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.
Resistance was not the only area we failed to emphasize: social class was almost completely omitted. Though I had initially planned on devoting an entire day to class – as I did for race, gender, and sexuality – my underestimation of how long it would take to explore race and racism with students ultimately forced us to forego the class lesson. I did include some lessons on class in my plans for the subsequent days on power structures, but I was trying to cover too much too quickly and we never made it there. Now that I know more than a single day is required for even a cursory exploration of race/ism, I think providing a lesson on class following the gender, sexuality, and race lessons would be powerful, as it could help students understand the way those other identities affect social class.
With so much of my attention on the content of the curriculum – deciding what identities to explore and what specific information would be most useful and accessible to sixth graders – I lost some focus on the methods I would use within my lessons. Since the magazine ads were so effective in illustrating societal messages about gender to students, how much further could we have gotten if we had used media that was more relevant to the sixth graders? For example, we could have examined the lyrics of one of the pop songs I often heard them humming, or watched and analyzed a beloved Disney movie. Looking at the media they already eagerly consume could be very powerful.
In addition to a lack of cultural relevancy, another drawback to my lesson plans were the extended periods of time where students were required to sit still and listen. During these periods, the students were understandably less focused. During my lessons on race/ism and power structures, I realized how more engaging my lessons could be if I broke up these periods with an exercise requiring students to move around, or even examine a relatively simple visual. In some ways, I approached the social justice content with the students in much the same way I have approached it in various college classes: as a straightforward discussion – a practice which does not always translate well for sixth graders. If I am to be as committed to alternative teaching styles as I am to non-traditional curricular content, I need to further consider how to adapt my teaching methods for different audiences.
Looking back at my field notes as well as student writing, it is clear that there was a wide variance in both student’s writing capacities and their engagement with the curriculum. Some students, like Faith, had clearly already began reflecting about their own racial identity, while others, like Stacy, seemed almost entirely unable to conceive of themselves in relation to societal messages about identity of any kind. Some students just weren’t there yet. I think this has a lot to do with the fact that these students are still in elementary school – most of them have been going to school together since before they even knew socially salient identities existed.
During this past semester, I spent time participating in an after school creative writing group at a large, regional middle school in addition to my internship at Miller’s Hill Elementary. The group met once a week and consisted of about six regular attendees and the overseeing teacher. The difference between how the students at each school thought about their own identities was striking. During one meeting at the middle school, I prompted the group to write about a time when they experienced being gendered – when they could tell that they were being raised as a boy or a girl. Reading my piece on the Barbie doll helped clarify this for them.
As soon as we began talking about gendered messages, the group launched into a discussion on other socially constructed identities. Many of them asked if it was okay to write about sexuality or race. One student, a biracial girl of European and Chinese descent – and coincidentally, a Miller’s Hill graduate – told the group that she had not considered her race until this year, when she came to middle school and noticed how the lunch tables and cliques were segregated. That prompted a whole group discussion on the topic; it seemed everyone had something related to share.
My time at the middle school demonstrated how much difference a single year and a vastly different school environment could have on students’ identity development. It also showed me how much further my lessons could be pushed if they were implemented with students who have had more exposure to societal pressures surrounding identity.
This is not to say that my lessons weren’t useful with a slightly younger group. On the contrary, I think that introducing students to the idea that their identity is – and will be – policed by society and impacted by systemic forces is powerful, even before students know exactly what that means for them personally. As they negotiate what to wear, how to act, and all the other ways we express our identities, I believe that having an awareness of socially constructed pressures will help young people more intentionally define their identity for themselves, and not for anyone else.
In September, most of the students in Naomi’s class will head to the regional middle school. In that larger, older, and more diverse environment, they will be forced to confront their identities in ways that they haven’t had to before. I can only hope that our discussions of stereotypes, systemic forces, and the struggle against societal expectations will help them resist a culture hell bent on putting them into boxes.