What It Means To Be Me

Apr 28, 2013
Posted by: Tricia

Like a moth to the fire, I have always been drawn to literature
that explores issues of identity, place, and cultural background.  These stories sweep me up into the
angst of the characters, their confusions, questions, and explorations of what
it means to be from a certain place, yet live in another; what it means to be
labeled by society in one way or another, yet identify oneself as something
else; what it means to go against certain norms because one just does not want
to be stuffed, sealed, and labeled into a certain box.  Reading literature on this topic helps
me to navigate the tenuous terrain of identity.  “Reading” my students, and observing how they struggle in
this area, also gives me pause.

Each year, students enter my classroom of full of themselves, of
wonder, and of wonderings.  But, I
notice something happening, as they get to know each other, and as they renew
old acquaintances—cliques begin to form. 
Teens gravitate to others who remind them of where they’re from, who
they are, but, in the process, assumptions are made about others. The African
students sit together.  The
Hispanic students form their own group. 
African-American boys and girls band together. And the stereotyping ensues.  This is not overt, but is a silent
elephant in the room.  But, I
understand. Maslow got it right.  This
need to belong is situated deep within us and we are not alone in this
quest.  However, it can be painful
and confusing and frustrating to try to belong, to validate one’s place in a
world that was not always of one’s choosing. 

Here is where writing makes the difference. Through the act of
putting pen to paper, or finger to keyboard, one is able to work through the
longing to be accepted and find community with others.  Through reading about the topic of
identity, home, place, belonging, students find camaraderie and can then write
about their own. 

The Best Teen Writing of 2012 provides a plethora of mentor texts on the theme of identity.  These provide a context for students to
think about, read, share and write about their experiences.  The personal essay/memoir entries of
this text features writing by students about their own experiences with
identity. "America’s Favorite Cookie" and "I Need to Practice My Farsi: Man Bayad Farsi Ro Bishtar Tamrin Konam" are two of my favorite.

In "America’s Favorite
Cookie," Goodwin uses a familiar snack/dessert to highlight how peers
identify her in her own ethnic group. She takes the reader through her journey
of living oblivious to how others have identified her, in contrast to how she
identifies herself until she is confronted. The reader feels her sense of shame
when her mother retorts about her choice in music by saying in front of
friends, “I don’t know why she listens to all this white people stuff…Her dad
got her into it…She said this like an apology, as if I were something to be
ashamed of” (78). We are taken along with Goodwin as she is driven by her, where
she has no choice but to endure his badgerings as he laments,

"You need to be niggerized…’I
don’t say the n-word,’ I say, keeping my eyes on the white lines of the
interstate.  ‘And that’s your
problem right there.  You can’t be…white…all the time, you have to know
when to turn it on and off.  Get
niggerized.  Say it’” (78). 

She then provides other instances where her “blackness” is
called into question, but then we are made privy to the point when she comes to
the end of herself; when she makes that shift in her strategy of trying on
“what it means to be black,” and cheer with her when she decides to live with
her own convictions of who she is. 

Students who grapple with issues of race, ethnicity, gender,
language, socioeconomic status and all other ways in which we feel different
from others (or made to feel that way) can relate.  Throughout Goodwin’s essay she both shares her struggles and
questions, but ends with a triumphant return to herself—a helpful model for

In "I Need to Practice My Farsi; Man Bayad Farsi Ro Bishtar Tamrin Konam," Jobson also provides a lens through which students can
interrogate notions of race, ethnicity, skin-color, and also, the homesickness
and the out-of-place-ness one’s history and family background present when it
is in contrast to one’s current existence.  She highlights how different she is from her family in a way
that challenges the reader to revisit old labels and stereotypes:

"The discrepancy
between the girl I am perceived to be, a homogenously white-washed prepster of
strictly European descent, and the girl I know I am, an ethnically diverse mix
of Eastern and Western cultures, is perhaps what drives my fervent infatuation
with my Persian pedigree…With each story my mother tells me and each Farsi
phrase she teachers me, I feel as if I am provided a fleeting glimpse into an
elusive, enlivened and sonorous world. 
This world is so estranged from my suburban life…and so foreign to the
nuclear-driven frenzy chronicled on the news that it has enlightened me to the
cultural complexities that lie beneath the facts of a history book and opinion
of a news article (87)."

Both Goodwin’s and Jacobson’s pieces are “in-your-face” about
issues that matter to them, and that matter to many of our students.  They are models to students about how
they could transform painful experiences into platforms for celebrating

Another benefit of these mentor texts relate to the high-stakes
testing climate that is education’s new normal.  While the genre of personal essay/memoir is not considered
to be high-stakes writing to prepare students for standardized tests, reading,
analyzing, sharing, and writing about topics such as are raised in Goodwin’s
and Jacobson’s pieces near the beginning of the year, can foster a sense of
community, that help to circumvent cliques in the classroom. Students get to
share themselves with classmates, on their own terms, which creates an
environment of respect, acceptance and community, and positions students to
write deeper and wider and share with each other more authentically.

I invite you to comment and challenge my use of these texts in
the classroom.  This topic is a
sensitive one for many, so if you can share how you have approached or will
approach topics of identity in all its angles, I welcome your comments,
questions, and concerns, as I continue to update, and revise my post.

“Never forget what you are, for
surely the world will not.  Make it
your strength.  Then it can never
be your weakness.  Armour yourself
in it, and it will never be used to hurt you”
(George R. R. Martin).



Great Picks

Submitted by Abdel on Sun, 2013-04-28 13:15.

I really appreciate the possibilities to enrich classroom discussion around issues of identity. The Cookie piece is interesting because it talks about expectations and code switching. I'm curious about how you handle a class discussion like that, especially when you have a diverse environment and everyone might not feel empowered to critically examine identity that relates to race. 

Identity and Genre

Submitted by tbaker on Sun, 2013-04-28 13:18.

I really appreciate your post about the value of personal writing and identity and the role of these in the classroom. I recently worked with Rosie Reed, a Bay Area Writing Project TC, who was presenting about some work she was doing with her classes in which they were reading poetry and prose by Sandra Cisneros as mentor texts, and then writing about their own lives, first in prose, and then recasting the same incident, moment or idea as poetry. Students then reflected on what each genre afforded them as writers.
I wonder if students might be interested in either recasting some of these personal essays as poetry, or reading some poems from TBTW about identity in order to talk about "what we talk about when we talk about identity."

Inspiration for Introducing Ourselves

Submitted by Laurie on Sun, 2013-04-28 13:23.

Tricia, your blog inspired me to use one of these mentor texts as a means of getting my students to introduce themselves to each other at the beginning of the school year, as well as a self-inquiry of how they perceive themselves.  An additional interesting getting-to-know-you activity I learned from another teacher is the use of black and white photos of each student's favorite physical feature, such as their nose, hair, toes, etc.  I would love to combine both of these ideas: a writing piece about identity and a small photo of their favorite physical feature.  I think this would make a beautiful display in the classroom and a wonderful opportunity to create a classroom community from the very start of the year as well as validate students' sense of identity, place, and cultural background.