Upper School Academics


Grade 7 English

Seventh grade English is a skills-based course focusing on the development of students' writing, reading, critical thinking, and discussion skills. In addition to regular class discussions, which are often student-led using the Harkness method, class time is devoted to the exploration of grammar, vocabulary, and public speaking. Students read and perform from Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

Students examine and practice the structure of expository essay writing, learning to craft arguable, complex thesis statements and to support their ideas with evidence. Nightly reading assignments strengthen their ability to analyze a text, and the practice of annotation prepares them for class discussions. Though the course emphasizes expository essays, students also craft poems, short works of fiction, and personal narratives. In English 7, the study of individual texts is enriched by a year-long focus on the theme of how an individual interacts with his or her society. As part of English 7, all students participate in the public speaking program, in which they write, memorize, and present their own piece of narrative nonfiction.

  • Selected short stories (including Ray Bradbury, Shirley Jackson, Kurt Vonnegut)
  • The Outsiders, S.E. Hinton
  • The Giver, Lois Lowry
  • Selected poetry (including Sherman Alexie, Margaret Atwood, Emily Dickinson, Langston Hughes, Walt Whitman, William Butler Yeats)
  • A Midsummer Night’s Dream, William Shakespeare
  • The Pearl, John Steinbeck
  • The Hunger Games, Suzanne Collins (chapters are paired with sociological and/or philosophical texts)
  • The Alchemist, Paulo Coelho
  • Alice in Wonderland, Lewis Carroll

Grade 8 English

Eighth grade English is a year for students to fine tune and expand on skills introduced in seventh grade, specifically expository and creative writing, discussion and oral presentation, public speaking, critical reading, and the use of more advanced vocabulary and grammar. Class time is spent on student-centered learning, as teachers continue to promote and build critical thinking and intellectual risk-taking.

In the first trimester, students participate in Writing/Reading workshop. This approach is student-centered, offering students more ownership over what they read and write. Students produce original writing across multiple genres. Through one-on-one conferences, students gain a richer understanding of the writing process, and valuable writing and editing skills that allow for greater sophistication in their writing. Over the course of the trimester, students read a minimum of 1,000 pages in books of their choice, studying vocabulary that emerges from their reading in conjunction with teacher-produced lists. The workshop model fosters a love of reading and rich dialogue about books, while also enabling teachers to get to know their individual students’ strengths and weaknesses very early in the year, allowing for more targeted and intentional skill building and growth along the way.

In the second and third trimester, students practice and gain greater mastery in the Harkness method of class discussion, learning to effectively cite the text, express their ideas, build upon their classmates’ comments, and disagree in ways that contribute to the discussion. Within the year’s thematic focus on the American experience, they explore key literary concepts such as character, theme,parallels, and motifs. In addition, through small group work and class presentations, students tackle literary devices such as subtext, irony, satire, and figurative language.

Reading list:

  • Selected short stories and poetry
  • Of Mice and Men, John Steinbeck
  • Macbeth, William Shakespeare
  • To Kill A Mockingbird, Harper Lee

Grade 9 English

Our ninth grade English course is rigorous and challenging. Students are expected to push themselves in critical reading and thinking as well as writing, while building on their skills in vocabulary, grammar, and public speaking.

Ninth grade students work to expand their ability to analyze the subtle nuances of a text as well as to hone their skill in writing well-structured essays. In our literature study, we explore some of the moral, ethical, and historical questions that will make us informed, active, and compassionate citizens of the world.

As students delve into thematically important passages, symbolism, and imagery in Harkness discussions, they are increasingly attentive to connections among different texts. They learn to illuminate meaning within a text, part of the course’s broader emphasis on critical thinking—going beyond superficial interpretations to consider the source, the author’s use of language and style, and the effect of these choices. In their writing, students refine the mechanics of their prose style to make their argument and prove their thesis. All students participate in the public speaking program, in which they write an original personal essay on a coming-of-age experience and present it to their peers.

The literature studied throughout the year centers on the theme of coming of age. Students explore how loss and the absence of authority are often catalysts for growing up.

