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Freshmen Identity and Relationships: A Course Review

Updated: Sep 28, 2023

By Lily Peavey and Maggie McAteer

The Identity and Relationships course, as defined by San Diego Unified School District, has the specific goal of allowing “students to explore their own identity as well as the different identities of those around them in their diverse communities.” This course, first implemented three years ago, aims to increase student understanding of the perspectives and experiences of minority identities, while also earning students their required ethnic studies credit. To achieve this, the course has six units - each with a central piece and at least one key critical concept. Central pieces include novels such as Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian and All American Boys by Brendan Kiely and Jason Reynolds, which are at the forefront of freshman English classes at Point Loma High. Throughout and at the conclusion of each unit, students must complete written response-based tasks showing that they have a comprehensive understanding of the topic and the techniques taught throughout.

One of the unique features of this class at Point Loma High has been the use of the “essay versus paragraph” structure. Using this method, students are given the option to write either a singular paragraph or an essay analyzing a book. The paragraph, which is modeled after a format provided by the teacher, can receive up to a grade of a three, or “meets expectations.” Alternatively, if students opt for the more difficult option of the essay then they may receive up to a four, or “exceeds expectations.” Unfortunately, the fact that writing a single essay all year is not a requirement leaves students unprepared for more difficult classes in the following years. The course itself was designed to allow students to push themselves and experience a more difficult English class, but in reality its very structure subverts these goals.

Despite its downgraded rigor, Point Loma High’s 9th grade English teachers share similar opinions on the concept of the class itself.

“In general, I think it’s a very good course,” said Ms. Roberts, who teaches four classes of freshman Identity and Relationships this year. “I’m very supportive of the district implementing an ethnic studies course as a graduation requirement.”

This is a sentiment generally agreed with by students, who see the importance of an ethnic studies class in furthering understanding of a multi-perspectived world. The course’s implementation has faced several setbacks as to what the district had planned, particularly as it was first taught online. For example, the unit which is currently taken up by the reading of All American Boys was originally intended to be a “book club unit,” in which students would read a singular book from a wide choice of novels.

“We got that unit during the pandemic on Zoom, and getting kids to read one book is hard enough on Zoom. Getting kids to choose from and read and manage six different book clubs was something we couldn’t handle that year,” Ms. Roberts explained.

After the school bought more copies of the All American Boys, it was much easier to have a singular book for the whole freshmen class instead of purchasing more copies of a variety of books.

Something that multiple teachers have acknowledged is the course’s flexibility and the ability of teachers to improve the overall course itself.

“We found that as we go through the years, we’re able to look at each module and revise and exchange in and out. We do need to stick to the spirit of ethnic studies,” Ms. Roberts said.

Ms. Baker, another teacher who has been very involved in revising and editing the course, explained that, “I think year by year we’re able to improve it based on feedback and our own…ideas and trial and error.” The curriculum has been adjusted in order to make the course fit the needs of students but is still very similar to the district-provided Identity and Relationships curriculum.

Due to the relatively short time it has been implemented, there are also several weaknesses in the syllabus that were pointed out by the teachers themselves. “We did notice early on that the course didn’t demand as much writing of our students as our previous curriculum did,” Ms. Roberts admitted. “And we’re slowly but surely trying to increase the rigor of that and make sure our students are more prepared to write essays.”

This is a major problem with the course, and, while its teachers have done what they can to provide more opportunities for writing, there is still much more to be desired. Throughout the year, some students have noticed that their writing abilities have diminished due to the lack of chances to practice.

“I think that kids should be forced to write essays or else they’re not going to get anywhere,” one student (who chose to remain anonymous) said regarding the contested essay versus paragraph structure. While the concept allows students to quickly finish assignments, it leaves them vastly ill-prepared for essay writing, a vital skill throughout the entirety of high school and beyond.

Multiple students have additionally pointed out other shortcomings that they have found in the curriculum. One of these is the unchallenging nature of the novels read in class. One freshman in Ms. Baker’s, class said, “I think that they’re not hard enough. One of them I’ve already read in fifth grade and now we’re reading it again in high school.”

