This post was originally published for Annenberg Learner foundation.
Being an English language learner, in middle school, was a really difficult experience. I had many questions about my identity, and who I was as an individual. This was a result of the language shift, but a culture shift played a huge role in this complex narrative that played in my head as well.
As a result of this experience, it was so important for me (the teacher) to create a safe classroom culture where students can explore, discuss and more importantly, express their identity. One of the important benefits from being able to discuss one’s identity is for students to feel confident in who they are as individuals. At the same time, identity exploration in the classroom can help students to also develop an appreciation for diversity in their communities and ultimately be more empathetic for others.
A teacher can help to facilitate an activity in the classroom that focuses on identity expression by using prompts to get the conversation started. For example: ask students to explore some theme questions that deal with identity, such as “Who am I?” “What do I care about?” “What do I want others to know about me?”.
One of the hardest things for many of us to answer is “Who am I?” Help students explore this question by having them do an “Ingredients of Me” activity. We did this in my class, and my students’ answers looked a bit like this. This activity helped my students explore what they care about, who is in their immediate life, and what they do on a daily basis.
Sharing our answers with a small group allowed students to understand who their classmates are, and what responsibilities they had outside of the classroom. However, what’s so special about this activity is that students started to see how many things in common they had with their peers. They started to have side conversations about their interests.
Exploring identity in the classroom should be practiced regularly throughout the year. The teacher can take the above activity and extend the conversation by asking other questions focused on the theme of identity and knowing oneself. Examples of questions to explore with your students include:
- “What was the hardest thing you’ve ever encountered? How did you deal with it? Who helped you along the way?”
- “What inspires you? What drives your motivation to keep going?”
- “What is the most important thing in your life?”
- “What are the most meaningful relationships you currently have in your life?”
Here are additional resources for teaching about identity:
Watch a middle school class explore the theme of identity as they read and respond to the cultural and social experiences of characters in a variety of texts in Teaching Multicultural Literature, workshop 1, “Engagement and Dialogue.” Students learn to define their own identity and share their personal stories as well. Also, in workshop 8, students examine media representations of various cultural groups and how writers and artists from those groups represent themselves in their works. Students then represent themselves using photography and essays, and exhibit their work to the community.
Another way to discuss identity is to explore how people define themselves through their possessions. In Essential Lens: Disaster and Response collection, see the “Belongings from Home” activity. Students use the activity to analyze photographs of relocated farmers during The Great Depression. Some of the encamped people have musical instruments because this is a core of their identity, for example.
It’s important for students to explore their own identities in a safe learning environment, as this will help them to be more empathetic towards their own peers. Exploring identities in the classroom can dispel stereotypes and perceptions that we often have about specific groups of people, and instead allows us to build stronger relationships with each other.
Share your experiences, as well as additional activities and resources, on this topic in the comments.