In an earlier lesson, students were asked to think of a personal experience where their identity played a role. They had to identify the specific aspects of their identity that played a role in these particular experiences. These were written on paper and taped to the wall. We were able to walk up to the wall and read each other’s responses. Here is an image of this Social Identity visual on the wall. When I read the experiences shared, I was struck by the amount of negative experiences that were up on the wall. Students shared countless stories of discrimination because of their race, age, class, gender, etc. In the unit, the texts we read were also overwhelmingly experiences of discrimination. I certainly do not want students to walk away from this unit thinking that a study of identity equals a study of stereotypes and discrimination. Today we are exploring the positive aspects of our identity.
I begin by sharing the fact that I was struck by the amount of discrimination and stereotyping they have experienced in their lives. I give a few examples of things I read on the wall: students have been followed around in stores because the owners assumed they were there to shoplift, family members have been pulled over by the police because of their race and looks, a young girl was in public with her baby cousin and people assumed she was a teen mom because of stereotypes about her race. I admit to students that I find this a bit depressing and assure them that a study of identity does not always lead to this. I express my belief that we have these many negative experiences to share regarding aspects of our identity because we do live in a society where we unfortunately encounter a lot of discrimination and stereotypes. I continue by stating that there are different ways of responding to this and I want to mention two today.
One is to choose to deny that particular part of your identity that makes people judge you in negative ways. I tell them that they probably know people of a certain race who decide they don’t want to be associated with that race and attempt to behave in ways they feel lead others to not identify them as part of that particular race. I have heard enough stories from my students about family members, friends and acquaintances who do this. I know that most of my students will know exactly what I mean and will get the point. I also mention that there are young people who are intelligent and studious, but are picked on because of it. I definitely hear too many of my students calling others “nerd” and “school boy/girl” and know they will understand exactly what I am talking about when I suggest that some of these students choose to behave in ways that appear less intelligent. I then state that I believe these are unhealthy responses and ask the entire class if they agree or disagree. Students nod and their thoughtful expressions suggest they have specific examples of this in mind. I do not have any student who believes this is a healthy response. I move on to suggest that there is a different option. The option is to embrace the part of your identity that makes people in society judge you and actively challenge it. To illustrate, I remind them of the experience I shared about my father not wanting my sisters and I to go anywhere outside the house besides church and school because his sexist beliefs told him he needed to restrict our freedom. I tell my students that experiences like this one pushed gender to the center of my identity and that I have spent a significant part of my life challenging sexist notions of gender. They respond with a quizzical, “How?” I give them a few details including the fact that I moved 400 miles away to college, worked hard to gain financial freedom, actively seek out people who support gender equality, studied Feminist theory and call myself a feminist, etc. The point I am trying to make, I explain to students, is that I chose to embrace my gender and these are specific things I did to highlight the positive aspects of that part of my identity. Students get the point. I tell them that today they will be doing the same thing in an assignment that asks them to produce a visual representation of positive aspects of their identity.
I instruct students to go to the wall and take back the paper with the experience they chose to share. I ask them to reread what they wrote, including the categories they associated with this experience, which are in bullet points below the written experience. I ask them to select one category they have embraced and are interested in representing in a positive light. To illustrate, I take my paper, where I shared one of my personal experiences and I restate that of the two categories I added to this, I chose to make gender a central part of my identity. I tell them they will have to think of precise, powerful vocabulary and create a crossword with colored pencils to highlight the positive and empowering aspects of this category. I show them the crossword I created as a sample. It is written on good, drawing paper cut to the same size as the paper where they wrote their experience. I also show them my first attempt at a crossword, which did not work because I ran out of space. I needed to create a rough plan in pencil before writing it on the nice piece of drawing paper with colored pencils. I then show them the rough plan of my crossword. Here, I point to the category I selected, gender, and tell them that this will be written in black and boxed in like I have done to mine. I share the words I selected to highlight the positive aspects I associate with gender: liberated, intelligent, educated, clever, creative. I tell them that as I was doing this, I realized that there are two other categories I closely associate with gender, which are friends and sisters. I explain that what I have in mind is the group of female friends I rely on for support and my five sisters, whose gender has much to do with our collective experience. I show them how I fit these in my crossword and the words I associate to them. I point out that these are two additional categories and that those are also written in black and boxed in. Finally, I tell them they will take the final version, in the nice drawing paper in colored pencil, and glue it to the back of the paper where they wrote the experience they shared. I lift my sample and turn it back and forth to illustrate that we are essentially creating a visual representation of the process of embracing a part of identity that has been the source of discrimination and turning it into something positive.
I let students work on their draft and then make drawing paper and colored pencils available. This activity is very straight-forward and this allows me to mainly walk around and enjoy witnessing students push themselves to find the right language to highlight positive aspects of their identity.
Once students are done, I ask them to punch a hole in their paper, tie a short piece of string to it and tape it back on the wall. This way, the viewer can easily turn the paper back and forth and read both sides. It is a pretty powerful visual.