Having the Hard Conversations

Dec. 6, 2019 — Olivia ’22 shared a set of earbuds with her teacher Molly Lai to listen to a “podcast” created by a few of her classmates. In it, two boys took on the roles of  a baby boomer and a Millennial talking about climate change, student loan debt, and ageism. This was one of the final projects in the Diversity and Social Justice (DSJ) seminar, which is required for all 10th graders.

“DSJ helps students build citizenship skills and learn how to listen to people with diverse viewpoints — how to have the hard conversations,” said Lai, who also teaches English. 

In the class, students explore racism, ageism, classism, and other cycles of oppression. Their projects covered school dress codes, barriers to upward socioeconomic mobility, and gender stereotypes in fashion, and they presented their work in a science fair-like setting. On one table sat several smartphones with earbuds to allow people to listen to “Straight Knowledge Check-in,” produced by Nick ’22, Toby ’22, and Luke ’22. Playing a 24-year-old college graduate, Toby said, “I can’t believe the number of boomers who don’t believe in climate change.” Luke, as a 72-year-old baby boomer, responded, “That is a great example of a stereotype that has no backing. Many baby boomers have different views on many different topics. Unlike you Millenials, there is actually a divide and civil discourse.” 

Olivia’s project on school dress codes included research she did on policies at several New England independent schools as well as a survey of students at those schools and NMH. “Schools with dress codes say it promotes a focused learning environment, but our survey found that students believe that dress codes don’t do that,” Olivia said. “We determined that if you are going to have a dress code, you can improve things by choosing wording that doesn’t identify people by gender.”

Lai said one of DSJ’s goals is to help students use shared terminology and understand concepts so they discuss issues productively whether or not they agree. “That sets them up for conversations they’re having in other academic courses,” she said.

Co-teacher Rhoen Fiutak, who also teaches math, said, “In the math department, we are incorporating these discussions into our curriculum. In my social justice statistics course, we can pull in things we learned in DSJ, such as when you are putting numbers on something or on people, what does it mean from an ethical standpoint?”

Asking 10th graders to take DSJ — and create projects like the podcast on generational biases — “makes it clear to students and faculty that this is something we value at NMH,” Lai said.