When people outside my school community ask me what I do for a living, and I inform them that I am a middle school teacher, I often receive one of two reactions. The first is best summed up as “Yikes!” followed by “I could never do that.” The other reaction implies that I must have some saint-like qualities.
Neither reaction reveals a particularly flattering or accurate view of middle school students, implying that they are either terrifying or impossible to deal with. Surely, no two days are ever the same in a middle school classroom, but that is often because students bring relentless curiosity, a sense of humor, and new ways for us to think about the world on a daily basis.
At the root of the responses I receive, I believe, is an accurate acknowledgment that adolescence isn’t always an easy time—particularly as some of us reflect on our own experiences. However, as neuroscience professor Sarah-Jayne Blakemore points out in her recent book Inventing Ourselves: The Secret Life of the Teenage Brain, “We shouldn’t demonize adolescence—it is fundamental to who we are.” Blakemore argues that adolescence is a critical stage in our identity development: “Adolescence is often the first time we give much thought to how our identity affects our lives and the ways in which other people see us.” Furthermore, during this time period, “Your sense of who you are—your moral and political beliefs, your music and fashion tastes, what social group you associate with—undergoes profound change.”1
In the middle school at The Rivers School, teachers have crafted various lessons, projects, and essential questions around the concept of identity. Exploring questions that allow students to consider “Who am I?” “Where am I from?” and “Who do I want to be?” helps make the learning relevant and, therefore, more impactful.
In an eighth-grade art class, for example, students recently concluded a multi-week self-portrait drawing process. Because of the level of detail and close observation required to complete the work, the teacher said, “Throughout the process, you see students learning more about themselves than they knew before.” As part of the background of the drawing, that teacher has students add symbols connected to a personal theme, such as “I, too, am Rivers,” or this year’s theme, “What’s real for me?” According to the teacher, this aspect of the assignment offers students a platform to speak about where they are and how they feel at a particular moment. As time passes, their response to these prompts reflects feelings that still resonate or that they recognize as more fleeting—both of which are developmentally appropriate reactions as students navigate this stage of their identity development.
Often, teachers collaborate across disciplines to ensure that their exploration of identity in one class complements the work happening elsewhere in the curriculum. In the fall, the eighth-grade art teacher teams up with the Spanish teachers to learn about the traditional roots and modern celebration of the holiday Dia de Los Muertos through the creation of calaveras. Calaveras, or skulls, are powerful symbols used in the artwork and celebration of the holiday. After learning the traditional and cultural roots, students design their own calaveras with symbols reflecting their identity and heritage. Through the process, they are learning about and applying key skills in each discipline.
Earlier in the year, seventh-graders create identity timelines in math class to apply their understanding of integers, scale factors, and proportions. The project, designed by two math colleagues, offers a novel twist on the idea of a timeline: Students include a series of important events in their lives, but the timeline cannot begin with the year they were born—it has to begin earlier than that. This simple requirement leads students to consider people and events that came before them and that helped shape them into who they are today. When students share the stories they captured in their work, they are developing their ability to speak fluently about various aspects of their own identity and to learn about others’ experiences as well.
This project teaches key math concepts while also offering a model of how our Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) mission statement comes to life in the classroom. Rivers
believes that developing a sincere appreciation for and understanding of diverse perspectives, experiences, and identities is integral to achieving its broader mission of preparing students to lead and live in a world that “needs their talents, imagination, intellect, and compassion.”
After the students complete their math timelines, the teachers share them with the students’ humanities teachers as possible jumping-off points to launch a family stories writing project. The potential impact of the identity timeline only expands from there. At a middle school faculty retreat last year, these math teachers walked their colleagues through the assignment as well. This, in turn, inspired a new idea. To introduce the project to students this year, the math teachers shared some of the timelines created by middle school faculty focused on their own adolescence—without their names attached—and students had the opportunity to offer guesses to match the stories they saw on the timelines with the teachers in the community.
In addition to weaving in a sense of fun, this approach highlights the important emphasis our teachers place on demonstrating vulnerability and self-expression. As the DEI mission charges the community to “encourage every individual to be their authentic self,” faculty recognize the importance of modeling the expectations we hold for the students. Zaretta Hammond, author of Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain, refers to moments like this as “trust generators.” In this case, the trust generator employed is referred to as “selective vulnerability” and helps educators build cultures of caring in which students can thrive.2
To further build community culture, we took on another task during that same faculty retreat: We spent time mapping out the various contact points in which students had engaged with the concept of identity in each grade level and discipline throughout the year. We had decided to do this as part of an initiative exploring how the Teaching Tolerance Social Justice Standards3 might inform our curriculum. The standards are categorized into four domains: identity, diversity, justice, and action. By examining the middle school curriculum content through the lens of identity as a starting point, we could determine what already exists organically, and then build on it.
As Shakil Choudhury points out in his book Deep Diversity, a strong community is grounded in the self-awareness of the individuals within it: “To overcome the systemic problems of racism and discrimination, we must notice ourselves moment to moment. We must accept our flaws and biases, while recognizing the need to change.” This approach of starting with the self—of the exploration of one’s own identity and worldview
"emphasizes relationship building rather than political ideology as the foundation for racial and intergroup harmony ... it leaves people curious about themselves and their dynamic with others. This curiosity can reduce the Us versus Them dynamic and expand our sense of ‘we.’”4
As we build on our efforts, we strive to live the final charge of our DEI mission to “challenge all members of our community to engage in courageous conversations that require us to speak across difference of experiences and opinions, to examine our individual and collective privilege, to ask hard questions, and to seek solutions to complex global issues.”
- Sarah-Jayne Blakemore, Inventing Ourselves: The Secret Life of the Teenage Brain (New York: Public Affairs, 2018), pp. 7, 18-19.
- Zaretta Hammond, Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain: Promoting Authentic Engagement and Rigor Among Culturally and Linguistically Diverse Students (Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin, 2014), pp. 79-80.
- Emily Chiariello, with Julie Olsen Edwards, Natalie Owen, Thom Ronk, and Sara Wicht, Social Justice Standards: The Teaching Tolerance Anti-Bias Framework (Montgomery, AL: Teaching Tolerance, 2016); online at https://www.tolerance.org/sites/default/files/2017-06/TT_Social_Justice_Standards_0.pdf.
- Shakil Choudhury, Deep Diversity: Overcoming Us vs. Them (Toronto: Between the Lines, 2015) p. xv.