Writing to Transgress: an introduction and table of contents

the following is an abridged version of my division iii project at hampshire college. the title of the project and blog make reference to the writings of bell hooks, specifically Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of freedom (1994). it is her idea of “transgression” — of actively violating the oppressive norms, standards, and silence required by a culture of domination. an integral part of that practice is the elevation marginalized voices and stories, and this is an attempt to raise my own. to that end, i created a series of autobiographical pieces reflecting on my own identity – my whiteness and qeerness in particular. my primary work, however, was getting middle schoolers thinking, talking, and writing about socially constructed identity and systemic oppression. in the spring of 2010, i developed and implemented a curricular unit with a group of 6th graders in western massachusetts. below is an introduction and table of contents for the various parts of the project.

sharing the stories and ideas in this project is encouraged, though if you are exhibiting the text directly, please link back here or otherwise credit the author. with the exception of myself and my college, all names have been changed for confidentiality. thank you for reading!

 

Writing to Transgress: rethinking identity, social systems, and youth

I am a student of critical pedagogy, sociology, and creative writing, three fields I sought to intertwine in my project. I wanted to explore creative nonfiction/autobiographical writing as a way of understanding the self in relation to systems of privilege and oppression, both on my own and with a group of youth. I am interested in how we choose to story our experiences and the personal and political implications of creating these narratives. After spending the preceding years studying the way we are all inculcated into these systems, I wanted to know exactly how much of me they accounted for. The more I explored this question, however, the more I realized that I was asking the wrong one. My socialization into whiteness, maleness, queerness, and every other social construction are all inextricably bound to who I am today. There is no individual somehow outside of or untouched by these systems. I cannot strip away their influence anymore than I can remove my own skin.

What I can do is try and tease out the complex ways they operate on and within me. In order to do this, I have to move away from asking how were my identities created? And instead focus on how have I experience them at different points in my life? The identities were always there – though not always marked or apparent to me – so how did they manifest?

Part I: telling my own story is an attempt to make visible the ways systemic forces have impacted my identity, with a focus on analyzing how I experienced identity in my own schooling and childhood. Employing multiple modes of writing, I critically examine my past, trying to illuminate the larger social forces at work. Explicitly naming one’s identities and the power structures that shape them is always a political act. In exploring my own privileges and oppressions, I am transgressing the silence required by a culture of domination.

The Doll

Conquistadores

Something Between Us

Boy Legs

Make Yourself at Home

We Don’t Talk About That Here

Part II: the identity unit  is an attempt to offer a group of youth the tools to explore their own socially constructed identities –similar to some of what I undertook in Part I, though obviously not as in-depth. It is a collection of twelve lesson plans I created paired with the stories of implementing them. I approached this component with two assumptions counter to conventional wisdom on elementary education: that young people are capable of discussing and personalizing complex social issues, and that as an educator, it is my responsibility to ensure that those conversations are happening. In the tradition of critical pedagogy, I sought to explore how critical thought and social consciousness could be cultivated through the use of personal writing. In order to prepare students to both exist in and work against oppressive systems, I believe it is essential for them to develop an early awareness of those systems and how they affect their identities.

Senior Project Part 2: introducing the classroom and developing a curriculum

Lesson Plans Days 1-4: identity overview and thinking about gender

Organized Chaos: introducing identity and gender

Lesson Plans Days 5 & 6: exploring personal narratives by youth and discussing LGBTQ identity

All Promo Homo: discussing sexuality in school

Lesson Plans Days 7-9: introducing race and racism and writing about racial identity

“…But what does this have to do with today?” Discussing Race and Systemic Inequality [Part I]

Lesson Plan Day 10: power structures, part I (or, you’d better pull up those bootstraps)

Lesson Plans Days 11 & 12: power structures, part II and the final writing piece

“…But what does this have to do with today?” Discussing Race and Systemic inequality [Part II]

In Their Own Words: student writing on identity

Notes on Curriculum: limitations and implications

Conclusion: rethinking the project as a whole

In addition to creating a window into my own experiences and positionality, I hope the stories and lessons here can provide an accessible resource for other educators seeking to explore identity and social justice with young people. The curriculum was always intended to evolve and be adaptable to different educational settings and age groups, so feedback of any kind is encouraged.

