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Discussing Identity in the Classroom


 

About five years go, I started piecing together elements of my classroom community that I saw as critical components. I was doing a “ten-year stepback.” This reflection spotlighted activities and discussions that occurred within and outside the curriculum. One of the most significant components that surfaced involved how identity development shaped middle school experiences. Additionally, I was engaged in reflecting on my identity. I was digging through layers of trauma, coming to terms with my biases, and investigating my family history. Doing this work not only aided in my growth as a teacher but also countered a belief I was told in college as an Education major. I was instructed on how teachers had to perform to a given archetype and leave their personality and personal identities “at home.” I now know that this level of separation is impossible. When I show up in my classroom, I am the sum of the experiences that led me to the moment. Therefore, instead of leaving “who I am” behind, I have to own the experiences I’ve had and the messages I’ve consumed about my students, and how they influence my actions and beliefs about the community I serve. I took my reflections and packaged them on Teachers Pay Teachers. Before I delve into this misguided action, I want to explain a bit more about identity.

So Why Identity? 
The book, Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? by Dr. Beverly Tatum takes on identity development from multiple angles and devotes an entire chapter to how adolescent identity development. She purports that youth of color and Indigenous youth develop their racial and ethnic identity through socialization, and increased awareness of their racial group membership. Youth of color who are not in “race-conscious” homes, and/or spaces may gravitate towards the dominant group versus their cultural group. Given the population that I serve, this research was essential to better understanding issues that impact how students show up in school.  Stereotype threat is another psychological factor that can influence academic performance. Remember, the approach to identity work connects to creating classroom conditions for students to excel in all ways. Stereotype threat creates a psychological fear that adds pressure for individuals trying not to confirm a stereotype. The stereotype of underperformance is associated with Blackness. As the teacher, my goal is to interrupt the risk of stereotype threat by implementing research back strategies and interventions. Many approaches are documented in Whistling Vivaldi by Claude Steele. In short, explaining stereotype threat, providing space for students to reflect on their sense of self and values, and developing trust are vital strategies. While this isn’t a book review, I want to name my research process for understanding adolescent identity development and the stages of identity development. This research was the foundation for the tools I use to guide and support my school community.

As the years passed, I have added resources to engage students in thinking about their identity. One is This Book is Anti-Racist by Tiffany Jewell and illustrated by Aurelia Durand. There's a FREE companion to be used with the book. My students loved the illustrations and posters, which I blew up and placed in the halls. I also have leveraged the Teaching Tolerance "Critical Practices for Anti-bias Education."
Now What?
With this in mind, I own a mistake I made. Four years ago, I released an identity unit to the public that included bits and pieces of work that I do to affirm students, mitigate stereotype threat, promote cultural competence, and engage students in conceptualizing their sense of self. The biggest issue with the resource was that I oversimplified all of the work that happened before and during the creative process. In an era of “easy button” work, I thought I was helping teachers, and I no longer believe that. My unit lacked robust lesson plans and thought out key points to emphasize with students. That’s the danger of releasing work to the world. Everyone needs something different, and it has to be based on the students in your community. Personally, I want to provide teachers with support and guidance when implementing work that has taken me years to develop. Thank you to educators who have supported and used my work, and I commit to doing better. I’ve revised this unit. It has taken me a very long time time. If you know me, you know I do this work to be in a community with others committed to their anti-racist life journey. That said, let’s take a look at the changes. NOTE: Before you fall in love, I want you to know that I do not want money to be a barrier to having this resource. If you need it, you can get access to it. I work on a sliding scale, and I will not uphold the capitalistic belief that you get more when you have more.

This Resource
I’ve updated this resource. One of the most critical updates was to include lesson plans to help teachers facilitate lessons. Click here for a FREE copy of the day one lesson plan. Each lesson plan is designed with flexibility for teachers to make instructional decisions based on the needs of the students in their classes. The lessons also include student work and sample anchor charts. Here's what makes me a bit nervous. It sounds like it's a "print, share, and go" resource. I want to emphasize that it is NOT. There's a lot provided in this unit, but teachers have to do the work of reviewing the resources against the needs of the learners in their classrooms. Additionally, I suggest teachers complete the resources and note areas that might need to be supplemented or tweaked.
The lesson plans include (socially constructed) standards, objectives, background knowledge, vocabulary, materials, teacher tips, and extension ideas. In my context, these lessons could be completed in a day, but depending on time and class demographics, teachers may need to adjust course. Each lesson has extension and optional activities to provide choices for teachers. There are also journal options for students to capture their thoughts, reactions, and opinions about the focus for the day. The table below includes the topics.
One of the most essential components is the journal. Student journals provide space for students to react and reflect on the topics covered in the daily lesson. There is also a blank version for students who need less structure to reflect. The goal is for students to have a private space to hold on to their thoughts in a manner that makes sense to them. This key point is emphasized in every lesson, but students are only required to share what they want.
To provide space for creative thinking, there is an aligned lapbook. The lapbook can be used throughout the unit as an earlier finisher activity, or as a part of the daily focus activity. The lapbook is one of my favorite activities because of the various ways students can share their thinking and represent their ideas in different ways.
What's Next?
There are many, many more lessons to include that align with the content and continue the conversation about identity. Some include racism, colorism, gender identity, microaggressions, stereotypes, and discrimination. To be honest, I am not sure if these will be shared with the world, however, in the spirit of transparency, I am considering offering a community "course," or membership hosted on a platform that brings us together in discussing critical topics in the classroom. My first priority is and will always be my family and school community I serve. Please follow me or check back frequently to learn about new offerings. If you are interested in purchasing the resource, you can do so here. Remember, you will have access to the resource and any future updates. Thank you. All love.

Works Cited
Marcia, J. E. (1966). Development and validation of ego-identity status. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 3(5), 551–558.

Tatum, Beverly Daniel. (2003). "Why are all the Black kids sitting together in the cafeteria?" and other conversations about race. New York :Basic Books.

Tanesha Forman
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