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.

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

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

Make Yourself at Home

…But sometimes, home means silence. Home means hiding. Home means constantly being on edge. And so we’re careful.

 

It is nearly dark by the time we arrive. Through the fading winter light I can see the white, New England style house silhouetted against the trees. There are two SUVs parked on the lawn which doubles as a driveway – necessary vehicles to make it up the crumbling dirt road to the house. Claire stops her car next to them, and as the engine dies we simultaneously exhale. “Anything else I should know before we go in?” I ask. Claire has been prefacing each new round of introductions with brief sketches of the people I am about to meet – longtime friends-turned-family; fixtures in her life. Sometimes these sketches come off more as disclaimers.

She smiles. “Hmmmm… No. No, they’re great, you’ll be fine.” She kisses me on the cheek.

As we clunk up the wooden steps, a dog starts to bark, and I can see a blur of white and black fur as he paces in front of the glass door. “Just do the signal when you’re ready to leave,” she adds, scratching behind her right ear to demonstrate before opening the door without knocking. It leads into a small kitchen, where the family sits around a table playing cards. Their eyes, first falling on Claire, soon rest on me. Some of them stand up. I give a nervous smile and wait for the introduction.

“Everyone, this is my partner, Mical.” I nod, giving a meek wave of my hand. Claire goes around the table, stating everyone’s name, but I have shaken too many hands over the past few days to remember many of them. The parents are called Glenn and Karen. Their son, daughter, and her boyfriend are there too. Hugs are exchanged, and soon two extra chairs are produced and we all sit back around the table. 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

The Doll

He never told me outright, but I knew my father was uncomfortable with the doll. I had picked her as a reward for something – I’m not sure what at this point – but my mom had taken me to the store to pick out a toy. I was five years old, and she was one of the few African-American Barbies in the store, with long dark hair and a deep purple dress made of something like velvet. Maybe that was why I picked her; she stood out from the uniform mass of white plastic lining the shelves. She was different.

Even then, at five years old, I knew the doll was an unusual pick. Certainly, my male friends would not have made the same selection. But I was bored with my Star Wars action figures and Hot Wheels cars. I wanted something new.

My mother didn’t remark on the doll directly. “Are you sure?” was all she asked as I brought the box to the checkout counter.

When I got home, I spent hours playing with her alongside my other toys. She had a handbag to match her dress, both of that same deep purple that looked as soft as it felt. The dress was fastened at the back with a strip of Velcro which would peel off with a satisfying “C-h-h-r-r-i-i-i-i-i-p” if I ever wanted to change her clothes.

Neither of my parents spoke to me about it, but I was aware of the stir I had caused. The first night I had the doll, the floorboards of my second floor bedroom trembled with raised voices. Though I couldn’t make out most of it, the phrase “For Christ’s sake Jim, it’s a doll!” was unmistakable.