Seminar on Identity: Opportunity or obligation? Students and alumni reflect on the course


Hanna Hornfeld, Staff Writer

“SOI was never, ‘Here’s this opportunity to learn about the world and check yourself before you go to college and get hit with this blast of reality,’” Tiger Lily Moreno ‘20 said. Instead, the course was presented to Moreno as a class she had to “get through,” she said. 

Students have had mixed feelings about Seminar on Identity (SOI) for as long as it has existed as an 11th grade requirement. After observing that it wasn’t creating tangible change, Acting Director of the Office of Identity, Culture, and Institutional Equity (ICIE) Ronald Taylor redesigned some aspects of the curriculum this year. Still, opinions on the course remain conflicted.

Four years ago, SOI replaced a Counseling and Guidance course called Quest in which students were encouraged to think about their beliefs in relation to the beliefs of those around them. Former Head of ICIE John Gentile wanted to offer a course more directly focused on identity, so he designed SOI, Head of Upper Division Dr. Jessica Levenstein wrote. The purpose of the weekly pass/fail class, which runs from November 30 to April 19, is to address and transcend the discomfort that comes with identity, Taylor said. 

Some SOI teachers have completed training with Seeking Educational Equity and Diversity (SEED), a national program dedicated to teaching educators to instruct others on issues of equity and justice. Dance teacher Denise DiRenzo has taught SOI for three years because she wants to share the lessons from her SEED training, she said. 

However, not all SOI teachers have undergone equity based training such as SEED, Taylor said. Any teacher can opt to teach SOI without a formal application or training process. Starting next year, SOI teachers will have to commit to a one-week summer training to review curriculum, strategies, and their role as teachers of the course, Taylor said.

Jaden Richards (12) thinks that this summer training is not enough to ensure all SOI teachers are properly qualified. It would be unreasonable for the ICIE to attempt to teach the complexities of an entire academic discipline in one week and expect faculty members to be prepared to teach the course, he said. 

Students and teachers play equally important roles in determining the quality of the class, Rosy Arora (12) said. Her SOI class last year felt monotonous, partly due to students’ attitudes. Every day, she and her classmates would sit down, watch the slideshow, barely participate, and eat pizza. The class quickly became a burden for those who were uninterested and those who had originally wanted to share their ideas, she said. “You want to contribute to a conversation to people who want to hear you,” she said. “And if they don’t really care, why would I want to contribute?” 

The curriculum’s lack of nuance also hinders the course’s goal of creating a productive learning environment, Arora said. When she was in SOI, the main focus was on sexuality. Instead of diving deeply into serious issues related to the topic, Arora found that a lot of class time was devoted to defining basic terms in a surface-level way.

“I didn’t feel like I learned anything I didn’t know before,” she said. “If you’re a high school junior, I feel like you know what it means to be gay versus lesbian, so pictures and videos explaining it seemed tedious and childish.” 

As a junior, Moreno often found herself frustrated that the curriculum explained issues of systemic discrimination in a simplified manner. “It was spoon-feeding the kids who had never had to have those conversations or be conscious of their skin color or wealth,” she said. “At the beginning, it was a very simplified version of how painful it is for some people.” 

Math teacher Ben Kafoglis, who is currently teaching SOI for the third year, has found all of the conversations in his classes to be meaningful. With new students bringing their voices to the table each year, discussions are always unique and fruitful, he said. Since he began teaching the class, Kafoglis has found that his students are more likely to talk to him about equity. 

Kafoglis said he chose to teach SOI because he wishes he had this type of class when he was at school. “Issues of identity, of social justice, of equity, are paramount in our world and in our school,” he said. “[In class] we learn about our identity and our place in the world, and that’s worth it. I also enjoy learning about students. You all have a lot to offer and have an intriguing perspective, and that is a gift for me.” 

Paul Wang ‘20, who was in Kafoglis’s class two years ago, found SOI to be a positive and informative experience. Students were engaged and able to learn from each other, Wang said. In particular, after watching a documentary in class about the Avenues School called “Class Divide,” he remembers powerful discussions about how students could relate to issues presented in the film. 

Moreno thinks students in her class learned a lot from the documentary, she said. After seeing the ways students in the documentary interacted with their school’s neighborhood, Moreno made a comment in class comparing their socioeconomic biases to those within the school’s culture, such as the stigma around going down the hill to Broadway, which stems from a fear of low-income neighborhoods. This connection seemed surprising and eye-opening to many of her classmates, she said. 

Although it was nice to see her peers learning, it was draining to be one of four or five people who participated regularly, Moreno said. She found that the class discussions relied on people who belonged to marginalized groups. “I felt myself getting very tired, and I can’t really imagine other people who have even more of a disadvantage, because I still have white skin,” she said. “I know other kids in SOI felt as though having to use their identity as a point of reference for other people to learn from was exhausting.”

To change this harmful dynamic, Moreno said teachers should explicitly underscore the need for all students to participate in SOI so that conversations become less draining for students of color. “We as a community need to try harder when you get in the classroom to raise your hand and share candidly about your own experience and help out your fellow classmates who have to have these conversations often, just by participating and taking a little pressure off them,” she said.

