fbpx Lessons in Empathy and Identity | Phillips Exeter Academy

Lessons in Empathy and Identity

Exeter faculty create spaces for students to explore tough topics.

By
Jennifer Wagner and Patrick Garrity
February 3, 2020
Instructor Andrew McTammany leads a chemistry class

When Principal Bill Rawson’71; P’08 addressed Opening Assembly last September, his message was clear and potent: We are better together. 

He told the Exeter community that the Academy’s diversity is its strength and that providing equal opportunity for and fostering a sense of belonging in every Exonian is synonymous with the school’s mission.

“Our commitment to excellence in education and our commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion go hand in hand. One cannot be separated from the other,” Principal Rawson said. 

That message has followed the students into their classrooms. Empowered by a vision statement put forth by the Trustees in 2018 to codify these beliefs, Exeter instructors are incorporating them into the curriculum. Science Instructor Andrew McTammany ’04 is transforming his instruction from the theoretical to the tangible by showing chemistry’s real-life impact, for better and worse, on society. A trio of history teachers developed a class for 10th-graders about race and how it came to have significance among humankind over a thousand years. Health and Human Development Department faculty are working directly with Stephanie Bramlett, the school’s director of equity and inclusion, to refine lesson plans that include topics such as cultural competency and implicit bias training. Other departments are taking a closer look at their curriculums, as well, and cross-disciplinary collaborations on topics of equity and social justice are increasing in frequency and scope. 

These ideals of inclusion are not new to Exeter. As Principal Rawson reminded listeners during his opening-of-school address, the founders intended for this school to admit “youth from every quarter.” In the last two centuries, the school has evolved to become more inclusive in terms of gender, ethnicity, national and geographic origin, socioeconomic background, race and religion. The progress and the challenges inherent with such work are ongoing. 

“The journey is far from complete,” noted Principal Rawson, “but with every step along the way, as we have become a more inclusive community, we have become a stronger school.”

Beyond the elements

In room 218 of the Phelps Science Center, students learn much more than the fundamentals of chemistry. Through hands-on lab work, multidisciplinary readings and far-reaching discussions, Science Instructor Andrew McTammany ’04 cultivates an understanding of the broader impact chemicals have on Earth and its inhabitants. Think of it as the Chemistry of Empathy. 

“Even though what [students have] done in this classroom is technically chemistry,” he says, “this has been about making sure that when they leave this classroom, they can see the effects of chemistry on society, on the human experience.” 

In many ways, McTammany, who earned his bachelor’s degree from Johns Hopkins University and his master’s degree from Stanford, is redefining what a chemistry class can teach students. His Principles of Chemistry courses, for example, begin with lessons about standard chemical structures, how to convert grams to moles, and the like. Students draw or construct 3D representations of compounds and figure out how intermolecular forces work. But as the term goes on and students master the core science, he moves on to more complex ideas not traditionally posited in high school chem class. 

Students progress from benchmark questions like, “Is dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane, or DDT, soluble in water?” to “Can you calculate the risk ratio of DDT exposure and pancreatic cancer?” They explore why a compound might be developed, what its intended uses are versus its unplanned effects, and which groups of people are most affected by its existence. This type of inquiry pushes students to think about, say, how DDT’s molecular structure resulted in its effectiveness as a pesticide, as well as its long-term effect on human health as a persistent organic pollutant.

Students wrestle with an ethical quandary common in material sciences: A single chemical can be both beneficial and harmful. McTammany explores this idea in a powerful unit about the manufacture and use of the defoliant Agent Orange. Assigned readings culled from scientific journals and nonfiction novels alike offer students multiple perspectives about Agent Orange’s domestic use in agriculture, its military use in Southeast Asia, and its ongoing influence on our culture, history and geography. 

“My unit [on Agent Orange] stemmed from a line that [author] Viet Thanh Nguyen wrote in Nothing Ever Dies,” McTammany says. “He wants people, when they look inside the refrigerator, to see that Dow Chemical made the refrigerant and they also made Agent Orange. There are these links that I’m trying to have students be aware of, that’s my goal. ... It’s about creating complexity for them and having them break down societal issues or things that they hear about in the news and getting them to look beyond the Harkness table or beyond the lab and see that it’s everywhere.” 

Requiring students to consider the material on an intellectual level and on a personal level is not always easy. “At first it was difficult for them because they’re so used to traditional problem solving in chemistry,” he says. “Getting them to think about effects on individuals, on the narrative histories, was very different. But they definitely got into it.” 

