It’s hard to imagine reading the course description for English teacher Kate Blake’s City in Literature elective and not signing up. Inspired by a course she took during her senior year in high school, Ms. Blake started the elective at Nobles in 2016. The description reads, “Since the birth of the novel, cities have figured prominently as metaphoric characters in fiction. Cities draw the jaded and the dreamer, the insider and the outsider, the opportunist and the altruist. They are fixed in their hierarchies yet depend on and foster social mobility. They are places of possibility and hope, as well as decadence and decay, representing the heights of human innovation and the depths of immorality and corruption.” Like the cities themselves, however, this course is not just for the dreamers. Students hooked by the engaging course content also know the tremendous amount of work required and the high expectations that await.

As an opener, students read the introduction to Colum McCann’s Let the Great World Spin, inspired by Philippe Petit’s successful tightrope walk between the Twin Towers. “The text is bound by this moment of the whole city looking up at the towers,” explains Ms. Blake. “All of the stories come from these different vantage points of looking up at this one moment in a kind of hopeful way,” she adds. As they consider these perspectives on New York City, the class also watches footage from Man on Wire and Petit’s original walk in 1974.

Students read and write extensively throughout the semester, exploring how authors use cityscapes to reflect on both the individual in society and society at large. Four of the core texts in the history of the course, The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton, Harlem Shuffle by Colson Whitehead, Jazz by Toni Morrison, and Open City by Teju Cole, anchor the students in New York but through disparate personifications of the city. At the heart of the analysis of each text is the city’s character—New York’s role as a source of inspiration and, at times, oppression—and the nature of its society. Exit West, by Moshan Hamid, requires imaginative thinking as characters encounter magical doors that transport them from an unnamed city to locations around the globe, where they explore all that a city can be.

The class also examines the role of the city through selected essays and poetry and through films such as The Age of Innocence, West Side Story, and La La Land, and through screenplays. Students read portions of the Good Will Hunting script and write a screenplay of their own based on a scene from Harlem Shuffle. Ms. Blake explains that at the core of exploration in the course is “the key role that cities play in embodying and propelling difference—in thought, in philosophy, and in artistic expression.”

Writing assignments consist of a balance of analytical and creative pieces, including a personal narrative, a short reader response, journaling, and fiction.

A course about the city in literature would not be complete without an experiential component. Students embark on a “Wander Wonder,” a purposeful wandering without a predetermined destination, with the goal of reaching what Ms. Blake calls “big philosophical realms” based on their own exploration. Then, as a culminating experience, the class heads to Boston for a literary walking tour, reading excerpts from The Age of Innocence as they meander through the city. The tour begins on the Boston Common, taking them to the Omni Parker House, the hotel where character Ellen Olenska stays, and Beacon Street’s Somerset Club, where Newland Archer stops for breakfast. The field trip also incorporates the Institute of Contemporary Art, allowing students to view both new and old parts of the city. While exploring, they discuss more than just literature, as Ms. Blake poses questions that spark rich conversations about the city’s relevance to students’ own lives, prompting them to consider how well they know their city and what makes Boston, Boston.

“Going into it, I was honestly intimidated by the amount of work that was highlighted throughout our first class period,” Tierney Smink ’24 reflects, “but I am so glad I decided to stick with it. Ms. Blake exemplifies longstanding Nobles values, but specifically relationship before task. She always makes sure that we are doing well, staying on top of our work, and most importantly, happy and learning. My writing and reading have developed so much since the beginning of this winter. I was exposed to a genre that I had never even thought of before and new ways of learning, whether through various cities, forms of city media (books, essays, or movies), or presentations. Ms. Blake has changed my Nobles learning experience for the better.”

Ms. Blake was the 2024 recipient of the Vernon L. Greene Award for Faculty Excellence, presented annually at graduation to a faculty member who encourages and nurtures academic excellence, whose pedagogy is distinguished, and whose commitment to students is thorough.

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