Up and Down With Literature

When we brought students back to campus for in-person learning, one of the changes implemented was to make staircases in the Upper School directional: each staircase was designated as “up only” or “down only.” This minimizes traffic and student contact. Signs were posted near each one to clearly designate which direction.

Upper School English Teacher Courtney Check passed these signs multiple times a day. Her creative mind kicked into gear. “I was thinking about the way our stairwells currently work and wanted to do something that supports the way we are inviting students to move through the halls through a creative exploration of history and English,” she said.

Check went through several iterations of ideas before landing on using book covers to convey a sense of direction. “The Watership Down book cover is one of my favorites,” she said. “It’s incredibly rendered; there are trees in the image but they form the shape of a rabbit. It’s beautifully done. I knew I had that one I could go with.” For more, she enlisted her friends in the Upper School English and History departments and library, soliciting book recommendations from them of works that include “up” or “down” in the title. She carefully combed through the lists before determining which covers to use. She said, “It was difficult because I didn’t want the down stairwell to be downhearted. I didn’t want it to be the depressing side of the stairs.”


“I’ve read quite a few of them,” Check said, “and so they could also be fitting suggestions for student reading.” She mentioned Hilary Mantel’s Bring Up the Bodies, A Booker Award winner about the life of Sir Thomas Cromwell. She’s currently reading Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg “to help me become a better creative writer.”

After compiling her final list, she asked Glen Williams in Marketing and Communications to help produce large format prints to hang in the stairwells.

Upper School English Teacher Julia Hansen contributed enthusiastically to Check’s plan, saying, “Thanks for thinking of ways to build in wordplay, wit, and whimsy to our world.”

It’s clear that we have a well-read humanities faculty. There are a lot of books with up and down titles! See some of their recommendations below.

Check isn’t stopping with the book covers. She has posted a featured poem in the middle of each stairwell and is inviting history and English teachers to change that featured piece when they feel compelled. Whether they find an “up” poem or “down” headline, they are encouraged to switch them out regularly to create fun, interactive engagement with each other and the students.

“I’ve always been into hallway esthetics,” she laughed. We’re glad she is!

Up and Down Books

Carla Federman

  • Mapping Decline by Colin Gordon
  • Lay My Burden Down by Jerrold Hirsch
  • Up From Slavery by Booker T. Washington

Julia Hansen

  • No Grave Can Hold My Body Down by Aaron McCollough
  • When I Grow Up I Want to Be a List of Further Possibilities by Chen Chen

Celeste Prince

  • Man Gone Down by Michael Thomas
  • The Girl Who Fell From the Sky by Heidi Durrow
  • Snow Falling on Cedars by David Guterson

Tanya Roth

  • Turtles All the Way Down by John Green

Tex Tourais

  • The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway
  • Blow-Up: And Other Stories by Julio Cortázar
  • Civilwarland in Bad Decline by George Saunders
  • Up the Down Staircase by Bel Kaufman

Colleen Williamson

  • After the Wreck, I Picked Myself Up, Spread My Wings, and Flew Away by Joyce Carol Oates
  • On the Come Up by Angie Thomas
  • Down Among the Sticks and Bones by Seanan McGuire
  • A Long Way Down by Nick Hornby