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.

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

All Promo Homo: discussing sexuality in school

“Faggot…Faggot. I really like that word.” Stacy says thoughtfully as the class leaves for lunch. I nearly drop my notebook.

“Why do you like that word?” I ask quickly.

“I don’t know… I heard it in a YouTube video and I just really liked the way it sounded.” She pushes her things into her desk and turns to me.

“Do you know what that word means?”

“No. I just really like the way it sounds. Fag—”

“It’s a very offensive term for gay people,” I interrupt. “Remember in the story we read today, when the main character was called it?” She nods. “Well, it is a very hurtful word. You shouldn’t say it.” We continue to talk for a moment about the word, and why it’s offensive. Stacy soon bounds off to lunch, and I am left alone in the classroom, dazed. This interaction makes it clear that I have been correct in thinking that the class will need to talk about queerness for one of the identity lessons. When outlining the unit, I had originally planned on discussing queer identity on the gender day, but as the curriculum developed, it became apparent that devoting only one lesson to both gender and sexuality would do neither justice.

Talking about sexual orientation in an elementary school proved much more complex than any other issue. Many states have laws banning “the promotion of homosexuality” in schools. These so called “No Promo Homo” laws have been variously interpreted as banning anything from explicit discussions of non-normative sexualities, to having books which feature gay characters in the classroom. While Massachusetts has no laws explicitly banning the topic of sexual orientation in schools, it does have one mandating that parents are notified prior to the implementation of a curriculum involving sexuality and given the option to exempt their child. While I initially think that the principal is being puritanical when he asks to approve a copy of my lesson plan, it turns out he is protecting Miller’s Hill from potential lawsuits.

“This all seems great,” He says one afternoon, handing the lesson plan back to me without reading it. “Do me a favor, would ya? Write this up in a letter and send it home to parents before you do the lesson. You should also give me a copy, okay?” He gives Naomi and I a breezy smile before sweeping out the door.

Naomi soon fills me in on another regulation I will be required to follow when broaching the topic of sexuality: I am not allowed to ask students to speak to their own sexuality, or any experiences relating to it. “I’m required by law to report anything – absolutely anything – students mention involving sexuality and themselves,” she tells me. This means the sexuality workshop will be a single day endeavor; no writing day will follow.

When I enter the class the following Monday, I am pleased to see that no parents have kept their child home today. “When I say ‘sexuality’ or ‘sexual orientation,’ what do I mean?” I ask the class by way of introducing the lesson.

Silence.

The usually loud, enthusiastic class is suddenly still, sheepish. I guess it’s not too surprising, given the topic. After I offer them a definition, I tell them that until about thirty-five years ago, doctors thought homosexuality was an illness. “Even though doctors no longer think this, stereotypes about gay people being somehow ill still exist.”    Continue reading

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

Day Five: Reading Personal Narratives About Identity

Lesson Development: I felt it was important to provide students with plenty of examples of other youth writing personal narratives about identity. Drawing from a collection of personal narratives written by youth called Starting With I: Personal Essays by Teenagers, I selected two essays, both of which deal with socially salient identities and the effect that family and community has on our identities. A Shortcut to Independence is about an Indian girl’s quest to cut off her hair, and in doing so, transgress traditional conceptions of femininity and claim agency for herself. I Hated Myself is an essay by a closeted Latino teenager about his experience with homophobia, depression, and attempted suicide. As I was reading this piece to an eleven and twelve year old audience, it was necessary to omit some passages that deal heavily with recreational drug use. Both of these stories also speak to the issue of internalization of societal values, and serve as an excellent jumping off point to discuss the negative reactions people face when they transgress societal norms.                Continue reading

Organized Choas: introducing identity and gender

“That’s not true! Being gay is not a choice!” Jaden shouts, confidently exasperated.

“Nuh uh!” Faith retorts. “It is a choice! I had a friend who was straight once but now she chose to be gay!” They have been much louder and harder to keep on task than usual today –undoubtedly because they have a substitute, but now the class is suddenly focused. Naomi is at a teacher training session, meaning I am launching the identity unit solo. The sub, a tall, bespectacled woman with frizzy gray hair, sits silently in the back of the classroom for most of my lesson, nodding and occasionally smiling to herself as I struggle to keep the students’ attention.

The debate over whether or not sexuality is a choice began when I added “straight” to the giant list of identities the class had been composing together on chart paper under the “identities we don’t choose” section. In composing the intro lesson for the entire identity unit, I struggled with how to make both the concept and the term “socially constructed identity” accessible for sixth graders. I was confident they would be able to grasp the idea of a social construction insofar as the messages or rules, as we came to call them, which society sends us about certain identities, but I suspected the term “socially constructed” would confuse them more than anything. Unfortunately, talking about identities as socially constructed is also an extremely useful way of conceptually separating race, gender, sexuality, class, etc. from personality traits.

