Grade 9 “Identity” Seminar

The first semester Grade 9 Seminar at D-E is designed to help orient students to life in the Upper School. This year the seminar focused on exploring the concept of identity within a diverse community, and it relied heavily on students feeling comfortable enough to share their own stories—even when the discussion topics were difficult.

Dean Lisa Wittner notes, “We wanted to take advantage of the diversity we have, learn from each other, and help students as they first enter the Upper School to have conversations about ‘hot’ topics such as race, religion, and ability levels—topics that are hard to discuss, but made easier to do so in a structured smaller groups format.”

The seminar encourages both critical thinking and the sharing of personal experiences and subjective opinions. For example, through an energized white board activity the students tackled the topic of gender. Among the questions posed were: Is it real that boys are strong and girls are weak? Is it OK for girls to cry but not boys? Why? Where do these cultural norms come from? What role does the media play in all this?

Wittner says that in terms of theoretical, intellectual, and critical thinking perspectives, Upper School teachers have already noticed the impact that the seminar has had because students are coming into their classes prepared to talk about complicated concepts, such as structural power dynamics and gender.

Seminar helped me realize that while everyone is different, we are all more similar than we think.

– Shayne Foster ’21

Meanwhile, students value what they learn from hearing about the diverse opinions and experiences of others. “Seminar for me meant learning to understand that ignorance was not always malicious,” says Eliza Silleto ’21. “And I appreciate that the class was a way for people to ask questions and learn in an environment where they didn’t have to worry about offending anyone. The existence of seminar as a class is a testament to D-E’s diversity programs and acceptance as a community of those not like ourselves.”

“In the Upper School we want to engage our students in conversations about social identity and diversity… Seminar allows for a safe space to have these difficult conversations with the guidance of a caring adult. Our students learn by listening to each other, and by trying out their own voice in a structured environment in which differences [are] valued and supported.” – Brendan McGrail, Dean, Class of 2021

Gavin Malhame ’21 agrees that generating empathy for others and an appreciation for diversity starts with students feeling comfortable enough to share. “Seminar will definitely be remembered by me as a safe place, a place for me to unwind all the buildup of stress and speak freely on any topic,” he says.

Wittner notes, “Kids’ strong reactions to others’ story-sharing—including wide open mouths, or audibly saying “Really?”—indicate that they are literally learning in the moment. That’s how we know we are facilitating them in constructive ways.”

[The most valuable and] enjoyable part of our Seminar discussion was hearing other peoples’ personal experiences about how their race and religion affects their daily lives. Hearing these personal experiences shows how topics, like race, really do affect people at D-E. While a lot of people don’t necessarily think that we have these issues on campus, Seminar made you aware that we do have them.

– Andrew Campbell ’21


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