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.
The workshops showed me how much I need to stay mindful of in order to be an effective critical educator. Due to the wide variance in both student’s academic capabilities and identities, my own adaptability and reflection became key. It is essential that I be sensitive not only to each students’ specific abilities, but also to the interplay between our respective identities. An awareness of my own positionality needs to be embedded in my pedagogy, so the question is not only “how I can I help this student understand? But, how can I, as a white adult, help this student of X race understand? Or, how can I, as a queer person, teach this student about sexuality and gender? What are the strengths and limitations of the dialogue between our different identities?
Similarly, it is essential that I stay conscious of students’ identities when engaging the larger group. Which students do I call on? Whose words and work am I validating, and whose am I not? In an effort to avoiding reinscribing the very oppressions I am trying to teach against, I need to pay attention to the ways my own power as an adult in the elementary classroom legitimizes or disrupts power and privilege in society at large.
I have tried to reflect this practice in my writing; any time I introduce a person, I spotlight their race, their gender, their physical appearance. I pay attention to these identities because society does, though white writers are seldom encouraged to talk about them, especially race. As bell hooks states in Teaching to Transgress, “We are all subjects in history. We must return ourselves to a state of embodiment in order to deconstruct the way power has been traditionally orchestrated in the classroom… To call attention to the body is to betray the legacy of repression and denial that has been handed down to us…”
Throughout the course of this project, it has been immensely difficult to decide where to focus my writing. I have been oscillating between exploring my own positionality as a student and educator, and creating a curriculum which prioritizes student needs and experiences. It has been a delicate line to walk. With limited space, what do I concentrate on? Do I write about what it was like for me as someone with a queer gender identity to work in the intensely gendered sector of K-12 education? Or do I discuss how the students responded to talking about racism?
Of course, the two are not mutually exclusive. I have tried to bring them both together in this project, exploring socially constructed identity first from the standpoint of an artist, and then as an educator. In the hopes of avoiding excessive naval gazing, as well as creating a resource for other teachers striving to critically examine identity with their students, my focus was ultimately weighted toward the latter.
But what does this mean for the autobiographical writing I undertook before creating my curriculum? Certainly, much of it feels incomplete. I even have a handful of pieces I outlined, but was never able to bring to fruition. It sometimes seems as though I undertook two, separate projects and finished neither. Other times, the two seem inextricably bound. Though I often wonder how much more I could have accomplished had I focused only on curriculum or my own creative writing, I have found the interplay between the two parts fascinating.
In many ways, my work as an artist allowed me to be a better educator. In interrogating my own socially constructed identities, I learned what questions would be useful in encouraging others to critically examine their own. I was able to see the differences in how older students like myself approach identity, and how I would have to adapt those approaches to be accessible to a younger group.
My own work on identity and creative writing helped me realize that I was principally undertaking the autobiographical writing not to improve my skills as a creative writer, but to try and make sense of my own intersectional identities and experience within systems of privilege and oppression. It helped me to see that my focus with the students shouldn’t be on perfecting the craft of memoir, or even on improving writing conventions; they get plenty of that through their normal lessons. In order to provide a transgressive – and hopefully, liberatory – pedagogy, I needed to concern myself primarily with fostering in students the drive and ability to deconstruct the messages they receive about identity; to help them see, name, and ultimately, step outside the boxes society forces all of us into.
To that end, was I successful? It is difficult to draw conclusions about students’ internal processes with any certainty. I can, however, comment on what I observed. By the end of the lessons, many of the students demonstrated their ability to critically examine media messages, to recognize injustice, and to question power. Their writing shows an emerging awareness of societal expectations for their identities, and for many students, a desire to break from them. Who knows what this will mean for this group as they age and become more aware of mainstream messages on identity and systemic inequality. How would my understanding of society and myself have changed if someone had talked to me about whiteness and racism in fifth grade, when I was just beginning to see it?
For me, the most satisfying times as an educator were during students’ moments of revelation. From Mary Beth’s growing awareness (and disavowal) of gender roles, to Will’s realization of the power of boycotts, witnessing these moments was truly inspiring. Throughout my curricular unit, students demonstrated their willingness to explore subjects that are supposedly taboo in K-12 education – let alone elementary school – with an honesty and openness that often seems completely beyond many adults in similar discussions.
Ultimately, it is my hope that both my curriculum and the experiences documented in this project can be useful for other educators attempting to address identity and social justice with youth. The work has confirmed my belief that young students are not only capable of, but eager to discuss complex social issues. It has shown me that I am capable of facilitating these conversations, and reinforced my faith in the liberatory potential of critical education.