By opening up chemistry class discussions to include personal experiences, McTammany allows students to draw on a different set of skills. “It’s another way to create space at the table,” he says. “Sometimes students come in and feel like chemistry is this intimidating experience and they’re not necessarily going to engage because they don’t want to be wrong in front of the teacher, in front of their peers. But no personal experience is ever wrong. It humanizes the subject.” 

Beyond that, the Harkness method is particularly well-suited for developing an inquisitive and inclusive mindset. “The students can leave without feeling like there was an answer,” he says. “There was a resolution, but it’s about the process of investigating and using the experience and the ideas and the understanding of others to challenge your own assumptions, to build a frame-work that you can take and use in other contexts.” 

One of the reasons I fell in love with science is because I want to help make the world a better place."
Anna Iacobucci '20

McTammany takes this methodology outside the classroom, too. “Mr. McTammany makes a very conscious effort to include the ways in which chemistry interacts with the world,” says Anna Iacobucci ’20, who has taken three classes with the instructor. Last year, her class toured the solar panel installation on top of the William Boyce Thompson Field House and built a manual filtration system to collect microplastics. “When we filtered Exeter River water through, we found all sorts of plastics,” Iacobucci says. “One of the reasons I fell in love with science is because I want to help make the world a better place. Mr. McTammany teaches his students how we can make the world a better place.” 

A PEA science instructor since 2012, McTammany has expanded his social justice efforts to all aspects of campus life. Along with teaching and coaching water polo, he serves on Exeter’s Environmental Stewardship Committee, Campus Master Planning Committee and Curriculum Committee. “Science and technology is not exempt from the work of diversity, equity and inclusion,” he says. “There’s a responsibility that comes with being a chemist. You’re taking nature, you’re taking the earth in some form, and you’re turning it into something commercial, something used that has impact beyond the chemistry lab. ... In my mind, science and explanation is just another way of telling a story. Some people choose poems, some people write scientific papers, but you’re essentially saying the same thing — you’re telling a history.”

History lesson

Fourteen 10th-graders ring a Harkness table in a cozy, corner classroom in the Academy Building. It is the first week of winter term, and History Instructor Betty Luther Hillman asks each student to introduce themselves and share what led them to enroll in History 309: Race: A Global History.

One by one, counterclockwise, the students explain their motivations and aspirations. Maddie Saavedra ’22 sought “a topic that is relevant throughout history, not just a moment in time.” Jasper Knabe ’22 says, “I wanted to study a history that was more than just a timeline.”

To these Exonians, this examination of the past speaks to their present. The topic of race is part of their everyday, not some dusty period whose significance is less obvious to 15- and 16-year-olds. “One of the reasons why I really felt it was important to teach it as a history class is because learning history is all about learning facts,” Luther Hillman says. “Not just to memorize them and spit them back out, but to think about how facts and evidence inform our ideas and our perspectives.”

History 309 is a new course offering, developed by Luther Hillman and department colleagues Cameron Brickhouse and Hannah Lim. The three instructors were inspired to create the class by the school’s annual Martin Luther King Jr. Day workshops and by what they perceived as students’ lack of a broader historical perspective about the subject of race — regardless of how present the topic is in teenagers’ lives today.

I want them to understand that the history of race is much more about power and exploitation and competition between groups of people, than it is about any biological reality.”
History Instructor Betty Luther Hillman

The course description states that race, as it relates to human civilization, is a social construct. Science finds few genetic differences between people of different races and ethnicities. Social scientists thus contend that racial distinctions are a product of society and culture rather than biology. The question asked in the summary in the Courses of Instruction is: “At what point did differences in skin color and other phenotypic traits become significant?” By studying examples across time and place, the students hopefully will gain a deeper understanding of how and why race has been used to classify, define — and divide — cultures. 

“I want them to understand that the history of race is much more about power and exploitation and competition between groups of people, than it is about any biological reality,” Luther Hillman says. 

A Minnesota native, Luther Hillman joined the History Department in 2011. She regularly teaches classes on U.S. history, Ancient Rome, the world in the 20th century, and historical topics related to women and gender. She revised her dissertation at Yale into a book about how self-presentation influenced the culture and politics of the 1960s and ’70s, and she leads faculty and staff on an annual summer community-service trip to Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota. Teaching specifically about race is a new challenge. 