Students often come into SOI with preconceived notions about the class that hinder their desire to make it a positive experience from the very beginning, Moreno said. To fix this, she said the administration needs to make an effort to “rebrand” the course, so that students see it as a privilege rather than an inconvenience.

As long as students have to give up a free for SOI, they will see it as a burden and remain close-minded, Monitor Dylan Chin ‘20’s said. Because conversations about equity and identity are necessary, they should be held in environments in which students will genuinely value them — for example, advisories could dedicate a set period of time to them, he said.  

Large, optional discussions such as those that the ICIE has hosted this year can be more beneficial to the community than SOI has been, Arora said. “[These discussions] felt like something that any person should want to engage with,” she said. “And a lot of people learned a lot and were able to sit there and listen to other people’s experiences.” 

Although optional meetings do not ensure every student’s participation, the ability to say that students are actually learning is ultimately more important than the ability to say that every student is involved in a class, Arora said. “You get people who want to hear and want to contribute,” she said. “And that’s the dimension that SOI lacked.”

English Department Chair Vernon Wilson, who has taught SOI for three years, has noticed that while some students are always actively engaged and grateful for the class, others are clearly unenthusiastic. “You can see their eyes glaze over immediately,” he said.  

In previous years, the class’s lack of homework made it easier for students to forget about it for six days a week, Wilson said. This year, the ICIE introduced light homework assignments such as watching TED Talks and responding to short journal prompts to the curriculum. Wilson hopes these assignments will allow students to spend more time each week thinking about what they learn in SOI. 

“It’s good to have students understand that it’s very much intellectual work,” he said. “This is a class that has an impact on other classes, not just where you show up once a week and that’s it.”

SOI sometimes suggests that conversations about race should be confined to one course instead of being streamlined throughout every class at the school, Upper Division Dean of Faculty Dr. Matthew Wallenfang said. “While SOI is an essential course that provides students with a common vocabulary and baseline understanding of issues of identity, the course might give the impression that conversations about race can be disconnected from other parts of the curriculum,” he said. “When in reality, they should be part of classes across disciplines at the school.”  

Beyond homework, Taylor readjusted the curriculum to address some concerns about a lack of engagement, Levenstein said. SOI classes now make use of writing exercises, breakout rooms, and moments to pause and do a written reflection to ensure that every member of the class is learning, even if they are not the most active in the conversations, she said.

Taylor has also introduced a final action project to the SOI curriculum. Around April, each student will collaborate with a faculty member to write policies that will make the school a more inclusive space, he said. After the projects are submitted, they will be presented to the administration. This way, students will be able to apply their learning to the real world, and learn how they as individuals can make change happen, Taylor said. 

In addition, SOI classes now discuss identity as a whole, rather than focusing on specific topics such as race or sexuality, as they have in previous years. This change will give students the opportunity to build language across all aspects of their identities, Taylor said. 

Broadening the curriculum makes it easier for students to relate to, and therefore be interested in, the topics covered in SOI, Wilson said. “It’s easy to, if one wants to, distance oneself from these conversations,” he said. “But it becomes harder when the shifts make it more meaningful.” 

Regardless of how well-structured the curriculum is, students will not learn anything from SOI if they do not make a genuine effort, Tomoko Hida (11) said. Because she has thought deeply about each in-class and homework assignment, Hida has learned more about her own identity and her view of others’. However, especially due to the course’s lack of letter grades, it can be easy for students to dismiss the class as “just a requirement,” she said.

Homework assignments have been thought-provoking for Grace Wilson (11). In-class discussions, on the other hand, are often less meaningful, because Grace and her peers aren’t comfortable sharing their genuine feelings, she said. Most students in Grace’s class barely know each other, which has negatively impacted the class dynamic. While classes are currently built from common free periods, if rosters were created based on pre-established groups, such as HMO or advisories, conversations might be more open, she said.

Students with conservative opinions are discouraged to share their thoughts in class, Leah Sepiashvili (11) said. Although SOI is meant to celebrate diverse experiences, the course operates under the assumption that all students share liberal political beliefs, she said. “When we’re discussing problems like Trump’s Twitter ban, it becomes apparent which opinions are actually valued, because the other side never actually speaks up,” she said. “The culture makes it hard for them to say what they truly believe, in a fear of being labeled in a bad way. As someone who does agree, I feel that I’m missing out on hearing the other side.” 

Myra Singh (11), however, has found the open conversations in her SOI class to be fruitful. Singh said she would benefit most from the class if it were more discussion-based because it would feel personal. The pre-planned lectures lack depth, partly because there isn’t time to think deeply about each topic, and partly because of their generic and standardized nature, she said.

Despite many of her classmates’ reluctance to participate, Hida has learned a lot about her views of the world in SOI and has applied this learning to her daily life. For example, after watching Verna Myers’s TED Talk, “How to overcome our biases? Walk boldly toward them,” Hida can more easily identify instances when her implicit biases affect her perceptions of others. When passing people on the street, she now asks herself whether the assumptions she has made about them have been influenced by race or gender. 

“I always think, ‘Would I think this way about a white man?’ and the answer is usually no,” Hida said. “I’m more careful of that now, mentally stopping myself as it’s happening.”