Sample reading list:

  • The Diary of a Young Girl, Anne Frank (summer)
  • The Catcher in the Rye, J.D. Salinger
  • The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald
  • Romeo and Juliet, William Shakespeare
  • The Book Thief, Markus Zusak
  • The Fault in Our Stars, John Green
  • Lord of the Flies, William Golding
  • Selected short stories and poetry


Grade 7 History

The seventh grade history curriculum focuses on the European Middle Ages, the Renaissance, and the Reformation, creating further links to several other cultural areas with whom the Europeans came into contact. Through the use of textbook and document-based primary and secondary source readings, interactive activities, historical fiction, videos, and research projects, the students develop a rich understanding of the varying cultures while becoming more adept at critical thinking and analysis, note taking, research, essay writing, class discussion, and both independent and collaborative study skills.

Projects such as the medieval castle and cathedral research project encourage an in-depth exploration of key topics. Each year, a field trip to The Cloisters and the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine enables students to see firsthand the art and architectural styles of the Middle Ages.

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Grade 8 American History

The eighth grade history curriculum consists of a United States history survey course emphasizing the twentieth century, from the origins of large-scale U.S. participation in global affairs during the World War I era, through the tumultuous period of Vietnam War. The course also includes a civics unit that covers The United States Constitution, other foundational documents, and the contemporary workings of the federal government, in conjunction with the eighth grade class field trip to Philadelphia.

The course incorporates projects, essays, debates, and other historical simulations, as well as a significant research project to allow students to delve into major topics of twentieth century United States history of interest to them, drawn from units including the Roaring Twenties, the Great Depression, World War II, the Cold War, the development of a distinctive “American” culture during the 1950s and 1960s, and the Civil Rights Movement. Throughout the year, students are encouraged to explore the essential contributions of women, immigrants, and members of underrepresented and minority groups.

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Grade 9 History

The ninth grade history curriculum is devoted primarily to studying Modern World history. The course spans a period of time from the Enlightenment to the Cold War, combining literature, document-based assessments, film, and video to explore major topics including the Enlightenment; French Revolution; Industrial Revolution; political revolutions in Europe and Latin America; the rise of Nationalism in Europe; the growth of Western democracies; the Boxer Rebellion in China; the impact of European imperialism; World War I; nationalism and revolution in Mexico, India, the Middle East, and Africa; the rise of totalitarianism; the Cold War; and the creation of the United Nations.

This course challenges students to further refine their analytical essay writing, research skills, and ability to use both primary and secondary sources to understand and compare significant historical events and themes. In the spring, six weeks of the course are dedicated to the ninth grade Capstone Project, which is designed to help students grow in their ability to collaborate, solve problems, think creatively, manage time effectively, and present persuasively through working with a small team of students on a topic of their own choosing. The course concludes with a study of the United Nations and a field trip to New York City to observe the U.N. in action.


Grade 7 Math

The Upper School math program is designed to ensure that our students are mastering mathematical skills and understanding the ways that math affects them in everyday life. By exploring how each formula works, as well as how to apply it, students gain deeper understanding of key mathematical concepts and problem solving strategies. Seventh grade Pre-Algebra classes are differentiated into three levels to offer students a class that is both appropriately supportive and challenging.

Topics are tailored to the section and include: algebraic properties and arithmetic; measurement; rates, ratios, and proportions; basic and extensive equation solving; probability; data analysis using graphs and matrices; inequalities and functions; introduction to coordinate planes; number theory; word problems. Students are primed for entry into our Algebra I course the following year.

When appropriate, seventh grade students have access to Algebra 1 and Geometry courses as well.

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Grade 8 Math

Many experts in the field of mathematics believe that Algebra I is the foundation course upon which higher mathematics is built, and the eighth grade math program is designed to ensure that all GCDS students have a firm base for future studies. The emphasis on going beyond simply memorizing formulas and rules in order to build a deeper conceptual understanding helps students grow as problem solvers capable of tackling increasingly complex mathematical problems and abstract thinking.

The textbook utilized by all three of the differentiated learning sequences is McDougal Littel’s Algebra I: An Integrated Approach. Topics covered in the differentiated sequences include: absolute value and more extensive equation solving; rate problems; inequalities; graphing linear and non-linear functions on the coordinate plane; functions; systems of equations; exponent rules; factoring; solving quadratic equations; rationalizing equations. A major goal is to develop strong problem solvers who have a deep conceptual understanding of the purpose and analysis of equations and their representations on a coordinate plane.

