Of 7 New Identity and Justice Courses Listed, Only 1 Comes to Fruition

Graphic by Reid Alexander.

In the wake of last year’s Black Lives Matter protests, GDS placed a school-wide emphasis on increasing equity and inclusion. In addition to the Anti-Racism Action Plan announced last fall, teachers across several departments proposed new courses related to identity and social justice.

Seven such classes appeared in the Course of Study shared with students in January 2021. Only one—Hip Hop and Social Justice—is currently running.

Marlo Thomas, the director of diversity, equity, and inclusion, credited the new course ideas to individual faculty inspired by anti-bias training and similar workshops. She referred to them as “a direct result” of teachers’ “thinking with intention about where we have historically created courses that were not fully inclusive of a diverse range of students.” 

Seven new courses in the 2021-2022 Course of Study fit that theme: Identity, Art, and Resistance; Music and Power; Music and Religion; Impact of Historically Black Colleges & Universities and Black Greek Organizations in America; Hip Hop and Social Justice; Resistance through Sport and The Empire Writes Back: Hybridity Within the Postcolonial World. Like many newly offered courses, all but one of those identity-related ones suffered from under-enrollment.

Although the administration does not keep track of the rate at which proposed courses fail to run, former Assistant Principal for Academics Chris Levy, who managed course registration last year, said that it is a fairly common occurrence for proposed courses to fall below the threshold of eight to ten students. 

Even core courses, such as the new history classes offered to sophomores, sometimes struggle with enrollment. History Department Chair Cliff Coates, who teaches Hip Hop and Social Justice, mentioned in an interview that the recently added offerings of Latin American and Asian History lag slightly behind their more well-established counterparts. “Euro still holds this particular place in all high schools,” Coates said, “but I think with the advent of our new courses we’ll see that level out in the years to come.”

Senior Bruno Sullivan, who is taking Hip-Hop and Social Justice, said that courses like that allow students to delve deeply into social justice beyond the school’s usual assemblies and workshops. “A lot of kids leave these sessions and these days wanting a little more knowledge, so I think it’s important to have these kinds of classes,” Sullivan said.

Many courses that do not run one year will be offered again the next, so it is likely that some of the courses that did not make the cut this year will try again in the future. If courses are unable to run multiple years in a row, Levy said, “we go back to the drawing board and say, ‘Does it make sense to try this again?’” 

Senior Leila Jackson, who signed up to take The Empire Writes Back and was disappointed when it did not run, said that the school should do more to promote these options to students by specifically pitching them in classes. “It’s a problem with student buy-in,” she said.

PE teacher Kevin Jackson, who proposed Resistance through Sport, confirmed that he hopes to continue to offer his course in future years, even though it didn’t run this year. The course, an interdisciplinary collaboration with the history department, would have addressed historical protest movements led by athletes. “With GDS taking on the anti-racism curriculum,” Jackson said, “I thought that this was a good class to help with that mission.”

Thomas said there is always work to be done to increase student interest in classes about identity, social justice and the history of marginalized groups. “There’s a hope, on one level, that the buy-in from the faculty has a trickle-through effect” to the students, she said, adding that “everyone is at a different place” with respect to their motivation to pursue anti-racist education.

Levy noted that although the official focus of an entire course is an important step, GDS will continue to make changes to improve equity and inclusion in classrooms whether or not specific classes run. “Some of what happens in the classroom regarding that type of work isn’t reflected in the course of study,” he said.

Academic departments are in the process of making other curricular changes to ensure greater equity. Thomas said that Assistant Head of School for Curricular Instruction Laura Yee recently concluded an analysis of racial and gender representation in upper-level science and math courses. The findings will influence department policy, though Thomas declined to specify how before the results of the study are made public.

And the history department is planning to expand its selection, even beyond the various sophomore offerings. “It’s always been the history department’s goal,” Coates said, “to offer one course that covers every portion of the globe so that a child or student here could potentially learn about something several times outside of Western civilization.” 

Levy said that the work of diversifying the curriculum, though reinvigorated by the nation’s renewed focus on racism in 2020, is not new by any means. The change to the course of study “gives the impression that overnight we now have this renewed focus on making our curriculum anti-racist,” Levy said. “I don’t want it to come off as if that was something that wasn’t already happening.”

Adam Leff ’22

CORRECTION (Sept. 30 at 7:43 p.m.): A previous version of this article incorrectly referred to the Course of Study shared with students in January 2020. The Course of Study containing seven proposed identity-related classes was shared in January 2021.

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