In grappling with how to accessibly make these identities distinct for students, I eventually realized that in talking about various identities, students would see the differences and offer their own language to differentiate between them. As we listed off different identities as a class to put on our chart paper, I began subtly separating students’ answers. On the left side of the paper were things like “Latino,” “male,” “black,” and on the right I recorded “outspoken,” “hyper,” “shy,” “sports fan.” When the students could not think of any more identity traits, I asked them to look at the chart and group different types of identity. This proved difficult, so I prompted further. “For example, what do ‘male’ and ‘black’ have in common? What do all the identities on this side have in common?” An inquisitive and sincere white student named Will suddenly thrusts his hand in the air, his furrowed brow rising over widened eyes.

“Those other ones are like, things you do, but these ones are like, who you are!

Alisha, a sharp, self-described outspoken black student with a knowledge of daytime soap operas far beyond her years, corrected him. “But those are all who you are… those things are like….like things that are… things that are really who you are…” She trailed off and frowned, realizing she had fallen into the same trap as Will.

The class was silent for a moment as they contemplated the list of identities. Alisha let out a frustrated sigh and slumped onto her desk. Eventually, Faith raised her hand. “Okay, I think maybe those identities are like, things you can get discriminated against for?”

She was onto something. A murmur of agreement swept through the class. Suddenly, Will exclaimed, “Ohhh!” Those are things that other people can use to discriminate against you, so those really are like… the parts you don’t have control over! You don’t choose them.” I wrote the word “choice” at the top of the chart paper and asked the class if they could think of other aspects of our identities we cannot choose. When no suggestions were forthcoming, I added “straight” to the to the left hand column under “Latino” and the current argument exploded.  Continue reading

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

**These are the first of several lesson plans I created for the identity unit at Miller’s Hill Elementary. The plans typically appear as they were initially written, with the body listed in bullet points in the order I intended the lesson to follow. However, nearly all of the lessons were forced to change and adapt to student needs during implementation.**

Day One: Identity Overview

Lesson Development: I wanted to use the first day to get the kids thinking about their own identities and all the different pieces that make them who they are. As this day was the introduction to a longer unit on socially constructed identity, I felt it was essential that they first understood the distinction between socially constructed identities and aspects of their personality such as likes and dislikes. I struggled for a while on how to translate “socially constructed identities” into language accessible for sixth graders, but ultimately realized that they would supply the language themselves. In talking about different aspects of a person’s identity and asking students to group different traits together, students were clearly able to see the difference and offered words like “choice” to separate them. The terminology for “socially constructed” easily became “identities you can’t choose” or “identities you’re born into.”

  • What do I mean when I say ‘identity’? “What are some ways you would identify yourself?”
  • Take a moment and write a response to the question ‘who are you?’ “It could be a narrative paragraph, or even just a list of attributes – we’re just trying to generate ideas.”
  • After about five minutes, ask students to share their lists with a neighbor and look at similarities and differences. What did people focus on? Take some volunteers (yourself included) to share and write down some of the words people used on the board. Talk about similarities and differences as a class.
  • Differentiate socially constructed identity from personality traits. Start by asking students to group the identity attributes, and then ask them why they grouped the way they did. “What if we were going to categorize different identities? What would go together?” “What do X and X have in common?”
  • Things to consider in grouping identities: choice (being born into certain identities), societal expectations (rules), societal organization (explicit examples: racialized slavery, women’s suffrage, segregation). Socially constructed identities are often the labels other people apply to you by looking. If students are really stuck, stand in front of the class and ask them to describe you, see what comes out of it.
  • What are some of those types of identity? (Get explicit – race, class, gender, sexuality etc.). “Let’s return to our lists now – is there anything people would add to the lists about themselves now that we’re thinking along those lines?”
  • If there is time at the end, begin brainstorming for tomorrow’s writing exercise. Tell the class we will be writing stories that have to do with these types of identities. First take volunteers to share ideas for stories they have and then try to work with students who are stuck. Continue reading

Boy Legs

He is wearing a white lab coat. It’s funny, I think, that doctors really wear those. His name is Doctor Tancretti and he smells like Florida. Or maybe like old people. I can’t tell. Ever since we visited my family in Tampa the two kinda run together. He has short dark hair, and very tan skin like my grandpa, which also makes me think Florida and old people. His eyes seem permanently squinty. His nurse is a tall woman called Vicki who sneaks me extra stickers when the other nurses aren’t looking. She comes in now and gives a folder to the Doctor and then smiles at me. She will remember me every time I come back for the next fifteen years.

Vicki comes over to the exam table and says she is going to do a simple check up while Doctor Tancretti talks with my mom. She takes my temperature and blood pressure, and pokes at my stomach for a while. “I’m going to check your reflexes now, okay?” she tells me, holding up a small metal rod with a rubber tip shaped like a triangle. “You’re going to have to roll up your pants so I can get to your knees.” When I have done so, Vicki swings the rod into my kneecap. I smile as my leg jerks forward and slams back into the side of the exam table with a satisfying “thud.” She does the same thing to my other knee, and then begins to roll my pants back down. “Oh my!” She stops, examining my shins. You’re so bruised!” she asks if I play outside a lot, and tells me to be careful. Mom overhears.

“You’ve notice his legs?” she laughs. “I call them boy legs. Mical’s very active. He’s always running around and bangin into stuff. They’re constantly like that.” She sighs. “Boy legs.” We all have a good laugh at my habit of getting hurt, a habit that will soon put me on crutches six different times in as many years. Continue reading