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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“…But what does this have to do with today?” Discussing Race and Systemic Inequality [Part II]

“We’re the rainbow team!” Marcus announces, two days into our section on racism and structural oppression. I have just split the class up into two table groups based on whether or not they are wearing the color red. We are about to play the card game I created to explore systemic discrimination. Previously, I had been calling the groups the “red team” and the “not-wearing red team.” I guess they don’t like being defined by what they are not.

Grinning, I deal in the teams from their respective decks (the red team is privileged with face cards), and then ask the two teams to each send half of their players to the other team’s table, so that everyone is mixed up. “But remember what team you’re on!”

With a sudden eruption of activity, the students begin playing, and the room fills with laughter and the gleeful or dismayed exclamations of fourteen twelve-year-olds. I can’t help but smile as I watch them play; it’s the most alive I’ve seen them outside of recess.

After about five minutes, I ask them to pause. “Okay, everyone count your cards – without looking at them! Who is winning?” Three out of the four students with vastly more cards than their peers are from the red group. “That’s interesting,” I say, “Why do you think most of them are from the red team?”

Faith immediately suggests that the red team was given better cards at the start of the game. “Maybe,” I reply simply, trying to hide my delight.

“Oh, well they also had that rule where they got a card if they couldn’t get back in! We don’t have that,” adds Marcus, looking supremely disappointed.

“You’re right. Ok, so when we start playing in a second, I am going to remove that rule,” I tell them, “Now everyone will have to knock to get back in; no one gets a card from me.”

I start to ask them to resume playing, but Marcus interrupts me. “No, that still won’t be fair,” he says firmly, “They already had that rule for a long time, now you have to give it to us.” I am thoroughly impressed. I had no idea students would be able to make that connection so quickly.

“Well, that’s not how the game works. The rules have to be the same for everyone now.” He continues to frown, but doesn’t protest any further. “But first, is there anyone from the red team who is currently out?” A brilliant and generally shy Indian boy named Ayjay raises his hand, along with Will and Danielle. “From the red team,” I repeat. Everyone but Ayjay lowers their hand, frowning. “Okay, here’s a card – it’s the last one you’ll get from me,” I tell him, dropping a face card onto the table and ignoring the various cries of “that’s not fair!”    Continue reading

Lesson Plans Days 11 & 12: power structures part II, and the final writing piece

Day Eleven: Power Structures, part II

Lesson Development: Building off of yesterday’s lesson on how historic forces have shaped current inequality and landscapes of opportunity in the US, today I wanted to explore how contemporary systemic discrimination and privilege operates. Specifically, I wanted to highlight the concept of white privilege in concrete, accessible ways. To do this, I created a list of white privileges that I thought sixth graders would be able to understand by drawing from and expanding upon the list of white privileges in Peggy McIntosh’s  essay, Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack. Additionally, I felt it was important that students begin thinking about what they can do to change oppressive systems. I wanted them to understand how even speaking out against – and so calling attention to – racist, sexist, etc. comments or actions is essential in an era where people believe racism and sexism are largely things of the past.

 

  • Review yesterdays card game:
  • · What was it? Why did we play it? What were the two main things that made it unfair? What did that represent?
  • How do racism and other forms of systemic discrimination operate today?
  • Physically run through a scenario/skit to illustrate this: Ms. Pierre is working for a corporation that is hiring right now. Everyone in the class needs a job, so we all have to apply. That’s fifteen people all going for the same job! A lot of competition, it’s going to be hard to get that job… But what if Ms. Pierre imposes her prejudice on the job – she decides that someone with brown eyes just isn’t what she’s looking for. She doesn’t make that official – that would be illegal now – so she still lets everyone apply, she just doesn’t seriously consider anyone with brown eyes.
  • · Now how many people are left competing for the same job?
  • · Is it easier or harder for non-brown eyed people to get that job now?
  • · Do the non-brown eyed people even notice?
  • Even though official discrimination is illegal now, when many people in positions of power hold prejudice, it becomes part of a system.      Continue reading

“…But what does this have to do with today?” Discussing Race and Systemic Inequality [Part I]

“Why did they do that?” Will asks me on the afternoon of my first day at Miller’s Hill. I have just explained how scientists let four hundred black men go with untreated syphilis for nearly half a century in order to study the effects of the disease.

I hesitate, my eyes lingering on his otherwise blank “Tuskegee Experiment” note card. How do you explain the dehumanization of racism to an eleven year old? “Well, the scientists, who were white, thought that they could do whatever they wanted to black people.”

“But why?” He scrunches his brow, genuinely confused.

I continue, “Since white people were in power – and for the most part, they still are – they could do horrible things to black people without consequences. So sometimes, they used them for experiments.”

Will’s eyes suddenly widen. “That’s awful!”

“It is. And the experiment would have continued if the press hadn’t found out about it and made it public in the seventies. Of course by then, many of the subjects had already died from the disease, and the others were very sick.”

Will is suddenly solemn, his mouth opening and closing slightly as his eyes dart from me to the Wikipedia page. Outside of Slavery, it might be the first time he has heard of any state sanctioned atrocities his racial group has perpetrated.

One month later, Naomi and I sit with the class on the carpet for our race and racism lesson. “So, who can tell me the definition of racism?” I ask the class, soliciting the mainstream definition before expanding it into racial prejudice plus institutional power. Surprisingly, students accept this new definition with little contestation.

“So how do people have power in our society?” I continue, “What does that mean?”

“Like, having a lot of money?” offers Sara, a quiet, tall, and tremendously freckled white student.

“Right! Having money is one way people can be powerful in society. What else?” Students consider the question for a moment. When no responses are forthcoming, I direct their attention to the back wall, where we have hung the ads from the gender lesson, under the heading, “What do these images tell us about ourselves?”

“What about those ads and the messages they send? Do you think people who control the media are powerful?” The class offers a collective noise of agreement before we discuss other powerful people in society, like politicians, lawmakers, police, corporate leaders, and education administrators.

“And what race are most of people in these positions?”

Without hesitation – and almost in unison – the class responds, “White.”

Alexis suddenly perks up. “They’re all men, too!” I am increasingly awed by students’ perceptiveness and acceptance of concepts and information so contrary to mainstream messages.

“Being in power is about more than political positions or laws. As we just mentioned, it’s also about the media and who we see.” Naomi tells them, “For example, think about Disney movies. What race are the main characters usually?”

Several students murmur, “White,” Before Jaden, exclaims, “But what about Mulan or Pocahontas? They’re not white!” A few students nod their heads in support.

“That’s true, there are definitely exceptions to the rule,” I say. “But generally, if you can count all the exceptions on one hand, it’s actually proving the rule.” Jaden gawks, and then leads the class in counting off Disney princesses of color one by one.     Continue reading