In the aftermath of the white nationalist rallies in Charlottesville and the terrorist attacks in Barcelona, one thought lays heavily on my mind as I prepare for the school year:
How do we move forward?
After reading countless news articles, listening to podcasts, and having multiple discussions about the events, I’ve decided I’m going to renew my focus on helping students develop a framework for understanding identity.
I’m starting here because I think once we have a deep understanding of ourselves, we can begin to understand the complexity of our communities and make choices that are inclusive and justice-oriented.
For the last several years, a large piece of my teaching with middle schoolers has focused on identity development and specifically, the intersection of identities within an individual. This concept comes from Kimberlé Crenshaw, a civil rights advocate, professor, and founder of Critical Race Theory, who coined the term “intersectionality.” In Crenshaw’s work, intersectionality explores how different aspects of identities- such as race, gender, and class- impact and affect individuals’ experiences in the world.
To be clear, Crenshaws work on intersectionality specifically studies black women’s experiences. Her work critiques the frequent lack of acknowledgment of black women’s experiences as both black and female. As Crenshaw writes in “Mapping the Margins,” “Although racism and sexism readily intersect in the lives of real people, they seldom do in feminist and antiracist practices.”1 Crenshaw argues that black women, who have unique experiences because of both of their blackness and femaleness, are often disregarded or forgotten in decisions and movements that are meant to be antiracist or anti-sexist.
While this unique experience of the intersection of race and gender belongs to women of color,2 the analogous experience of being forgotten or disregarded due to the complexity of one’s identity is something many people who hold oppressed identities experience. Furthermore, for those of us with privilege, it is important to be aware of the multiple areas in which we hold privilege, so that as we move forward, we can do so in a way that benefits our community, rather than solely ourselves.
Translating this to middle school, what this looks like for me and my students is building an understanding of the multiple dimensions of our individual identities, and exploring how these identities relate, intersect, and impact our experience in the world.
Before I get ahead of myself, let me explain a little about what this looked like in my classroom last year.
Near the beginning of the school year, we started with an identity sort, an idea I adapted from Beth Leah Sondel.3 First, drawing from Crenshaw’s work, I introduced the idea of identity as being composed of multiple facets. We focused on nine areas: race, gender, sexual orientation, class/SES, religion, nationality, generation, ability level, and a hobby/interest.
From here, students spent time analyzing their own identity in each category. After creating a list for themselves, students were asked to rank their identities in the order that they were most important to them. Then, students were asked rank them in the order they felt others perceived them. Afterward, students compared the two lists and wrote a reflection on their experiences.
While the writing produced in this activity was solely for the students (due to the personal nature of responses, I did not ask students to turn it in), this exploration of identity provided a foundation for the understanding of literature and world events in the year to come.
We transitioned this idea of identity intersectionality to analyzing the identities of characters in books.4 We created identity molecules, in which we placed a character’s name in the center of the paper, and then wrote aspects of their identity (which we learned or inferred from text evidence), around their name.5 We studied how characters’ identities impacted their experiences, looking at the areas in which characters held privilege and areas in which characters experienced oppression.
Soon, students were transferring this understanding of identity and perspective to the world around them. Our class was asking questions like, “Why would people vote for the candidate they did?” “Whose voice is heard in this news story?” and “Whose story are we missing when we learn history?”
Our understanding of identity helped us analyze current events, make sense of choices, and figure out stories we needed to seek out and pay closer attention to.
Additionally, our understanding of identity helped my students understand themselves. We know that in middle school, students are constantly questioning, exploring and figuring out who they are. Students are grappling with issues of identity everyday, in the small daily choices, like figuring out what to wear, to big choices, like choosing friends and taking stances and sharing ideas in class discussions and debates.
The importance of developing an understanding of identity is evident in the reflections of my students. During a write-out last year responding to our conversations around identity, a student wrote, “I came into class feeling confused about a lot of this stuff. Writing about it helped.”
I’m with my student on this one: I think writing about it helps too. And foundational for writing about it is building vocabulary, knowledge, and a framework to help us understand and analyze human experiences in the world. By starting with identity, my students work on developing a sense of who they are, how they move throughout the world, and where they need to grow.
This won’t solve terrorism. It won’t solve racism. But it’s a place to start.
For once we know who we are, once we know where we stand- the areas in which we hold privilege, and the areas in which we may face oppression- we can move forward with nuance. We can listen, we can begin to understand, and we can recognize areas in which we should take up more or less space. With this knowledge, we can build an authentic community that struggles together, succeeds together, and is a place where each of us, in all of our differences, belongs.
- Crenshaw, Kimberlé. “Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence Against Women of Color.” Stanford Law Review, vol. 43, no. 1241, July 1991, p. 1242.
- For more on this, read Cameron Glover’s “Intersectionality Ain’t for White Women,” in which she argues the word “intersectionality” and the specific experience of it belongs to black women. If you’re doing identity work, and especially if you’ve been doing this work for awhile, I recommend checking this article out.
- Beth Leah Sondel is an Assistant Professor at NC State University. Previously, she earned her PhD in Curriculum and Instruction at UW-Madison, where I had the pleasure of taking a social studies methods course from her.
- Jen Breeze, my previous district literacy coordinator, was instrumental in helping me plan how to transfer this learning to age appropriate text for middle schoolers. Thank you, Jen!
- I adapted this idea from the “Identity Molecule” resource published by Keshet, an organization dedicated to creating LGBTQ inclusion in Jewish Life.
To learn more about Keshet.org, check out their website.