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Grade 9 Math

The 9th grade curriculum consists of four differentiated groupings, with a fifth or even a sixth class added for highly advanced math students. The classes offered are: Honors Geometry, Middle Geometry, Advanced Honors Geometry, and Algebra 2.

Grade 9 Middle Geometry In this class, students learn proofs and how to solve algebraic types of geometry problems. Topics covered include: coordinate geometry; basic proofs; parallel lines; congruent triangles; quadrilaterals; inequalities; similarity; right triangles; circles. Textbooks: McDougal Littel’s Geometry.

Grade 9 Honors Geometry This class studies Euclidian and algebraic-based geometry. Students are required to have a sophisticated understanding of a logically coherent system of geometry and be able to use that knowledge to prove challenging theorems. Topics include: logic; extensive proofs; algebraic geometry; similarity; congruent triangles; trigonometry; parallel lines and quadrilaterals; inequalities; coordinate geometry; circles; regular polygons and circles. Textbook: Moise-Downs Geometry and McDougal Little’s Geometry.

Advanced Honors Geometry This class is a specialized program designed to challenge students who are developmentally and mathematically prepared to assume the rigors of this advanced curriculum. The year is devoted to geometry, selected topics in Algebra II, trigonometry, and statistics. Topics covered include: logic; early proofs; congruent triangles; special triangles; quadrilaterals; inequality proofs; Euler’s Line; parallelism; area formulas and special right triangles; similarity; rational algebraic expressions; coordinate geometry; circles; regular polygons, introduction to trigonometry, and Pi.

Algebra 2 This class is offered for students who are ready to advance to studying Algebra 2. Topics include: linear equations and functions; systems of equations and inequalities; matrices and determinants; quadratic functions; polynomials and polynomial functions; powers, roots, and radicals; exponential and logarithmic functions; rational equations and functions; quadratic relations and conic sections; trigonometry ratios and functions; probability and statistics.

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Math Lab

Staffed each period by a member of the Math Department, the Math Lab provides Upper School students with a wonderful opportunity for collaborative problem solving, sharing ideas, helping other students, and getting additional help from teachers if they have questions. Students are always welcome to visit the Math Lab before school or during study hall.

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Grade 7 Life Science

The seventh grade science program cultivates and sharpens the prerequisite knowledge base and laboratory skills needed for advanced science courses. The course covers a range of topics designed to foster an interest in the natural world, including: the cell, ecology, biomes, biodiversity, marine biology, vascular plants, and an introduction to chemistry. In addition to class discussion, written and practical assessments, presentations, and laboratory assignments, students work on a number of projects that challenge them to use key concepts from the course in innovative ways. When studying plants, for example, they design and test a unique seed dispersal model.

Grade 8 Applied Science

The eighth grade science course prepares students for chemistry and physics. The emphasis is on developing a trial and error, exploratory approach to understanding nature. Classes focus on hands-on, creative problem solving that encourages students to find the best solutions rather than a single correct solution. As an applied science course, the students learn physics concepts that are then applied to projects such as raft building, bridge building, mouse trap cars, submarines, and cable cars. In the earth science unit, the premise is to look at the way the surface of the earth is shaped by natural forces. Students model the effect of rivers using a sand table in the lab and then examine the streams on campus. Topics covered in this course include: measurement, earth science, matter, energy and motion, air and water pressure, and structures.

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Grade 9 Biology

Ninth grade biology is a high-school level survey course focusing on the major principles, theories, and practices found in the study of biology. In addition to gaining an understanding of introductory biological concepts, students learn to comprehend and analyze dense scientific text, see both sides of current debates on scientific issues, access resources on today’s scientific advancements, and grow in their ability to ask questions. The class combines labs, lecture, group work, student presentations, and Harkness discussion. Topics covered include taxonomy, evolution, botany, biochemistry, cells and homeostasis, cellular reproduction, Mendelian genetics, molecular genetics, and comparative anatomy.

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World Language

Seventh, eighth, and ninth grade students all study Spanish, French, Latin, or Mandarin Chinese.
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Upper School


Upper School

Global Connections

International Study

Technology & Learning

Tools for Education