In keeping with the English department's goal of sustaining a literary culture at Blair, seniors are once again launching their study of Advanced Placement (AP) English language with a first-semester focus on a specific literary genre. Joining the roster of tried-and-tested AP English language courses on topics such as memoir and modern drama are three new electives for fall 2017—"Horror," "Books to Film" and "The Meaning of Life"—and each class was designed and is being taught by a veteran teacher who is passionate about his subject.
The course description for "Horror" reads like the introduction of a spooky story: "Many a Halloween and campfire night have been spent pondering the possibilities that the things that go bump in the night are more than legend. Poe, Lovecraft, Bierce, Jackson, Matheson and King—writers who have kept us up many a night wondering if we remembered to lock the back door. Sign up for this elective...if you dare."
And 12 students did, indeed, dare to enroll in English and drama teacher Craig Evans' fright-inducing elective. Throughout the semester, they are reading and analyzing short stories and one novel—Shirley Jackson's The Haunting of Hill House—to determine how their authors create emotional response in readers and what, exactly, makes these stories scary.
Rose Mascarenhas '18 loves horror movies, and she's enjoying the class' lively—or is that deadly?—discussions. "We compare horror movies we've seen to our reading assignments and figure out which elements throughout the tale are scary and which are not," she said. One of her favorite texts so far has been "Caterpillars" by E.F. Benson, a story whose "creepy, crawling descriptions of caterpillars" made Rose jump in her seat as she read it. "I've learned that scary writing does not depend on the blood and gore of a particular situation, but more on the element of surprise," she added. "When a story has an ending that causes me to be amazed and confused, that's the part that's horrifying."
Mr. Evans has been a voracious reader of horror stories for as long as he can remember and a horror-movie fan since seeing Psycho as a youngster. In class, he delves into the literary and cinematic techniques writers and directors use to induce fear, such as the "jump scare," but noted that current events are often part of class discussion, too. "We talk about what we're afraid of, and, of course, mass shootings and terrorism are frightening beyond any fiction that's ever been written," he said. "Our discussions include everything from religion, morality and ethics to zombie movies and science fiction-induced fear of robots and artificial intelligence. They're really far-reaching, and that's the best part about teaching this course."
Students will complete a unique signature assessment before the end of the semester: They will present one of Richard Matheson's Twilight Zone stories to the class. "Richard Matheson wrote every scary episode of Twilight Zone you can think of," Mr. Evans said. "Through this assessment, students will realize how important storytelling is to society, especially storytelling that invokes an emotional response such as fear. I hope they'll continue reading horror and watching horror movies long after this class is finished," he added.
Books to Film
The notion that "the book is always better than the movie" inspired English department chair James Moore to create his new AP English language elective "Books to Film." In this course, which Mr. Moore designed during Blair's Faculty Summer Institute in August, students are reading novels and their corresponding screenplays, then analyzing how story elements were changed and exploring the reasons for the adaptations.
"Often, screenplays are written the way they are due to marketing considerations or movie industry regulations," said Mr. Moore, who explained that students have read the Motion Picture Production Code, a set of industry moral guidelines applied to most United States films released by major studios from 1930 to 1968. "Nonetheless, we're digging deep into the process of writing for the screen, and students are scrutinizing every detail."
After taking a look at the all-school summer reading book Chemistry, Weike Wang's debut novel that was just optioned by Amazon Studios, the next book/film combination the class considered was Truman Capote's Breakfast at Tiffany's. Mr. Moore noted that there is a great deal of documentation on the making of that book into a 1961 movie, but that he and his students will be "flying without a net" as they now turn to Patricia Highsmith's thriller, The Talented Mr. Ripley. "Students will have to work hard to figure out how a 300-page book was collapsed into a two-hour production," he said, noting that this assignment will lead students into the work of their signature assessment.
For this project, students will write an original screenplay based on Über Alles: A Novel of Love, Loyalty, and Political Intrigue in World War II by Blair alumnus Robert Neff '49. The class will be challenged to remain true to the tale told in the 420-page historical thriller/love story while keeping their movie to two hours' running time. Students will have to make critical decisions on which story elements to include and which ones they can omit, and the entire class will contribute to this collaborative effort.
Even though Danny Sysler '18 describes himself as "someone who prefers to read non-fiction books," he is enjoying the stories Mr. Moore has chosen for the AP class. "I've felt very confident speaking in class and sharing ideas with my peers," he said. "I'm looking forward to working together as the year goes on."
Mr. Moore's goals for the class—besides acing the AP exam in May—include helping his students become more careful readers who are able to analyze literature on a deeper level and giving them an appreciation for what goes into the movies they watch, as well as a sense of how movies reflect the time in which they were made. "I hope students will be inspired to do something creative, too," he said.
The Meaning of Life
Thirteen seniors are tackling the eternal question of what life is all about in the midst of an indifferent universe in "The Meaning of Life," a course that English teacher Bob Brandwood originally designed and taught 20 years ago. "It's based on a core set of books that I thought revealed essential truths about the human condition," the veteran teacher remarked. "These texts suggest answers to questions about identity and truth, as well as our relationship to self, others, the spiritual and the philosophical. They help students think about the way they approach their lives."
Among the traditional literary works the class will examine are Robert Bolt's A Man for All Seasons, Ernest Hemingway's A Farewell to Arms and the World War I poetry of Wilfred Owen, each of which helps students consider issues around love, personhood, how human beings react in extremis and how beliefs influence what kind of person one becomes. Amidst all this seriousness, Mr. Brandwood also brings in jokes, movies and lighter poetry, too, as he readily acknowledges that comedy and facetiousness also have their place in any attempt to discern the meaning of life.
Katie Peacock '18 is one of the students who has taken on this thought-provoking course, and she is enjoying the experience. "A Farewell to Arms and short stories by Andre Dubus have left me with more questions than answers, but that is, perhaps, the best part of the class," she said. "My classmates have interesting answers to challenging questions, and they are willing to listen to me as I ramble and my ideas begin to take shape. I've learned a lot about perspective and also that we can learn a lot from each other."
For their signature assessment, class members will choose a philosophical or religious figure whose ideas they find intriguing and present that person and his or her ideas to the class. In the meantime, they will continue writing essays and responses to a range of questions and engaging in class discussions during which Mr. Brandwood will encourage them to push back and challenge one another as they express their views.
"By the end of the course, I want students to see that there's a glint of hope, no matter how desperate the times may seem," Mr. Brandwood said. "No matter what you ultimately think the meaning of life is, you have to believe there's always something out there to discover. There will always be more questions than answers, and you've got to be comfortable with that. And I've already told my students—as I did 20 years ago—that they can't really know the meaning of life until they graduate."