For the second year in a row, the ninth grade history classes kicked off the school year with a unit well-suited to the start of their high school experience: identity. Requiring no prior history knowledge, the unit allows all students to begin in the same place, regardless of their academic background, and helps them discover how group and individual identity shape people’s perspectives and actions, and how those perspectives and actions influence both events and their treatment in historical writing.

In addition, the unit introduces tools and techniques crucial to the School’s rigorous approach to critical thinking. Students learn to participate in analytical roundtable discussions; apply technical vocabulary and conceptual frameworks in their own discussions; and how to deepen their understanding of themselves, one another, and their new School community through critical reflection. This latter piece has been shown to provide an especially important performance advantage, as teachers observe that students are more likely to take intellectual risks when they know their teachers and peers and, in turn, feel respected by them. 

Mr. Elmore, Dr. Jacobs, and Mr. O’Donnell began the unit by inviting students to explore the meaning of identity via class discussions and reading assignments, including “The Danger of a Single Story” by Chimamanda Adichie. After using this text to gain a better understanding of identity and the scholarly language required to discuss it substantively, students create podcasts based on interviews they conduct with people in their lives.
In groups of three or four, students design questions to help them learn more about people already known to them. Then, each student in the group interviews three people. Together, the group learns how to analyze their collected interviews, looking for both commonalities and differences, and then engage in a roundtable discussion about their findings. Finally, each group records its own podcast—and then everyone listens to the other groups’ podcasts. 

Maya Chavez ’24 explains, “I really appreciated the point that to be compassionate to others, you have to learn more about their experiences. It made me reflect on whether or not I have been open to hearing others’ stories, and eager to learn from others’ experiences so that I can be there for them, as well as be a better person.”
Dr. Jacobs, the head of the history department, values the exercise for the way it creates a sense of community by connecting students using the language of identity. “That’s been especially important this year,” she observes, “for a ninth-grade class that—owing to remote instruction—hasn’t yet had a chance to experience normal bonding through the School’s traditional orientation activities.” Through this project, she explains, “They got to know peers across different course sections, and offer them thoughtful feedback and praise.” She adds that when the podcasts were shared with students’ families during Parents’ Weekend, some asked which teacher wrote the students’ questions for them. “It was so cool that I could reply: ‘Nope…those smart questions were developed by YOUR kids!’”