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

“…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

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

Day Seven: Thinking About Race

Lesson Development: My main goal in this lesson was to introduce students to the definition of racism as racial prejudice plus power, a definition contrary to the mainstream definition of racism simply as racial prejudice. I felt it was essential the students have some context for systemic racism, so I also included a brief history on the creation of white supremacy. Additionally, I wanted to use the lesson as an opportunity to analyze some of our own racial prejudices and stereotypes. To get the conversation on stereotyping started, I employed another essay from Starting with I called My Lebanese Passport, by a Lebanese teenager who gets racially profiled at the airport. Lastly, I wanted to use the lesson to explore some false or problematic notions of race/ism the students had expressed during previous lessons, such as the belief that white people are all mixed race, or that racist jokes are OK as long as no one they offend is present. It is important to note that this is entirely too much to tackle in one day; after failing to get through the lesson in a single day, I split it across two.

  • Define Race: Race refers to our physical characteristics, especially skin tone, which is regulated by a chemical in our skin called melanin. Physical characteristics of racial groups are the only things genetic about race. Everything else we associate with specific races is learned behavior or a stereotype.
  • What does mixed race mean? “Even though a lot of white people have heritage in different countries, it doesn’t mean that they are mixed race. For example, I have Irish, Italian, and French heritage but I’m still just called white.” Racial groups are based on skin color and geographical origin, not necessarily national origin.
  • What does “white” mean? What does “people of color” mean?
  • What are the different races?
  • Define prejudice: Literally, pre-judgment, especially of a person or group.
  • Define racism as prejudice plus systemic power. This means people of color can have racial prejudice, but not be racist. This is likely to confuse students at first – they will likely want examples of how white people are in power and how people of color are disadvantaged.
  • How do people have power in our society? Who does what? Take answers from the class, important things to discuss include:
  • · Running companies
  • · Voting/holding public office
  • · Media control (refer to the ads from day 3 if necessary)
  • · Wealth
  • · Legal system – police, courts, lawmakers
  • · Schools – Whom do we learn about? Who asses students, and how? Naomi suggests discussing NCLB and the achievement gap, as this may resonate.
  • “Was it always this way?” How did racism start? In the late 1600s, ruling whites owning both slaves and European indentured servants (people who had debt, wanted passage to a colony, etc – they usually worked in three to seven year contracts to earn their freedom) feared organized revolt. So they divided the two groups by giving their European servants privileges (esp. jobs as slave overseers themselves) African slaves did not have. This made poor Europeans feel that they were more important and better than African slaves. At the same time, Europeans needed justification for keeping Africans in perpetual, race-based slavery, so they made up stories and rumors that said people with darker skin are less than human. The combination of the special privileges given to poor Europeans and a general denigration of all things of color encouraged poor European colonists to see themselves as having more in common with their wealthy European owners and less as an oppressed social class having more in common with African slaves (and therefore, less likely to partner with African slaves to overthrow wealthy Europeans). The idea that whites were superior to other colors also conveniently served as justification for the genocide of the indigenous [define] and the theft of their land (this also fit well with previous justifications of Indigenous peoples being “savage heathens”). “White” replaced terms like “Christian” and “Englishman” to separate European immigrants from Africans and Indigenous peoples as well as other people of color. (Though it is important to note, some later Europeans immigrant groups – notably the Irish and Italians, and more recently, the Jews – were not considered white when they arrived in the US. These groups had to give up parts of their cultural heritage that marked them as foreign before being allowed the privileges of whiteness. Of course, these groups were only able to do so because they had the physical characteristics already associated with whiteness.)   Continue reading