Middle school is a precarious time for young people, as they’re figuring out who they are while also learning about how identity impacts their life experiences. The inspirational words of bell hooks, “critically intervene in a way that challenges and changes,” have been fundamental in my identity-development work with middle school students, who need a brave classroom space filled with opportunities for learning, growth, challenge, and transformation. Our classroom is reimagined as a space that forges connections across differences, cultivating the acknowledgment, affirmation, and celebration of difference.
Middle school students are at the perfect age to explore identity. In many ways, they are like sponges absorbing all that is around them. Because their identities as well as beliefs have not been fully realized, the more exposure to differences they have, the more likely they are to be welcoming and accepting. Their openness to diversity creates endless opportunities for genuine curiosity, self-reflection, and observations of the world around them.
In relationship to diversity, authentic interactions and connections can be made. It is in these moments that diversity is positioned as a strength and not as a deficit. In acknowledging and celebrating our differences, we find our shared humanity.
1. Identity conversations. Conversations focused on identity are a powerful tool for self-exploration. Creating a classroom culture where students can engage in conversations that foster and encourage the exploration of identity is essential to this process.
One of the most important steps is ensuring that we frame participation as voluntary. Students should not feel pressured to share; instead, they should be afforded an opportunity to listen, learn, and grow from each other. If a student chooses not to participate, they can assist as a cultural anthropologist by taking notes or creating a visual storyboard on their observations from the activity. They can then share some key observations with the group.
Activities such as “the story of my name” or the six-word story on Padlet are simple ways to begin identity conversations. I model this for my students by sharing the story of my name or my six-word story. With each class meeting, I share aspects of my identity that are important to me or aspects of my identity that have been the most challenging for me to navigate.
Another way to invite identity conversations is through using prompts that explore identity and difference. I ask open-ended questions that are deeply rooted in identity development, underscoring the fact that identity is on a continuum, meaning that we are on a constant journey of discovery. Identity conversations and discussions should foster connection, empathy, and a sense of community where every student feels authentically seen, heard, and valued. Activities such as the circle of connection or identity pods help to facilitate these conversations. Integrating video technology such as Flipgrid deepens the connection within these activities, giving students autonomy and creative license to affirm and celebrate their identity.
2. Identity circles and interviews. Through the identity-development model, students can regularly engage in learning more about who they are and how they live and move through the world. Conversations on aspects of identity including age, ability, ethnicity, gender, race, socioeconomic status, sexual orientation, religion, and family structure set the foundation for meaningful dialogue. This work can be done using identity circles where students step in or out of the circle when prompted by a statement on identity. For example, “Step into the circle if you are the oldest child (then the youngest, the middle) in your family” facilitates questions on age and family structure, followed by conversations on how this aspect of identity affects the lived experience.
As the activity progresses, more sensitive topics are covered, such as “Step into the circle if you identify as a student of color” or “...if you have two dads.” Trust has to be built, but the students enjoy the questions on more sensitive topics, as they give us the opportunity to talk about topics like privilege, microaggressions, and racism.
Students also can be grouped in pairs to conduct identity interviews for the purpose of learning more about their classmates. Identity interviews let students get close to experiences that differ from their own, allowing for a real connection that goes beyond the surface. Identity interviews can end with each student writing a reflection about the experience of being an interviewer. It should include what they learned about the other person as well as what they learned about themselves.
3. Identity as story. The art of storytelling is a powerful tool to connect across differences. Giving students the opportunity to share their stories fosters authentic connection that affirms identity where students learn from each other’s stories and experiences. Creating a regular, ongoing storytelling series forges an opportunity for connections to be made where the power of storytelling is something that the students can both feel and see in real time. After students share their stories, they are applauded by their classmates, which creates a classroom culture where sharing is valued and celebrated. Students are intrinsically motivated to share their story because each time a story is shared, the principles of courage, resilience, and healing are elevated. Storytelling is an entry point for connection across differences, as well as the guidepost for building empathy and understanding.
Giving students autonomy to be genuine, playful, curious, and courageous is foundational to supporting students to connect across differences. Connecting across differences helps to dispel and counter pervasive stereotypes, as well as challenging assumptions around difference that seep into the life of a middle school student through social media, TV, and things overheard on the playground or at the dinner table.
The journey of identity is not linear, and that’s OK. As educators, our role is to create a solid foundation for students to embrace who they are and to embrace others, no matter how different they may be.