The Mission of Punahou School


We are committed to provide an environment where students can:

Develop moral and spiritual values consistent with the Christian principles on which Punahou was founded, affirming the worth and dignity of each individual
Develop intellectual, academic and physical potential to the fullest degree, preparing them for college and for challenges facing them now and in the future.
Develop and enhance creativity and appreciation for the arts.
Appreciate cultural diversity and develop social responsibility.


The Mission of the Punahou School English Department


We are committed to provide an environment where students can learn to read compassionately, think exactingly, write clearly and gracefully, and act with the compassion, exactitude, clarity, and grace they derive from their engagement with the English language and its literature.




Who We Are and What We Stand For

English Department Position Paper


“We are committed to provide an environment where students can learn to read compassionately…”


We value diversity. We value open-mindedness. We value the integrity of the individual voice, and we value the dialogue that results when those voices meet in our classrooms. Our hope is that sustained, thoughtful dialogue will teach us to be comfortable with ambiguity, and to be respectful and tolerant – even appreciative – of those who see things differently than we do. We aim, in the words of Anthony Kronman, former dean of Yale Law School, for the “expansion of the student's powers of sympathetic imagination” through appreciation of “views, moods, dispositions, and experiences other than his or her own.” We want to encourage students to be able, when confronted with something unfamiliar or problematical, to resist the easy temptation to dismiss it out of hand—or to make what one teacher has called “inarticulate responses at the affective level.” Rather, we want to encourage them to withhold judgment until they have the chance to understand the logic and significance of what they are observing. Certainly, the students' powers of sympathetic imagination cannot be engaged until they have learned how to pay attention. “Reading compassionately” thus can be understood to include the process of sustained, patient attention to the work at hand.


We value quality, excellence, areté. We want our students to be able to distinguish between bad writing and good writing, between carelessness and precision, between shoddiness and craftsmanship, between what is shallow and merely amusing and what is significant and revelatory. In order to be able to make these distinctions, students need to have some sense of the history of our culture, how it is that we have come to be where we are today, how today's experience has been contoured by the past, and how the work that is being done today, including the work that they are doing now, measures up against the best of what has been written in the past.


It is true that we want our students to value literature, to be comfortable with the language of literature, to read challenging texts that broaden their understanding and bring them into dialogue with one another. But it is also true that not everything we ask students to read will be immediately accessible or enjoyable to them. As a result of the flattening out of our language, the poverty of our public discourse, and the well-intentioned but ultimately debilitating changes in the popular culture at large and in the culture of our schools, many of our students find it difficult – and in some cases nearly impossible - to read Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton, Hawthorne, Melville, Faulkner, or any of the dozens of writers whose works represent the highest achievements of our language. The ability to “read compassionately” includes the ability to move freely from century to century; students who are unable to do so are ultimately being deprived of the past. In our choice of books, therefore, we seek a balance between the best of what has been written in the past and the best of what is being written in the present time.


We want our students to enjoy their experience as high school English students, to value the habit of reading, to see reading as both purposeful and satisfying. Not only do we need to tell our students that we are going to read, but we need to be able to articulate in convincing ways why we are going to read. We believe that reading is at its most powerful transformative: that our encounter with literature has the potential to release us from isolation and self-absorption and help us to see ourselves as part of the community of intelligent, purposeful discourse that for generation after generation has shaped and given value to all human experience. In this sense, “reading compassionately” implies that we read not simply with passive understanding, or even passive empathy, but with the desire to make active connections between what we read and how we behave, to seek out and examine the implications of the thoughts which arise from our readings and to use what we have discovered to help us make thoughtful and purposeful decisions about how we go about living our lives.


… think exactingly…


We are all of us, students and adults alike, thinking all the time. Much of the thinking we do is automatic, unregulated, impulsive, and unreflective. This is as it should be; if we were to try to pay conscious attention and direct every movement of our bodies and our minds, we would be all but paralyzed by the sheer volume of the data of consciousness. But there are of course situations, like those which occur when we are reading thought-provoking texts in an English class, which call for reasoned analysis: a calm, clear, dispassionate examination of the facts and their implications. Students need explicit guidance and practice in the essentials of good thinking. They need to be given the opportunity to build and refine their thinking skills, and to master a vocabulary that will allow them to evaluate their thinking as they do it. A short list of the explicit skills students are asked to practice at Punahou would include:




…write clearly and gracefully…


The ability to write well is a significant advantage both for students in the classroom and for adults in the real world. At the university level, students are most often graded on the basis of written exams and written papers. Students who know how to communicate effectively and efficiently on paper are likely to earn better grades and spend less time preparing their work than students who cannot write fluently. But college grades are perhaps the least significant reason why students need to learn to write well. Writing ability is also highly prized in the business world, and the ability to use writing as a vehicle for organizing and communicating one's thoughts is a strategic advantage in the marketplace.


The value of writing, however, goes beyond simple organization and communication. We value writing not only as a vehicle of communication, but also as a tool for the exploration – and generation - of ideas. E.M. Forster makes the point in a famous question: “How can I know what I think until I see what I say?” Many students make the mistake of assuming that one must have a thesis clearly in mind before they ever commit pen to paper. Often it is in the act of attempting to write something that we discover what we do have to say, or at least what we have questions about.


