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

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

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