With a curriculum that embraces both the traditional and the progressive, the Woodberry Forest English Department teaches critical reading and effective writing at every grade level. Starting in the ninth grade, students learn to organize their thoughts coherently and to express their ideas in clear, precise prose even as they begin to experiment with style, voice, figures of speech, wit, rhetorical strategies, poetic devices, and form. Reading assignments, ranging from Shakespeare and his contemporaries to the most recent memoirs, essays, and poetry, reinforce the principles of good writing and reveal minds that have defined American and other cultures. The department also uses clippings from daily newspapers, current magazine articles, films, letters, speeches, websites, and advertisements to engage, instruct, inspire, and sometimes provoke students. Hence the claim to be both traditional and progressive. While teachers demand that students encounter familiar canonical writers from the past, write in standard English, and master the principles of English grammar, they also employ non-canonical texts, visual arts, and modern media to prompt students’ thinking. The complementary processes of reading and writing constitute the foundation of what the English Department teaches, and everything else—grammar, vocabulary, test-taking skills, research—must contribute to the primary goal of producing nuanced, thoughtful, canny readers and confident, controlled writers.
In the third and fourth forms, classes cover standard English grammar, formal and informal essay writing, and readings from different centuries in five genres: essay, poetry, drama, novel, and memoir. The students in the fifth and sixth forms write in longer, more sophisticated forms and read challenging works that serve as models of good writing and that generate lively discussion.
The study of literature is skill-based, rather than content-based. The English Department asks its students to learn how to read actively, how to decode a complex text, how to respond to voices from earlier centuries, and how to respond to works in any genre of nonfiction or fiction. The study of writing progresses from basic work with sentence structure and paragraphs to personal narrative to more formal analytical writing. In the fourth form students take a timed writing exam in December to evaluate their ability to write a personal narrative and again in April to demonstrate their ability to analyze a text. In the fall of the fifth form, students begin to work with rhetorical strategies. The sixth form classes revisit and expand on the skill set of earlier forms. Every student meets at least once per marking period with his English teacher for a private conference to discuss writing problems and how to eliminate them.
Placement in honors and regular sections in the fifth, and sixth forms is at the discretion of the department.