Sara Ahmed is an educator who I am fortunate to call a friend. As much as I value her friendship, I value her role as a mentor to me even more. Her two books Upstanders: How to Engage Middle School Hearts and Minds with Inquiry (co-authored with Harvey Daniels) and Being the Change: Lessons and Strategies to Teach Social Comprehension have pushed my thinking and encouraged me to do better for the kids I learn with every day. I highly recommend reading these books and if you ever get the chance to hear Sara speak don’t miss that opportunity.
I opened this school year with her thinking in the back of my brain. One of the lessons she shared in Being the Change is an activity an Identity Web. Sara explains Identity Webs as “personal graphic tools that help us consider the many factors that shape who we are.” Middle school is definitely a time and a place where our students wrestle with their identity. I know I did. Many factors that shape who I am today can be traced to middle school. My lifelong love affair with both soccer and art were cemented in middle school. Middle school teachers I had were adults who shaped both how I act with seventh graders now and how I will never act with those same seventh graders. And I sill remember the name of my first girlfriend. I wonder what happened to her once we both left our hometown.
So the idea of leading students to recognize what or who has shaped or will shape how they view their lives and the world definitely appealed to me, so I jumped right into it. But first, I did one myself. In Being the Change, Sara strongly recommends that teachers do the work she recommends for teaching students social comprehension because “this examination is just as adults as it is for kids.” Doing the work we expect our students to do is time-consuming, but it opens our eyes to a more empathetic stance.
Here is my Identity Map:
When I was working on this, it amazed me how some of my identity came easily. Filling in the area around sports was easy. However, I realized I hesitated a great deal with the family section. I kept second-guessing what I should share. I love my family, but like many families, there are difficult memories flowing next to the wondrous memories. I wondered when it came time to share my identity web as a model for my students, how would I handle this section. Honesty drove me to be very candid about some of the difficult factors that have shaped me. It may not have helped my students write down any of the tough things on their webs, but my hope was they would quickly know that I am a person who will be very honest with them.
While my students were working on their identity webs, I had mine in my hand and looked for connections I had with my students. I sat with them at tables or on the floor and named the connections we had like reading, sports, or living most of my entire life in Central Ohio. But, I also delighted in seeing things that were very different than me. I celebrated the students who immigrated to the United States, students who loved dance, and the student who plays five, yes five, different instruments.
The time I spent chatting and connecting with the students was the second best thing I did during the first few days of school. The best thing was the next day. The students met in small groups to compare and contrast their webs. They looked for connections and delighted in finding differences. As I bounced around the room, I could see them appreciating who they were at the same time they were appreciating each other. We were learning to honor our identities.
As the year progresses, we will add to our webs and look for more ways to celebrate our own identities as well as each others’. We will also be led by the many other ideas Sara shared in Being the Change. The work will be challenging, but I am certain the communities we are creating in Room 229 will be stronger if we rise to the challenge.