The New Senior Seminar: Will it Live up to Its Promise?

This year during Curriculum Night for rising seniors, changes were introduced regarding Senior Seminar. Senior Seminar, the elective course exclusively available for students in their final year at Grace, is offered in history and literature. In previous years, Senior Seminar was an intensive elective course with an assigned topic, just like a regular history or literature elective. Previous courses included “Comparative Political Systems” and “History of New York City” in the history department and Studies in “Fiction & Reality” and “Early British Literature” in literature. While some students may be disappointed to learn that there will be less room for specialized courses, the number of history and literature electives offered has been steadily growing since the 2016-2017 school year.

The recent revision to Senior Seminar enhances the possibilities of what students can study in their final year of high school. The course will take the form of a typical 80-minute class during one of their five major academic blocks in the fall semester. This time will be used for students to learn research and writing techniques to develop their project, while also conducting research and writing a paper, which is expected to have an approximate length of 25 pages. Then in the spring, the course will shift to a Lab Day Colloquium, which will take place in the students 201 block. During this time, students will begin by making final edits to their paper and then shifting their focus to prepare to share their finding at a public presentation in May, which will be open to the community.

Dr. Nathan, History, and Mr. Lee, Literature, have been at the forefront of designing the new course, which they both shared officially began at the beginning of this school year. “The discussion of how to, or if to, change how Senior Seminar is run, has been happening informally for a couple years, but it wasn’t until October or so, that Mr. Lee and I sat down and talked about the things we had heard from the members of our departments and we shared our ideas about what a different format might look like,” said Dr. Nathan. Mr. Lee shared that an important question in designing the new Senior Seminar was the way the school defined rigor, “I don’t believe we defined rigor as number of pages read for homework or number of papers being assigned. I think we’re starting to remind ourselves again and again that it is defined in terms of the kind of questions we ask. Questions that prompt deeper thinking, deeper analysis.”

Both departments quickly realized there was a common desire for the style of work that would be asked of students taking Senior Seminar, Dr. Nathan described that, “We shared the idea that a goal would be an independent project.” Dr. Nathan, who was instrumental in bringing the course design together, spent much of his time researching and inquiring into what other New York area independent schools had as their capstone program in the humanities. “I reached out to some folks at Berkeley Carroll, and talked with them on the phone about how the program was structured, which more or less aligned with what Mr. Lee and I had already talked about, but of course because theirs already existed, it had a lot more detail.” He mentioned a visit to Berkeley Carroll, where he spoke with their curriculum coordinator and watched the class in action, “That day did have an influence on some of the ways that our departments came to shape the program, though it is different in some significant ways.”

While this new format of Senior Seminar is full of promise, the High School is no stranger to consistently tweaking academic structures, “I imagine it’s fairly set, at least for the next coming years, but because Grace is Grace, we’re always interested in tinkering with what doesn’t work for us. I think this will stick. I have a good feeling,” Mr. Lee explained.

Dr. Nathan, who has put a lot of time and effort into the construction of this course, confidently dismissed any doubts about the success of the program, “No, I don’t have any doubts. I do understand that it looks and feel daunting {to students}. It is something that we haven’t asked students to take on in the same depth and length. I get that. Students may look and say ‘A 25-page paper, that’s bigger than anything I’ve written, I don’t know how I’m going to manage that.’ The course will be designed to make certain that students can do it, providing them with the time, space, and the support to chip away at a big project, in the same way, in tenth grade when I tell students that they’re going to write a ten-page paper and they gasp as if that cannot be done, but everybody manages it because we provide the space and the support to do it.”

A valuable perspective to take when gaging student reaction to the change in Senior Seminar is of those who have gone through the process before, so I asked several students who have taken the course this year about their thoughts on the upcoming change.

Michael Abrahams ‘19
“It was very rigorous. There was a lot of writing, but it was hands down the best History class I’ve taken.” “I see it more like March Madness; people can take it as seriously as they want and that will show in their work.”


Ellen Jorgensen ‘19
“For any complex text, you need to be guided by a teacher and encouraged by your peers. High-level analysis and learning can only happen when you are pushed by people around you. This type of collaboration is impossible in an independent study.”

Ben Susser ‘19
“I don’t know if I would take it under the new system because it seems infinitely harder.”


Both Dr. Nathan and Mr. Lee shared the gratification that came with seeing genuine interest and curiosity grip the rising seniors once the new course format had been unveiled. I also spoke with a few rising seniors about their thoughts on the change to Senior Seminar.

Evan Brorby ‘20
“I think it’s a good thing; you can pursue your passions.”



Nina Lipkind ‘20
“I wasn’t going to do it last year, but I am now. I like it more because it’s more free and less constricted.”


Jasper Yang ‘20
“I’m really excited about it. I really liked doing the 10-page paper in 10th grade. I’m not anxious about it; I think we’ll have plenty of time to complete it.”

Katy Arons ‘20
“I like the more independent project style, but I’m more of a STEM kid.”

Anya Zaretsky ‘20
“I would love to do it, but I won’t do it because of the 25-page paper, I just don’t have enough time.”


Chase Gardner ‘20
“I wasn’t gonna do it cause I didn’t know what they were, I thought they were just regular classes. None of them really interested me, so that’s why I like the independent project. I actually get to do what I want.”


Kat Cook ‘20
“I was kind of upset about it because I really wanted to take the Russian History class, but I’m still really into it.”


Dom Edwards ‘20
“I prefer the independent project set up because it is independent and allows you to do something you really want to do.”

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