Symposium: a truly unique tradition that is more than just another English class

Investigative Symposium

Whether you are walking down the hallway in Seaverns or a member of the senior Symposium class, the beloved Warren Baird English Symposium has left its mark on each member of the KO community since it began in 1983. The program has since developed into an engaging class for interested seniors and has become an event to which everyone at KO looks forward. 

This year, KO is welcoming the novelist Tayari Jones to campus. Many students have begun to wonder about the inner workings of the Symposium program. Both students and teachers are likely unaware of how the program came into being, what goes into selecting an author that is suitable for all KO students, and the rigorous schedule that each author completes during their visit to the school. 

History teacher a resident KO historian Robert Kyff previously explored Mr. Warren Baird and his legacy at KO in an article published in the Alumni Magazine titled “The Man Behind the Symposium: Warren Baird, 1941-2000.” With both Mr. Kyff’s insight and a comprehensive interview with English Department Chair Catherine Schieffelin, we have been able to learn about the full history of the program and the experience it gives authors and students.

During the school’s 75th anniversary in 1983, each department was tasked to come up with a cumulative program that would be engaging to the community. Mr. Baird was then Chair of the English department and had been for 12 years. He was a fixture in the community, heavily involved in language-arts clubs, and the faculty advisor for the KO News. Former KO English teacher Morgan Shipway had a house on Long Island Sound, and both of them devised a plan to talk to E. L. Doctorow about coming to KO. This best-selling author also lived on Long Island, so Mr. Warren and Mr. Shipway sailed to his home, and after meeting with him, they were able to convince him to come visit KO. 

At that time, Symposium was a new event for the whole school. Despite this, every student had read Doctorow’s best-selling novel, “Ragtime.” The event was greatly successful; from then on, a visiting author came to KO annually. Eventually, in 1987, Bob Googins taught the first Symposium class dedicated to author Richard Wilbur. This class examined his work in preparation for his visit later in the year. Since then, the program has developed but kept the same goal as it originally had: to engage students and allow them to ask specific questions to authors. 

The Symposium class is taught using a rotating schedule, gravitating toward English faculty who have been a part of the community for four to five years. The Symposium teacher will then work closely with the English Department chair to organize and plan the visit. However, it is the responsibility of the teacher to reach out to the literary agent of the author to secure their visit. 

The Symposium teacher greatly enjoys this independence. It is their decision which author will visit. However, it can be tricky to find an author that is available to come to KO and fits within the budget allotted to the Symposium teacher. Many teachers will reach out to multiple favorite authors before settling on one specific author. This was certainly the case for this year’s symposium. Originally, English Teacher William Martino had it all set up for award-winning author Colum McCann to visit KO this winter. But then, the pieces of the puzzle fell apart last spring, and plans for author Tayari Jones to visit KO were arranged instead. 

When the author visits KO for Symposium, it is truly a once-in-a-lifetime experience for both the writer and the students. The authors who have come to KO in recent years reside at the Delamar Hotel across the street from KO for the two days they are visiting. Additionally, they get car service to and from the airport, which is a nice touch. 

In terms of interactions with students and faculty, each Symposium author is expected to speak at both the Middle School and Upper School assemblies. Furthermore, the author attends dinner with the Symposium students and participates in question-and-answer sessions with KO students. Symposium students also have the opportunity to share their work done in class with the author. The author ends their visit with dinner and reading with KO faculty, former faculty, and area teachers. 

Ms. Schieffelin greatly appreciates Symposium, and it is a highlight of her KO experience. She taught the 2011 class and welcomed novelist Jonathan Safran Foer to campus. “As a teacher, you get just this wonderful opportunity to follow a passion of yours, to read extensively and deeply in the works of one author, and just to celebrate that with students,” Ms. Schieffelin said. “I love it in so many ways.” 

This year, each grade has read a different novel by the author. This shows that the Symposium teacher must consider how the entire community will enjoy the author and not just the select Symposium class. Teachers try to select an author who will be engaging and appropriate for students in various grade levels. 

More recently, the Symposium program has allowed students to connect with the authors’ works through creative projects. For the last few years, students in the Symposium classes and other English classes as well have created “passion projects” that connect to that year’s author’s writing. 

For example, many students this year and in past years have created paintings, presentations, podcasts, and even songs that demonstrate their love for the author’s work and their understanding of the themes in the author’s writing.“It’s a wonderful way for students to get excited about reading and thinking about authorial choices,” Mr. Martino said. Sometimes these pieces of art are even displayed for the Symposium author to see, which can be a very exciting experience for the artist and author. 

Another unique aspect of the Symposium program is its interdisciplinary connection to KO’s visual and media arts program. Every year, a different art teacher from KO creates a print about the Symposium author for that year. For example, when Sarah Ruhl visited in 2020, photography and media arts teacher Greg Scranton created a digital print, and when Min Jin Lee visited in 2021, Middle School art teacher Katherine Nicholson created an elaborate batik-style print. Last year, Mr. McDonald collaborated with his drawing class to create a portrait of visiting poet Tracy K. Smith, each student creating a portion of the image by rewriting a single word over and over again. These posters are gifted to the authors. Copies of the posters from years past are displayed in teachers’ classrooms as well as in the hallways of Seaverns serving as a reminder of past authors’ visits. 

In 1994, when Gwendolyn Brooks visited, she greatly enjoyed her visit to KO. She was so impressed with the poetry that KO students had written that she ultimately endowed a poetry contest in her name. The Gwendolyn Brooks Poetry Contest occurs annually and is yet another example of the lasting impact Symposium authors have had.

While each author ultimately is a name on a long list of notable authors who have come to visit the school, their experience is far from conventional. Each author brings something new to the community and inspires many. So, when asked what students’ favorite Symposium author was, there were diverse answers. 

Junior Keysy Lopez Diaz has enjoyed the Symposium program, and her love for the program went into her decision to attend KO. She is not in the Symposium class and wants to take it next year.  “I’ve been here since I was a freshman, and my favorite Symposium author by far has been Tayari Jones,” she said. “I like her style of writing, and I enjoyed the different perspectives included in “An American Marriage,” which helped me to better understand and appreciate the story.”

For senior Symposium student Lucia Martinez-Castro, it is a similar experience. “My favorite author has been Tayari Jones simply because of how the Symposium class has allowed me to engage with her work,” she said. “I get to deep dive into her novels in a way I haven’t been able to with the other authors.” 

The Symposium program has brought many notable authors to visit the school, from names like Gwendolyn Brooks to John Updike to Arthur Miller to Tony Kushner to Min Jin Lee. But, the brilliance of the Symposium is the freshness and the remarkable opportunities it provides to the English curriculum and the greater community.