One of my goals for this year as to help students explore their identities in my classroom. In teaching literature, I didn’t only want to focus on reading and writing, but also on bringing my students to be more self-aware through reading and writing. I wanted my curriculum to explicitly and concretely reflect student experiences at times and, strategically, deviate from their experiences. I wanted to expose students to literature they could connect with but also to literature that could expose them to new cultures and new ways of thinking and living.
I sought to do this because it is the role literature plays in my own life. Through reading, I can experience and explore different lives as well as more deeply understand my own life and my own experiences. In some ways, it’s as George R.R. Martin said, “One who reads lives a thousand lives,” but also one who reads lives their own life more deeply.
This purpose drove my writing of the senior literature curriculum at my school. Throughout the year, I have been working to build a curriculum that was, as academics say, culturally responsive (using culturally relevant instructional material, affirm student cultural identities, and use cultural backgrounds as a knowledge base for learning and academic success) but also culturally explorative (a term I use to mean instruction that explores cultures outside of my own). In order to achieve this, I structured the curriculum around Literature of the Other, or literature that explores and expresses the experiences and thoughts of marginalized people. Students had to complete two research projects. One focusing on an issue of gender equality outside of the United States and one focusing on a political/social/economic/educational issue that affects their own community.As a class, we looked at Women as Other (Adichie’s “We Should All Be Feminists” and Woolf’s “A Room of One’s Own), Poor as Other (Miller’s Death of a Salesman), Immigrant as Other (Junot Diaz’s short story “Invierno” and Adichie’s “The Thing Around Your Neck), and Black as Other (Ellison’s Invisible Man).
All of my students fall into one or more of these categories.
I, as a white man born in suburban New Jersey, fall into none of these categories.
This definitely gave me some inner turmoil. How do I teach this literature, focus on these experiences, when I myself don’t understand them half as well as my students? How do I teach this literature without alienating or trivializing? How do I teach this literature without reinstating the very dynamic I want students to understand and overcome? How do I empower my students, when I myself stand in a position of power?
I haven’t quite found the answers to these questions. What I have done is try to humble myself to my students. I’ve tried to bring in their knowledge and their experiences into the classroom as much as possible. I’ve done this through leading discussions around how it feels to be out of place in a new country; or how it feels to be disappointed. I’ve asked students to talk about their own experiences with oppression or immigration or racism and used them as a starting point for the literature. And I’ve done it with the most sincere purpose of listening and learning, not judging or evaluating. I’ve asked students to open up and share their own identities in the classroom and in order for that to happen I must sincerely be willing to learn from their unique experiences. I seek to make this evident in my tone of voice and my body language. When I ask a question that asks students to share their identity or their experiences, I’m willing to wait if no one volunteers immediately. I usually take a seat in or on a desk, which changes the power dynamics in the classroom slightly but, I think, importantly.
This doesn’t always work. One of my Do Now questions was: What is one thing about you that expresses your identity (clothes, hair)? How would you feel if you no longer had the freedom to express yourself that way?
Students wrote for about 6 minutes and, when I asked them to share out, I got nothing.I modeled with myself. I spoke about a time when my parents made me cut my hair as a kid, and how I wanted to grow it out. After I spoke, a few brave students discussed their own experiences. One student talked about moving to America from Africa and having to cut his hair to fit in. Another talked about his clothes and how hard it was to have a dress code in middle school. Sometimes kids don’t know enough about their identity; sometimes kids don’t know how to share it.
I’ve tried to embody what I told my students at the start of the year, that I will learn from them as much as they learn from me. Flipping the script like that, though, is uncomfortable for students, especially students who might feel disempowered or invisible in many other aspects of their lives. It takes consistency. It’s not something you can say once or twice, but something you always need to reinforce, in every interaction you have. My first step was building a curriculum that allowed for self-discovery as well as discovery of other lives, and opinions, and cultures. My second step has been to acknowledge the limitations of my own knowledge and experiences and engage in a sincere and authentic exploration with my students. The third step is to truly empower my students to challenge my views and the views of society; for them to feel in charge of their lives and their choices; to see the power dynamics around them and be self aware enough to break them down. Students need to feel like their identities and experiences are valued and encouraged. I’m still trying to figure out the best way to do that.
I’d love to hear about your own experiences and philosophies around encouraging students to express and value their experiences. How do you bring student identity into the classroom? What is the role of culturally response and culturally explorative instruction?