Ninth Graders Grapple with Real-World Dilemmas in Seminar

Professional tennis player Naomi Osaka’s life as an athlete, activist and role model — on and off the court — served as the perfect case study for a recent Ninth Grade Seminar assignment.

The semester-long course incorporates lessons about ethics in leadership; self-care; and diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) to teach all ninth graders how to better assess, understand and manage real-life situations. 

Counselors Stefanie Carbone and Lydia Whitney; Professional Development Coordinator Lee Dieck, who co-founded the School’s Ethical Leadership Program; Associate Director of DEI Selas Douglas; and Ethical Leadership Coordinator Meghan MacWilliams joined forces to create the curriculum and teach the students. 

During the ethical leadership component, Dieck and MacWilliams lead students through an exploration of “the basic components of leadership; values exploration of self, others, and people you admire; introduced dilemma analysis; and did a communication challenge.” 

Carbone and Whitney work with students to cultivate stress management skills through relaxation and coping strategies. They also teach a unit on mindfulness. Carbone explained that it is important “to give ninth grade students a space to talk about and understand mental health so that they can better manage difficult emotions, have deeper connections with others, and have kinder and more compassionate relationships with their thoughts/emotions and themselves.” 

Douglas’ goal in the DEI units is to “give students the tools they need to help them navigate communicating across differences.” He explained that “In addition to providing them with language that can help them articulate their own experience and identities with clarity, we also want to practice what it means to connect when we disagree or are coming from different perspectives.” 

To help students understand how mental health, DEI and leadership intersect, students who took the course during the first semester worked on a final project that required them to use dilemma analysis, a skill they learned during the ethical leadership session. They were asked to consider the actions and decisions of Naomi Osaka. In 2021, Osaka decided to take a break from tennis to focus on her mental health. At the time, she was the number two player in the world; her actions were unprecedented in the sports industry. 

“Research shows that thinking through/anticipating life’s decisions enables us to be more thoughtful in the choices we make,” Dieck said. By asking three questions — Who are the stakeholders? What are the values at stake? What options are available? — students are able to “recognize the wider impact of their actions and consider what their choices might be.” 

Students worked in small groups to answer these three questions and others about Osaka’s situation and decisions. 

Emerson Riter '25 initially considered Osaka’s decision an easy one, acknowledging that “Of course you should take breaks for your mental health.” But as she delved into the situation with her peers, she began to understand that “The choice to take care of yourself becomes a really difficult one to make.” For Riter, this hit home: “I often see that reflected in my own life.” 

The project showed Juan Torres Rodriguez '25 that “here isn’t always one answer” and that “The process of how we approach a dilemma is imperative.” He appreciated being challenged to change his perspective and think outside the box about the many decisions Osaka could have made and was grateful to have “a real-life example that put into perspective how DEI, leadership and mental health correlate.” 

Now that the first semester course is over, Riter and Torres Rodriguez reflected on what they had learned. Torres Rodriguez touted the importance of the dilemma analysis skill, noting that “This method of analyzing stakeholders, options, values, and listening to insights from different classmates is something that I hope to continue using 50 years from now.” Riter learned that “Your choices affect a lot more people than you think they do. I also took away that people's identities, where they come from, and who they are are much more nuanced than what they look like or how they behave.”