opinion statements, and argumentative/persuasive essay composition. The purpose of this course is to practice rational thinking and incorporate intuition in analyzing ethical behavior.

  • Grade 10
  • Grade 11
  • Grade 12
  • English
English 12: Banned Books

In cultures around the world, including our own, some people have found some ideas so offensive or harmful that they have tried to limit citizens’ access to them by banning books. Studying the ideas deemed “harmful” can give us great insight into both stated and unstated values of a culture, since, as Oscar Wilde said, “The books that the world calls immoral are the books that show the world its own shame.” This course explores the relationships between culture, power, and ideas by investigating books that have been restricted or banned by different groups. We will consider which ideas are considered most dangerous or least desirable and how art serves as a resistant voice against groupthink (itself an idea derived from a frequently banned book). After reading books by such authors as Salman Rushdie, Margaret Atwood, Alice Walker, Isabel Allende, Kurt Vonnegut, and Mark Haddon, students will write thematic analyses and position papers that develop their own thoughts about the power and potential of ideas, including who should have access to them or not.

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

A 2007 poll released by the Associated Press and Ipsos revealed that one in four Americans don’t read books at all, and half of Americans read less than four each year. This is a sad figure. We all know reading books is closely linked with academic success, but new studies are coming out showing the link between reading and business success as well as personal success. As Harry S. Truman said, “Today a reader, tomorrow a leader.” This course is about all kinds of reading: fiction, non-fiction, graphic novels, horror, fantasy, science-fiction, romance, and so on, in the hopes that we can provide more understanding for why engagement in reading is so important. We will look at the significance of reading and writing, reading and emotional intelligence, and reading and empathy as we not only study the research, but attempt to put into practice what we learn. Texts will rely heavily on personal choice and may include a variety of genres. We will also explore nonfiction journals and studies highlighting the effects reading has on one’s quality of life. We will also search out and explore other communities of reading, both local and online, as often as possible.

  • Grade 11
  • Grade 12
  • English
English 12: Contemporary Short Stories

After examining the short story as a literary genre, students will explore the challenges and the rewards enjoyed by short story writers and readers. In a course that focuses on contemporary trends in fiction, students analyze various aspects of contemporary American, Indian, and Chinese culture. In addition to writing several short papers and delivering research presentations, students in Contemporary Short Stories will participate in class discussions, facilitate discussions, and prepare questions for student roundtables. Short story writers may include George Saunders, Jhumpa Lahiri, Yiyun Li, Alice Elliott Dark, T.C. Boyle, Raymond Carver, Adam Johnson, Sherman Alexie, Jim Shepard, David Sedaris, Barry Hannah, Caitlin Macy, Rick Bass, Karen Russell, and David Foster Wallace.

  • Grade 10
  • Grade 11
  • Grade 12
  • English
English 12: Escapist Literature

Storytelling is central to human existence. Stories allow people to see patterns and meaning in a world of chaos and randomness. Stories inform our emotional lives allowing us to examine the depths of the conscience of another in order to evaluate our own beliefs. As Marcel Proust said, “Only through literary art can we escape from ourselves and know the perspective of another.” Literature should be transformative, taking us on a roller coaster of self-reflection and offering us a greater understanding of the diversity of human experience. We will read multiple works that allow us to feel joy, and sadness, and wonder, and horror. We will explore stories that rely heavily on personal choice, and by analyzing the types of choices, attitudes, and conclusions that occur, we will better recognize and develop our own character. We will search out and explore other communities of reading, both local and online, as often as possible. The potential reading list includes nonfiction articles about why humans read, the benefits of reading, and the sociology behind storytelling. Students may choose works of horror, works of sadness, works of drama, and so on. Contemporary Fiction & Nonfiction is a complement to this course, not a prerequisite.

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

Using the book Looking at Movies, or A Short Guide to Writing About 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, Michael Curtiz, 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 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, The Dark Knight, Into the Wild, Do the Right Thing, Run, Lola, Run, Minority Report, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, No Country for Old Men, Chinatown, Citizen Kane, Casablanca, and Blade Runner.

  • Grade 10
  • Grade 11
  • Grade 12
  • English
English 12: Literary and Artistic Response 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, 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 responses to war photography and film. A number of local American military veterans will visit the class over the course of the semester and tell their stories. 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. The class will also help plan our school’s annual Veterans Day Assembly.

  • Grade 10
  • Grade 11
  • Grade 12
  • English
English 12: Literature of the Sea

Literature of the Sea surveys stories of human interactions with the ocean from the earliest records of North Sea to contemporary journalism in the South China Sea. We will read poetry, prose, fiction, and non-fiction. We will read about intrepid monks who lived 500 years before Columbus, and Vikings who made it to Canada three centuries before he “discovered” America. We will read about race and power aboard slave ships, pirate ships, and the realms between which they sailed. We will read about cross-dressing, gender-bending, and social experiments aboard these floating microcosms which, being out of place, created their own sense of cultural space. Finally, students will follow their own interests to research contemporary consequences of “sea-blindness” — the nearly worldwide cultural phenomenon of human beings turning away from the sea. Potential topics include the legal quagmires of coastal micro-nations, the impact of globalization on modern-day slavery, the dangers of chasing illegal whalers, and the ecological impacts of microplastics.

  • Grade 10
  • Grade 11
  • Grade 12