The Great Class of Great Books

Great Books is a senior Advanced Placement English course taught by Assistant Principal of English Eric Grossman and English teacher Katherine Fletcher.

Reading Time: 5 minutes

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By Joseph Yu

Great Books is a well-known senior Advanced Placement (AP) English course currently taught by Assistant Principal of English Eric Grossman and English teacher Katherine Fletcher. Grossman was encouraged to create the class by the previous head of the English department. At the time, Grossman was teaching the Existentialism class, but he and three other teachers began to teach Great Books in 2001. “It wasn’t yet what it is today,” said Grossman. “Everyone taught different books. It wasn’t one thing.”

Presently, Great Books is a yearlong AP course where students engage in a variety of writing assignments and literary discussions. Students are encouraged to take the AP Literature and Composition exam in May. The course involves the study of at least 15 major literary works over the course of the year, but each year, one or two books are added or removed from the curriculum. “It’s important that [the course] not be held static, that it changes and grows,” Grossman explained. Fletcher added that, in recent years, she and Grossman have worked to diversify the curriculum and incorporate more female authors and writers of color.

On a typical day, students start the class with minutes and a question that leads them into discussions similar to Socratic seminars, where the students call on each other. The class is heavily discussion-based and centered around the students. “The students do 95 percent of the talking in the class,” Flecther said. “I try to keep my mouth shut as much as possible and sort of let them get to the ideas that most interest them.”

Rather than dominating the direction of class discussion, the teachers blend in with the students to form a closer relationship with them. “Talking about books is a way of getting to know each other,” Grossman said. “Any friendship you have coalesces around something, some activity, a team, a hobby, or passion. Having shared books builds common language and [shared] jokes and a common body of experience. So teaching the class is also a way of building relationships with students and watching them build relationships with each other.”

The effects are wide-reaching. Senior Morgan Hessey, who is in Grossman’s class, explained, “[Grossman] guides us and helps us stay on the discussion points, but he raises his hand like a student, and it’s made it a really enjoyable experience. It makes us feel like we’re on a ‘real person level,’ instead of him being separate from us because he’s a teacher.” Senior Sara Stebbins added, “[Fletcher] is so good at making the class engaging and also is in love with the texts she’s teaching. She makes conveying wisdom about the book a priority.”

Discussions are, unsurprisingly, one of the most appealing aspects. They allow students to learn about each other’s unique personalities that emerge. “Stuy[vesant] students and their perspectives on life are so unique,” senior Alison Juray said. “They come from all different walks of life, so I can read a sentence and you can read a sentence and it’ll be the same sentence, but we read different things about it.” Expressing and responding to other students’ opinions helped them form a close bond with each other through their engagement with the books they were reading. A special part of the class, according to Juray, is that the discussions continued beyond the classroom. “You get that in other classes but it’s about the grades or the tests,” she said. “This is more book-based discussion, which is really special in an English class.”

The class is also unique because of the nature of its assignments. “The class has some traditional essays. I’d say one pretty straight forward literary essay a semester, but it’s true that many of the assignments are more elaborate and unconventional,” Grossman explained. An example of a creative writing assignment is a short story written in the style of the author. Juray said, “[We read] ‘American Pastoral.’ We had to choose quotes [and] different lines throughout the novel and incorporate it in the [narrative] like a story. We could’ve written anything as long as it had aspects of the quotes in it, which I've never done in a class before.”

Students undoubtedly experience difficulty when reading and analyzing challenging texts, but the density of the literature makes it worthwhile. In comparison to the American Literary History class she took the year before, Juray admitted, “This class has very challenging perspectives that are hard for me to get through.” However, she explained, “Once I accomplish this class, I think I’ll appreciate a college-level course more because you already fostered these relationships that you feel comfortable giving your opinion so that by the time I reach college, I’ll already know how to articulate my opinion on a novel.” In addition, Stebbins believes that the difficulty of the readings and the process of deconstructing the text with the class makes the discussions appealing: “It’s really nice that when no one understands what the book means, we work through the problem as a group,” she said.

“Anyone can take an English class, but it takes a lot to just love reading,” Juray said. “Even though you don’t have to like the books that we do, it’s just the discussion that takes place in the class.” Stebbins expressed a similar thought. She explained, “I’ve always loved English class, and I took AP English last year, and I really fell in love with reading. I found myself obsessed with unfolding a great work of literature and finding a meaning. After all that, it seemed natural that I would want to take Great Books my senior year,” she shared.

The teachers attributed their enjoyment of teaching the class to the students’ love for English. “It is a real pleasure to spend a period a day with students who are genuinely excited about reading and writing and talking about literature,” Fletcher said. “My favorite moments in the class are when—and it happens every day, or almost every day—when someone says something that teaches you something new about the books. It’s just a real pleasure.”

Hessey added that her overall positive experience in the class also stemmed from its supportive atmosphere. She recalled, “I gave minutes one day, and I brought a ukulele with me. I tried to tune it but it wouldn’t tune, so I started singing a cappella. Everyone started clapping along, and they were so supportive. It was such an overwhelmingly positive experience for something I was really nervous to do going into it, since I don’t really sing in public.” This shared love for reading and supportive atmosphere bonds each class together.

Each year, the class welcomes and sends off groups of passionate students, continuing its legacy as one of the best English classes offered at school. With its flexibility and the improvements made throughout each year, students who take the course can expect to leave Stuyvesant having learned great lessons from the endless discussions and challenges that the course offered. Ultimately, Grossman hopes that students can learn something beyond the basic lesson plan. “Our lesson has a handful of takeaways,” he said. “That’s what we want our students to get from this lesson, but those kind of get folded into the larger takeaways of the unit which get folded into the larger takeaways of the course.”