Clarity in writing is a function of specificity. The writer's cliché “Show, Don't Tell” has become a cliché precisely because it is so often true. One continuous “red thread” in our writing instruction is to ask students to be specific, to push down from empty abstractions to concrete examples, to de-BUG their writing, replacing Big Unsupported Generalizations with clear, precise illustrations. Whether a student is writing a poem or a story or an essay, the first requirement, the implicit demand of any reader, is “Show me what you see.”


At Punahou, we are concerned not just with teaching students to write clearly and accurately, but also with what our mission statement calls “grace,” which is to say, elegance, authority, and beauty. These qualities do not arise automatically from our use of language. They are linked to, and arise from, two dispositions or habits of mind: attention, and patience. Students must learn how to pay attention not only to the object at hand—the scene, the text, the problem—but also to the language they are using, the words themselves. Stephanie Paulsell, in her book Writing as a Spiritual Discipline , writes


It matters what words we choose, what voice we speak in, what tone we take. It matters for the quality of our own thought, and for the quality of our invitation to our readers. The intellectual and aesthetic choices we make when we write are also moral, spiritual choices that can hold open a door for another to enter, or pull that door shut; that can sharpen our thinking or allow it to recline on a comfortable bed of jargon; that can form us in generosity and humility or in condescension and disdain.


Words are the vehicle of thought, and carelessness in the deployment of words is both a cause and a symptom of carelessness in thinking. Fortunately, writing holds still. It offers the writer the opportunity to revise, to re-think, to re-consider, to hone and sharpen: in a word,to revise. As the poet David Huddle has said “Revision is the hope you hold out for yourself to make something beautiful tomorrow though you didn't quite manage it today. Revision is democracy's literary method, the tool that allows an ordinary person to aspire to extraordinary achievement.”


Many students (and many parents, and not a few teachers) seem to believe that the primary objective of English instruction at the high school level should be to teach the students to write thesis essays about literature. At Punahou, we certainly value the ability to write thesis essays, but we discuss the logic of the thesis essay within the larger framework of the logic of writing itself. The questions that confront a writer are the same no matter what the genre: Where do I begin? How do I find something to say? What happens when I have something on paper? How do I know if it's any good? How do I shape it? How do I make it better? How do I know when it's done? Students at Punahou are expected to ask those questions, and to learn that all have answers. The answers are not the same in every case. What might work for one writer at one moment may not work for another writer at another moment. But the willingness to ask the questions, and to pay patient attention to the answers as they present themselves, is the foundation of progress in writing.


Good writing most often arises from what students care about. At Punahou, we make a strong effort to design writing experiences which link to students' essential concerns and questions. We want to encourage students to identify what they care most deeply about, and find ways to link what they are doing in English to those concerns. That's one reason why we honor, and provide students with the opportunity to explore, forms of writing other than the thesis essay. Students are often drawn to the personal narrative, or to the exploratory essay, or to poetry, or to fiction, in order to communicate their most heartfelt concerns. This is as it should be. What one learns about writing well when writing a poem is not essentially different than what one learns when writing a thesis essay. The alternative to “creative writing” is not “uncreative writing.” All writing is creative. All writing demands that the writer consider topic, form, audience, purpose, and the means by which those concerns can be successfully addressed in any specific instance.


One of the genres which is firmly established in the Punahou culture is the Reflection or Process Analysis paper. This writing is most often requested to give the students the chance to assess themselves and consider what they have learned, what they are learning, and what they have yet to learn. English as a course of study at Punahou is, by design, more centrally and significantly about process than about content. Our primary goal is to teach students how to learn, how to think for themselves, how to confront problems, and how to assess their own performance as they go about the conduct of their lives.


…and act with the compassion, exactitude, clarity, and grace they derive from their engagement with the English language and its literature.


Writer and critic Christopher Clausen once said “All great works of literature address, directly or indirectly, two questions: “What kind of world is this?” and “How should we live in it?” The first of these questions is essentially informational; it arises from our sense of wonder. It implies that one of the functions of literature is to make us thoughtful, deliberate, and attentive. The second question is essentially ethical; it arises from our sense of care. It implies that another of the functions of literature is to help us make decisions about how we are to behave, and what it means to live well.


An English department teacher with many years of experience once remarked “The longer I teach English, the more I realize that what we're concerned with is the creation of a certain kind of human being.” What are the qualities that characterize this sort of human being? Flexibility. Open-mindedness. Compassion. A tolerance for ambiguity. The ability to approach new and difficult situations with patience and good humor. Attentiveness. Patience. A love of learning. And a sense of stewardship: the certain knowledge that the greatest satisfactions in life arise from doing good work in the service of others.


This view of our mission as teachers has implications for the kinds of assignments we give, for the kinds of assessment that we do, and for the way we ask our students to think about quality. We aspire, and encourage our students to aspire, to more than mere technical competence. We hope to make it possible for students to connect what they are studying in English to what is most important to them in their lives, and to use their developing skills as students of English to assist them in creating value in their own lives and in the lives of people around them.