Identifying Identity

Read how this TT awardee helps students feel validated in their identities.  


“Who I am when no one else is around”

“When I am the hero to my little brother”

These comments and many others poured out of an audience of seventh- to 10th-graders when I asked them to talk to me about their identities. These young people, who dedicated part of their summer to deeper academic immersion, were participants in Steppingstone Scholars, a Philadelphia-based program that supports students from underserved background. Although the students represented diverse ethnic, religious and national identities, their affinity was clear. These students were determined to defy the odds and attend college. (Many will be the first in their families to do so.) Too often, however, this commitment has made them feel alienated from peers in their communities.

I empathized with the complexity they faced. Having been a student with a father in prison, a single mother and an opportunity to attend a rigorous school, I understood the challenge many of them described: trying to “keep it real” and not lose themselves in the game of school—all while negotiating ever-changing rules that are seemingly made to keep them from succeeding.

As the students continued to belt out answers, I reflected on how I would have described my own identity at their age. It is unlikely that I would have volunteered an answer. Possibly, if asked to share in a small group and I felt safe, I would have said, “Identity is one thing I can’t study for or buy or fake; it is who I am, and I hope each day I am proud of him.” Uttering those words would have been liberating.

However, in my own schooling, as an African-American male, I never had the opportunity to talk about my identity. I struggled to find myself, due in part to the few mirrors reflected in my school and in my classes. The not-so-hidden curriculum taught me that my identity was not as valued in school as the majority of my peers. While it was years later that I found words to express this feeling of loss, I no less felt that void in the moment.

The Steppingstone students expressed grappling with their identities when they entered more rigorous schools, a far cry from those in their own neighborhoods. They also spoke passionately about how their identities are constantly being bombarded by media perceptions, family messages, peer pressure and—most disturbingly—low expectations from many of their teachers. They shared painful stories about how teachers failed to respond to disparaging remarks said during class, and about being the targets of micro-aggressions and ambivalence. Many also addressed their school cultures, which effectively limit their representation in honors classes or provide few positive mirrors in curricula.

As I stood there listening to them express emotions ranging from confusion to sadness to anger, I remembered the cautions of Theodore and Nancy Sizer that the students are watching. Schools and schooling send messages whether intentionally or not, and students learn and often internalize these messages. The students in the audience that day made it clear that their teachers and schools often stand in the way of them realizing their best selves. 

How can we enable students to be their best selves? For the students I work with, having the opportunity to talk openly about their identities is key. Whether it is through journaling or facilitated conversations, the process is empowering to them. Students have told me that they consider it a survival skill—it keeps them focused and makes them feel alive. With this in mind, I reflect on my years of teaching and wonder:

  • How often do I create space for students to talk about their identities?
  • Do I ever hinder students from becoming who they seek to be?

Discussing identity, as well as challenging the boxes that work to limit students, is an essential—and ongoing—component of my toolbox. How do you create space in your practice for students’ self-expression?

Avery, author of ANGST: Overcoming Freshman Year of High School and a National SEED staff member, is the director of programs for Steppingstone Scholars. He is also a recipient of the 2014 Teaching Tolerance Award for Excellence in Teaching.

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