The content of the books provided was also seen as disjointed from the key topics of the units. “The books…don’t go along with the course,” a student in Ms. Roberts’ class complained. They continued with, “There’s a bunch of books in the library, and there’s also PDFs; I don’t understand. We don’t even need to buy the books, we can just read better books.” Another student, who has spent the year in Mr. Kunkel’s class, explained that “[The books] often failed to cover the topics that we were learning about in a meaningful way.”

A prominent suggestion for more impactful required reading amongst students was the novel The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas, which notably displays the same themes and critical topics as the course requires. While much longer than the other books provided, students who’ve read Thomas’ work say that the writing is stronger and more relevant to the topics freshmen are meant to be learning than their currently assigned books.

Mr. Kunkel, another ninth grade English teacher, expressed his desire for more classic books to be included in the course. “Both [The Absolutely True Diary of a Part Time Indian and All American Boys] are written within the last 20 years,” he said regarding the current required reading of Point Loma High freshmen. “What we do in school is help kids to access things that aren’t easily accessible and I think [in the case of] both the novels that we’re using this year, almost every kid on campus could pick it up and read it on their own.”

In response to which books he would recommend being added, he mentioned Lord of the Flies by William Golding, as it “does a good job of capturing identity and relationships…on a very practical level.” The use of older books should certainly be acknowledged and perhaps incorporated into the course, though the general consensus is that the modern novels already being provided are able to cover key topics in a way that students can relate to and display diverse voices.

While much of the curriculum cannot be entirely fixed in a timely manner, there are adjustments that still can be made. For example, students at Point Loma High have benefited from changes made in Mr. Samakosky’s Identity and Relationships class.

“You can implement a lot of those themes of race and identity and heritage and culture and gender through more contemporary mediums that students can enjoy,” Mr. Samakosky explained. He went on to add, “I feel like if you're able to go beyond the text, kind of read between lines - and that takes a creative teacher to then implement these things that will then keep their students interested - [it will be] what's best for the students.” The incorporation of novelties such as spoken word poetry and poetry novels has made the class enjoyable and interesting for the students in it. “Samakosky’s curriculum is much different than one in a typical English classroom, and because of that I was able to learn faster,” current sophomore Blake Ledezma said, adding that “What he did care about is what he taught and…whether I liked it or not, it was cool or inspiring.”

The incorporation of a teacher’s unique view of the curriculum is vital to maintain a student’s interest in the class and provides new perspectives instead of doing the same, generic work. As one student replied when describing the prescribed district curriculum, “The work and assignments provided to the entire class are often monotonous, dull, and unengaging. The assignments are so routine and lack excitement, that they create a constant feeling of boredom in the class.”

This, unfortunately, is a common criticism. The nature of the district’s assignments are structured in a way that doesn’t allow students to push themselves and produce their best work. While the previous task does provide a template for the next assignment, there is little to pique the interest of students, and several edits to a generic structure used many times before can repeatedly earn the same grade without consequence or even the ability to improve.

Both students and teachers noted a clear lack of writing required by the current course, which is a serious omission as the Honors and AP courses that follow Identity and Relationships require a major increase in writing from what freshmen are currently being assigned. Students must be taught stylistic and technical varieties of writing for them to succeed in later years of high school. They need to be provided with the materials for learning and growth, not stagnation of their education.

As a whole, the freshmen Identity and Relationships course covers crucial topics that are vital for students to learn. However, many feel that the curriculum is simply too easy compared to what they have been taught in previous years. A teacher’s ability to engage with students is limited by the repetitiveness of the curriculum itself. Although the course is still being revised, it can be made more interesting for students through deeper discussions of topics or more complex and challenging texts. The inclusion of a wider variety of more demanding books, more opportunities for different, writing-based tasks, and the freedom of teachers to better incorporate their unique assignments and perspectives into the curriculum are steps in the right direction. With these improvements, students can truly gain a more comprehensive understanding and profound appreciation for the complex society we live in today without losing interest or potential.


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