Conclusion: rethinking the project as a whole

When I was a sixth grader, I would have jumped at the opportunity to discuss socially salient identity. I say this not as some self-validating expression, but because at that age, I really was desperate for anything that would tell me more about myself – especially anything that would help me understand my own identity in relation to others.’ In the earliest conceptions of this project, that was my goal: to offer students the tools to understand themselves and the social forces that mold their identities with the hope that they might be capable of greater self determination in the future.

In many ways, conversations about identity and systemic privilege and oppression are much easier with kids than adults. Younger people are familiar with the attitudes of the larger culture without having as much investment in those attitudes. They are less attached to one specific worldview, because their outlook is always expanding. Many of them have a passion for fairness, and a keen eye for spotting injustice, as I saw when we played my card game.      Continue reading

Notes on Curriculum: limitations and implications

The lesson plans I developed were created specifically for the class at Miller’s Hill, building off of the classroom’s past and present curriculum, conversations, and issues. If future educators are to use my lesson plans and reflections as a resource, it is essential that they are adapted to the needs and experiences of each group of students. Though ultimately, I think my workshops were well received by Naomi’s class, I faced several challenges in creating and implementing my curriculum. It is my hope that both the strengths and weaknesses of the lessons will prove illuminating for other educators. For me, consistently reflecting on my own positionality, performance, and student reactions to my workshops was essential in developing effective lessons.

In retrospect, I think the biggest shortcoming of my curriculum was a failure to highlight activism or resistance to systemic forces. Naomi and I spent a great deal of time talking with students about the massive power structures which support the oppression of various identities, but comparatively little on ways that they as students – many of which are heavily targeted by these oppressive systems – can resist and dismantle those structures. Faith’s comment during the discussion on lynchings – “I’m staying in my house from now on!” – illustrates the potential of introductory lessons on systemic oppression to backfire. Naomi and I addressed Faith’s comment and the outlook it indicated immediately, but not before it demonstrated the necessity for lessons on oppression to leave students feeling empowered and able to resist, rather than overwhelmed and paralyzed.     Continue reading

In Their Own Words: student writing on identity

I wanted to include a few examples of the student writing that came out of the identity unit. the writing workshops produced a wide range of pieces, both in terms of student skill level and genre. with their permission (and under their chosen pseudonyms), i included a sample of each student’s writing in the print version of the project. here, i’ve included three pieces that stood out to me: a poem on racial identity and self-determination, a detailed narrative on a gendered play experience, and a portrait of home, distant and indelible.

Who I Am

By Faith

Who I am

African American or black

I say I’m black

But society wants to hold me down to just

African American

My race

My thinking

Who I am

Shouldn’t be bound down to just

African American

I’m American

Yes

African

No

Who I am

People of society can’t tell me

I am strong willed

But that doesn’t matter to society

They don’t think it describes

Who I am

Telling me I’m African American

IS NOT

Who I am

Telling me I’m black

IS TELLING ME

Who I am

No one can tell me

Who I am

So I have to tell myself

I am Black

 

Continue reading

“…But what does this have to do with today?” Discussing Race and Systemic Inequality [Part II]

“We’re the rainbow team!” Marcus announces, two days into our section on racism and structural oppression. I have just split the class up into two table groups based on whether or not they are wearing the color red. We are about to play the card game I created to explore systemic discrimination. Previously, I had been calling the groups the “red team” and the “not-wearing red team.” I guess they don’t like being defined by what they are not.

Grinning, I deal in the teams from their respective decks (the red team is privileged with face cards), and then ask the two teams to each send half of their players to the other team’s table, so that everyone is mixed up. “But remember what team you’re on!”

With a sudden eruption of activity, the students begin playing, and the room fills with laughter and the gleeful or dismayed exclamations of fourteen twelve-year-olds. I can’t help but smile as I watch them play; it’s the most alive I’ve seen them outside of recess.

After about five minutes, I ask them to pause. “Okay, everyone count your cards – without looking at them! Who is winning?” Three out of the four students with vastly more cards than their peers are from the red group. “That’s interesting,” I say, “Why do you think most of them are from the red team?”

Faith immediately suggests that the red team was given better cards at the start of the game. “Maybe,” I reply simply, trying to hide my delight.

