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.

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

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

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