Betty Luther Hillman leads a Harkness discussion

Luther Hillman and her colleagues chose Racism: A Global Reader (Routledge, 2002) to serve as the primary text for this inaugural term. The collection focuses on racism worldwide over a thousand years and consists of original documents, scholarly essays and journalistic accounts of events as they happened. It is one of the few books Luther Hillman could find that viewed the topic through a global lens rather than a strictly American one. It includes subjects such as the caste system in India, African slavery, and the mistreatment by colonizing powers of indigenous populations in Australia and the Americas, and features sources as disparate as Benjamin Franklin, Desmond Tutu and Rudolf Hess. 

“If we can see the true injustice behind racial distinctions, I think it becomes much harder to make statements like, ‘Well, if everyone just worked hard they’d be fine,’” Luther Hillman says. “Because there’s a whole long history that has shaped where everyone is right now that we need to understand in order to move forward.”

Classes like this are immensely important as they allow for a space where a dialogue can be created. ... If discomfort in the topic silences us, it won’t allow for this progressive dialogue to begin."
Nicole Craighead ’22

As ever, the text is meant to serve as tinder for a Harkness discussion, and on this day the class buzzes when Luther Hillman asks, “Shall we jump into the reading?” after a kickoff discussion about a New York Times story on the racial makeup of the Democratic field of presidential candidates. These are the types of conversations that inspired Nicole Craighead ’22 to enroll in the course. She told her classmates that discussions about race and racism are not something people in her hometown in Connecticut are comfortable having. 

“I believe that open communication can solve most problems,” Craighead says. “Classes like this are immensely important as they allow for a space where a dialogue can be created. ... If discomfort in the topic silences us, it won’t allow for this progressive dialogue to begin."

“What this class has taught me,” she adds, “is how people are born into cultures that fail to recognize racial discrimination. That, in turn, makes it very difficult for change to occur.”

A holistic approach

Race: A Global History represents a new element of Exeter’s deep commitment to cultivating an environment of inclusion. That effort is ongoing in the Health and Human Development Department, which has embraced its purpose of developing the whole child. 

Central to that effort is a redistribution of the curriculum. Instead of HHD courses being required only for ninth-graders or first-year 10th-graders, students now will take courses each year they’re enrolled at the Academy. 

“We had been thinking as a department a lot about how timely topics are with a ninth-grader, and it didn’t really match what their experiences were,” says Michelle Soucy, department chair and member of the faculty since 2008. “If you’re talking about drugs and alcohol with a 14-year-old who is not thinking about it, but we know the high-risk behaviors are [more common among] 16- or 17-years-old, why don’t we have a touchpoint with them?” 

That’s one of the comments we get: ‘Let’s talk about race and racism a little bit more.’ …They’re hungry for it.”
Health and Human Development Instructor Michelle Soucy

This reorganization presents the team with the opportunity to broaden its messaging beyond traditional health education curriculum to a more holistic approach. Important facets of that are the concepts of diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI).

Soucy says that discussing race, ethnicity and social class seemed integral when the department started thinking about adolescent development in an environment as racially and socio-economically diverse as Exeter’s. Work began with department members attending professional development conferences and collaborating with the Academy’s Office of Multicultural Affairs to develop lesson plans. That effort has expanded with Stephanie Bramlett’s arrival as the school’s first director of equity and inclusion. 

Not every class revolves around topics of equity and inclusion, just like not every class features discussions about addiction or contraception. Cultural competency and implicit bias lessons are more intentional in some classes than others. In Identity, Empathy and Understanding, for instance, an Integrated Studies class that Health Instructor Liz Hurley has co-taught with English Instructor Courtney Marshall, the course summary states directly that students will learn to “think critically about issues of equity in our society.” The instructors have also found that DEI-related issues present themselves indirectly throughout their curriculum.

“You can’t talk about the history of drugs and alcohol in the United States without talking about race,” Soucy says. “Like, why is marijuana a Schedule 1 drug (defined by the federal government as having no medical value and high potential for abuse)? Well, there’s a lot of racial implications behind that, right? Or, why is access to mental health for certain minorities really difficult?”

Critical to every classroom conversation is the assurance it is being had in a safe environment for the students. “Ground rules” posted inside classroom doors underscore that. “We will respect and celebrate our differences — we have much to learn from each other,” and “Anything said in this room will be held in confidence” are among the rules the students must abide by. The goal is to promote discussion without fear of ridicule or retribution.

The instructors feel confident that Exeter students want to have these discussions. 

“That’s one of the comments we get: ‘Let’s talk about race and racism a little bit more. Let’s spend some more time on it,’” Soucy says. “They’re hungry for it.”

Editor's note: This article first appeared in the winter 2020 issue of The Exeter Bulletin.