Dr. Danny Carragher, Chair, Human Development Department

beyond academics

Tell us about yourself and your journey here at Dwight-Englewood.

This is my 13th year at D-E. I am a licensed clinical and school psychologist. Before working here, my first job after getting my doctorate was conducting LGBTQ+ diversity trainings for medical professionals all around New York State. And then I was hired by New York University, where I worked for many years. I ran a longitudinal study for the CDC looking at club drug use in the gay community and its relationship to HIV transmission. I looked at barriers to HIV testing for Black men in Harlem, and I also taught at New York University in the Steinhardt School of Education. I’ve also had a private practice. In the city, the life of psychologists is often this: research, teaching, and private practice.

My first year here I was part-time, and I taught two sections of psychology. I was in the history department until the principal at the time wanted to create a department that covered many courses and programs that were already in place but didn’t have their own overarching umbrella. So with that, I became the chair of the Human Development Department that oversees courses like SAGE (Supporting Adolescent Group Experiences), 9th Grade Seminar, 10th Grade Seminar, Peer Mentoring, AP Psychology, and more. We cover topics like social identities, mental health, and leadership, and the department is made up of myself, Lisa Wittner, Director of Social-Emotional Learning, Dr. Deirdre O’Malley Psy.D, Vanessa Vitiello Psy.D, and Katie Cannito.

What are the foundational courses of the Human Development Department?

So all 9th graders are required to take the year-long 9th Grade Seminar. The seminar, in its current iteration, serves two purposes. We cover social identity because here in the Upper School kids are reading books about issues around race, religion, sex, and gender, among other things, and they often don’t have practice talking about things like racism, sexism, and homophobia. So we build the curriculum to expose students to different issues as well as different celebrations like Eid, Lunar New Year, and Passover. It’s been rewarding to hear from English and history teachers that students come into class knowing what intersectionality means. We want to give students windows and mirrors within the curriculum. Another big part of the seminar is sex ed.

Our goal is that students leave D-E not just knowing math and science but leave being well-rounded citizens and people. We’re not going to solve racism, but we are going to expose students to different viewpoints, experiences, and opportunities for discussions.

The 10th Grade Seminar is a one-semester course that is paired with one semester of Ethics with Joseph Murphy (Ethics Department Chair). It’s currently taught by three clinical psychologists, and that’s pretty cool! It’s one day a week and it’s all about mental health. The 10th grade is an apt time to talk about mental health as they prepare to have more responsibilities, challenges, and choices, and that can be scary. College comes knocking and standardized testing is a big stressor too. So it’s just a basic introduction to things like: What’s the difference between normal anxiety taking a test and an anxiety disorder? Why is it normal to be sad if you break up with someone—and here is how depression is different.

We also focus on topics like gratitude and positive psychology. We teach them about cognitive restructuring. I want to create seniors who say, “If I don’t get into this college, I’m going to be really upset.” Of course, you want to get into college, but saying, “My life is over. I’ll never be happy. I’ll never get married. I’ll never have children…” isn’t helpful. So in the seminar, we clarify what normal anxiety and realistic expectations are versus disorders and catastrophizing.

How would you like to expand upon the program?

Students come up to me every year wanting to create new clubs or delve deeper into niche topics in psychology, and I’m all for it. However, someone’s bandwidth is only so much. I would love to be able to offer electives like Abnormal Psychology or Social Psychology, which are all chapters in the AP Psychology course, but you can really do a deeper dive. AP Psychology as an AP course is really changing in the next year in that there’s more of an emphasis on empirical research in each chapter. There are so many things we can expand upon.

In a sentence, what would you say the Human Development Department is about?

I say our classes are about planting seeds. We’re planting seeds about social identity and in the 10th Grade Seminar we’re planting seeds about mental health.

A lot of what my generation was taught included not to talk about race, gender, and socioeconomic status, so I think it’s a breath of fresh air for them to see that it’s not only possible but encouraged. Students often come up to me after class to further the conversation, and my office—and Lisa Wittner’s office—is never not with students. Teaching and education really go beyond the classroom in our department.

Our classes set good ground to talk and review our diversity statement. And we tell students that people are allowed to make mistakes. We like to say that we “speak in first drafts,” meaning that what we say in a moment may not be exactly what we mean, but we will try to give each other grace. At the same time, we take violations against our diversity statement very seriously. We won’t allow offensive statements to take hold in a dialogue, and we also don’t want students to feel like they’re the spokesperson of a particular group if they’re the only one that identifies as such in the room.

It’s important to talk about our own blind spots, and our own naivete about things and different experiences, and the fact that things we talk about are not just feelings but topics that adults spend their careers researching.

So it’s challenging but important work, and I’m so grateful to my department to do this work together.

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