Ninth Grade Seminar: GSB’s Signature Freshman Course

First year seminars are one of the hallmarks of the college experience. Most freshman are required to enroll in a humanities-based course designed to enhance their academic and social integration into college. The course not only introduces students to the resources of the school, but it helps them to develop a better understanding of the learning process at a higher educational level and to acquire essential academic survival skills.  

While everyone agrees that courses designed to support a student’s transition into a new school are important, very few high schools have adopted the seminar-style approach for freshman as they transition out of middle school—and Gill St. Bernard’s is one. 

“Our Ninth Grade Seminar is something that differentiates us,” said Ninth Grade Dean and Ninth Grade Seminar Teacher Margery Schiesswohl. “We began requiring it as a full-year class in 2012. The format has evolved over time, but the essential components are the same.” 

Originally designed with input from former Head Librarian, Randy Schmidt, Ninth Grade Seminar provides a foundation of skills that help students transition from middle school and prepare for the rigors of high school learning.  

“I tell the students that they’re not in middle school anymore,” Mrs. Schiesswohl said. “And I ask them, ‘What are we going to do about it?’” 

“In the past, I struggled with time management, and I would put off work until the last minute,” admits Priya Schmidt ’25. “I would turn in assignments that had the potential to be better. I learned through this class that if I apply myself, I can be very resourceful and use my time to the fullest.” 

Julien Patel ’25 agrees. “Originally, I was very stressed about the class’s final project, especially getting all the information I needed for a five-minute speech. During the process, however, I realized that researching a five-page paper can be very easy. The final project helped me learn how to research a topic which will be useful throughout the rest of my high school career.” 

The course begins with an overview of GSB’s history and the significance of our core values (courage, integrity, respect, compassion, and excellence) and Mission Statement. 

“In short, we’re teaching the students what it means to be a GSB student,” Mrs. Schiesswohl explained.  

The remainder of the year rotates through six fundamental units of study which serve as starting points for future course selections. For example, a student may connect strongly with the mental health unit and choose to take psychology as an elective when they become an upper classman. Alternatively, a student may find the diversity and cultural identity unit engaging and decide to later take AP Human Geography.  

“One thing I realized as a student is that there are topics other than sports that are interesting to read and learn about,” Peter Mauro ’25 said. “Before this class, when I was able to choose my own topic, I would always pick sports. Now, after researching my own project and after listening to everyone else’s, I know that there are other things besides sports that really interest me.” 

Each seminar unit is taught by the faculty member who specializes in that specific area. This allows the students to hear from the expert on the topic as well as to meet faculty from outside their core academic classes.  

For example, when it comes time for Writing and Research, Kristen Armstrong, Head Librarian, and Tracey Mueller, Assistant Librarian, lend their expertise. Tracey Goodson Barrett, Directory of Diversity, Equity & Inclusion, steps in for the Diversity, Inclusion, and Cultural Identity portion. Upper School Counselor Emily Haberman handles Health and Wellness, and Upper School Learning Specialist TarynAnn Barry Zampino oversees Academic Strategies.  

“Through this class, I have learned that information does not need to be boring,” said Sidney Quinn ’25. “I actually enjoyed looking through the research for my project. The class went way faster than I imagined it would.” 

The seminar culminates in a research project on a topic of the student’s choice. Students spend the last weeks of the semester finding reliable sources, exploring biases, organizing their material, and completing peer-reviews. Instead of a paper, students present their findings in front of their classmates and a livestream audience using limited visual aids. Understandably, the different aspects required to complete the presentation elicit varied emotional responses. Students bounce from excited to frustrated and from eager to nervous.  

“Two of course’s key elements are the concepts of ‘self-evaluation and reflection’ and ‘the journey of self-discovery,’” said Mrs. Schiesswohl. “Our philosophy is that the more a student can learn about themselves, their identity, their strengths, and their weaknesses, the more successful they will be in school and in life.” 

“I was able to acquire skills that I did not seem to have before,” commented Deshan Kawatra ’25. “With the utilization of Noodle tools, notecards, and peer review, I felt extremely confident with the work I was presenting. Having due dates along the way instead of one final date aided me in finishing the work right on time—instead of procrastinating till the last minute!”  

Natasha Elleston ’25 agreed. “I learned that this way of research worked well for me as a student. I now know that I am very good at finding information and understanding it in my head. I will use the method we were taught of taking notes and putting them all together again. It kept me organized all the way through the final project, and for an even bigger project later, I think that organization will prove to be a big help.” 

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