“Oh, well they also had that rule where they got a card if they couldn’t get back in! We don’t have that,” adds Marcus, looking supremely disappointed.

“You’re right. Ok, so when we start playing in a second, I am going to remove that rule,” I tell them, “Now everyone will have to knock to get back in; no one gets a card from me.”

I start to ask them to resume playing, but Marcus interrupts me. “No, that still won’t be fair,” he says firmly, “They already had that rule for a long time, now you have to give it to us.” I am thoroughly impressed. I had no idea students would be able to make that connection so quickly.

“Well, that’s not how the game works. The rules have to be the same for everyone now.” He continues to frown, but doesn’t protest any further. “But first, is there anyone from the red team who is currently out?” A brilliant and generally shy Indian boy named Ayjay raises his hand, along with Will and Danielle. “From the red team,” I repeat. Everyone but Ayjay lowers their hand, frowning. “Okay, here’s a card – it’s the last one you’ll get from me,” I tell him, dropping a face card onto the table and ignoring the various cries of “that’s not fair!”    Continue reading

Lesson Plans Days 11 & 12: power structures part II, and the final writing piece

Day Eleven: Power Structures, part II

Lesson Development: Building off of yesterday’s lesson on how historic forces have shaped current inequality and landscapes of opportunity in the US, today I wanted to explore how contemporary systemic discrimination and privilege operates. Specifically, I wanted to highlight the concept of white privilege in concrete, accessible ways. To do this, I created a list of white privileges that I thought sixth graders would be able to understand by drawing from and expanding upon the list of white privileges in Peggy McIntosh’s  essay, Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack. Additionally, I felt it was important that students begin thinking about what they can do to change oppressive systems. I wanted them to understand how even speaking out against – and so calling attention to – racist, sexist, etc. comments or actions is essential in an era where people believe racism and sexism are largely things of the past.

 

  • Review yesterdays card game:
  • · What was it? Why did we play it? What were the two main things that made it unfair? What did that represent?
  • How do racism and other forms of systemic discrimination operate today?
  • Physically run through a scenario/skit to illustrate this: Ms. Pierre is working for a corporation that is hiring right now. Everyone in the class needs a job, so we all have to apply. That’s fifteen people all going for the same job! A lot of competition, it’s going to be hard to get that job… But what if Ms. Pierre imposes her prejudice on the job – she decides that someone with brown eyes just isn’t what she’s looking for. She doesn’t make that official – that would be illegal now – so she still lets everyone apply, she just doesn’t seriously consider anyone with brown eyes.
  • · Now how many people are left competing for the same job?
  • · Is it easier or harder for non-brown eyed people to get that job now?
  • · Do the non-brown eyed people even notice?
  • Even though official discrimination is illegal now, when many people in positions of power hold prejudice, it becomes part of a system.      Continue reading

Lesson Plan Day 10: power structures, part I (or, you’d better pull up those bootstraps)

Day Ten: Power Structures, part I

Lesson Development: I created this lesson in an attempt to provide students with an accessible simulation of the real world effects that systemic discrimination – specifically racism – has on society. I wanted to create an easy to play game that would clearly illustrate the way privilege and discrimination make it easier and harder for certain groups to acquire and retain wealth, and to get students thinking about how efforts to redress inequality must take into account how the economic “playing field” is not, and has never been, level.

As readers can see in the structure of the card game below, I specifically designed it with the historic economic experience of African-Americans in mind. However, the parallels the game draws to legal discrimination, as well as the consolidation of wealth, allow the game to provide more general lessons on systemic inequality and privilege. There are also references to specific moments in the history of United States’ racial opportunity structure. Part Two of the game is meant to represent the post-Civil Rights era, where white supremacy is no longer inscribed in law, but de facto white economic privilege remains. At the same time, the second phase of the game also provides one more added “bump” for some players, intended to represent the way the GI Bill, which, only two decades prior to the Civil Rights Movement, provided many white soldiers returning from World War II with privileged access to jobs, education, and housing.

I chose to call the game Bootstraps, referencing the false idea that the socioeconomic structure in the US provides all people with equal economic opportunities, an idea invoked by the old expression, “Pull yourself up by your bootstraps!”           Continue reading