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.

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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

Something Between Us

“And of course I am afraid, because the transformation of silence into language and action is an act of self-revelation, and that always seems fraught with danger.”

Audre Lorde


A picture of Mount Hood hung in the dining room overlooking the table. It was three pictures, really – a panorama of a snow covered peak swathed in the soft orange of sunset, fragmented across three frames. You could see the mountain, start to finish; the foothills, awkward bulges dense with trees rising into the base, a uniform mass of lush green reaching for the summit in uneven tendrils until the tree line, where the impenetrable hue was suddenly replaced by gray crags abruptly rising from the white-orange snow. The three photos cut the mountain into perfect thirds, the peak poised between two gentle, tree-lined slopes – mirror images of each other but for the streaks of color across the right hand frame. “What’s the point of this? Why are there three?” I asked my mother. She slumped the bag of groceries onto the kitchen counter and glanced at the photos. She shrugged, and through a puzzled smirk said, “Art?”

We shared a look before she turned walked out the front door, calling back as soon as she was out of sight, “Mical, come out here and help Adam with the rest of the groceries!” I pulled my gaze from the mountain and took in the rest of the place. The Sun River brochure had modestly referred to it as a “cabin” but it was about as far from the rustic connotations of that word as you could get. A row of soundless fans hung from the high ceilings, presiding over a crimson, L-shaped sofa in the living room. Dark, polished wood lined the floors and trimmed the stucco walls, and the kitchen’s center island (an entirely novel concept to me) contained a built in gas stove. The vastness of the space allowed the living room, dining room, and kitchen to open into one another, sharing an eastern wall made almost entirely of glass, offering a constant view of that picturesque line of pines and the glimmering water beyond. It was by far, the most modern, opulent looking structure my ten-year-old eyes had ever seen, and even then, I knew my family could not afford a vacation like this. It had been explained to me that the place was what was called a “time-share,” though what that meant I was never quite sure. The important thing was that it belonged to my mothers’ boss, who had given us a discount since he couldn’t use it himself.

“Mical!” my mother’s voice was less congenial now. I temporarily suspended my awe and stepped out the front door into the fading July light. As on most family trips, I had been allowed to bring a friend along. This year’s lucky candidate was Adam Krakauer. I’d gone to school with him since kindergarten, but we had only really started hanging out in the last year or so. He was a stout boy, chubby but strong, with a perpetually scrunched face and round glasses that made him look like far more of a nerd than he really was. I found him standing beside our maroon ’88 voyager, my mother handing him a brown bag of groceries through the sliding door of the minivan. My father was rummaging around somewhere in the trunk, grumbling to no one in particular about how we had forgotten this Very Important Item. 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.