Teaching Identity

Teaching and discussing identity regarding race, nationality, gender, or sexual orientation are always sticky subjects regardless of if you’re in the classroom or not.  People tend to be timid around the topics that could possibly offend or upset. To me, it’s important to think of the word “possibly” from that statement.  That leaves the possibility, and I think the more likelihood, that you won’t upset or offend if you are tactful with your words.  For me in my classroom, I always try to be as honest as possible with these topics.  Most of my students are Hispanic or African American and they always have questions and want to talk about race.  I know that these topics may also be uncomfortable for people to talk about, but I truly believe just ripping off the Band-aid is important because kids have questions and want answers (I just listened to a This American Life podcast about this – shout out to Katrina).  

 

Concerning the questions of if you can teach identity in literature without discussing politics or social justice, I think it’s possible, however, I think it’s slightly irresponsible to do so.  Thinking about the novels I have taught, or just teaching English in general, the topics in the novels lend themselves to open discussion about life because of the nature of literature.  Even when we get a little “off topic”, having these discussions give students an education about the world they live in; it would be irresponsible to not talk about these things with them.  

 

Specific novels that come to mind that I teach that deal with race, nationality, and gender identity are The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, The Giver, and The Book Thief.  Race identity stand out particularly in ATDPTI and The Book Thief.  For Junior on the Rez, he struggles with his identity as a Spokane Indian who chooses to “abandon” his Indian culture by going to a white school off the reservation in order to better himself by getting a better education and not have to use the same textbooks that he knows for a fact that his own mother used when she was in school.  Not only does he feel like an outsider at his new school, Rearden, because he’s the only Indian, but he is also alienated on the Rez because all the other Indians look at him as a betrayer.  With this novel, this lends to political discussion as well as nationality since we can talk about the politics of both our country and the treatment of Indians by our government, but also the politics of the Indian community as well.  

 

In The Book Thief, we have the main character, Liesel, who is the foster child to a German family during World War II who is hiding a Jewish man in their basement.  She befriends all the boys her age on her street, her best friend being, Rudy, a German boy who is obsessed with the American track star, Jesse Owens.  Naturally, race, nationality, and politics must be discussed with this novel.  This would be a case where not talking about it would be inappropriate, especially since I teach middle school and a lot of context is lost in reading if students don’t understand these issues.  It is also important since many of my students, even though they live in a city where one whole neighborhood is predominantly Jewish and we have Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashana off in our calendar, are confused about the Jewish religion and ethnicity.  They don’t see why they have been historically discriminated against or how you could even tell who was Jewish or not Jewish.  They ask me about this frequently during our Holocaust unit.  It’s important to bring up these issues and differences so they can make the connections in their own lives – why have black people and Hispanic people been discriminated against?  There is no good or legitimate reason, and these ideas need to be discussed in class because one day or another, students sadly will have a brush with discrimination in some way, shape, or form.

I had a tougher time thinking about novels that I teach that discuss gender or sexual orientation, especially at the middle school level.  In The Giver, gender is important because everything is so controlled.  When Jonas stops taking his magic pills that take away any feelings he would have, he starts to see these differences, but the bigger theme of this novel I think lends itself to discuss nationality and race more than gender because the government of their community is so overbearing.  I haven’t taught The House on Mango Street, but I think it would be a good read for middle school to discuss gender identity and race identity since Esperanza is a young Hispanic girl who is trying to navigate her way through the world of being Latina and being a Latina girl.  I think my students would relate to the culture in this book very well.  Other books that came to mind that would work with this lense as well, but for high school, are The Catcher in the Rye or The Perks of Being a Wallflower.

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Teaching Identity Politics: Guiding students to a genuine sense of awareness

In order to introduce students to issues relating to identity, I would have them read the novel Esperanza Rising by Pam Munoz Ryan. Many different types of identity are addressed in the novel: class, race, gender, and nationality. Students would be drawn in by the exciting events of the story line, which has the feel of a movie packed with drama, action, and the potential for romance. Esperanza is a dynamic character who must endure many trials in order to discover her true potential in the new life that she and her family choose to live. In Esperanza Rising, Esperanza and her family flee Mexico due to tragedy and hardship brought on by political corruption. Once in America, Esperanza must work hard and be strong for her family, leaving behind a memory of affluence in her home country.

Esperanza Rising is a fiction novel that could be the narrative of many people who immigrate into America, escaping oppression and/or extreme conditions in their country of origin. Yet even with so much freedom here, there are still issues, controversial subjects, and hotly contested topics, many of which do not stay in the home. Instead, we see them everywhere we look, on the news, in court, and during political debates. For example, what a couple, whether they be heterosexual or homosexual, does in their home is nobody’s business. Yet, this has been a huge political topic for years, resulting in each state voting whether to allow gay marriage to be legal. The same issue arises regarding abortion. Women should be allowed to choose what is best for their own bodies, but again politics, and even religion, become involved and stifle our feelings of freedom and our rights as citizens of America.

I feel that once you teach students, or anyone, about identity and the politics associated with it, social justice is an eventual step. Let me explain why I feel this way. Identity politics and social justice go hand in hand due to the realization that one does have a great deal of freedom in regards to who one wants to be. With the freedom to be whoever you are, he/she will express him/herself, which leads to self advocacy, as well as a potential to advocate for the rights of others. When an individual or a group feels that his/her rights, or the rights of a group, are not being respected, then social justice will come about. This can happen in many ways, but the key is to be heard.

Although individuals can choose to be apolitical in their own lives, the issues of identity in the public sphere tend to become political. Those who are opposed to the rights that others are trying to hold onto, trying to create, or are trying to make aware to others, the opposed have their own rights. They create their own identity politics, but their mission is one of restriction of freedoms and rights. All citizens in the American society have a right to be heard.

For example, even though I am a white man, I can advocate for the rights of other groups in our society. If I were to teach a unit on identity, with one of the sections focusing on feminism, I would make the point above clear to my students from the onset. I would state that although I am not a woman, I can still teach literature that reflects the views of feminism and advocate for the rights of women. I could select sections of Jane Eyre to build a strong case that Jane as a character is unique, in that she is strong, for a man or woman, and that she chooses an untraditional path for the majority of the novel. Jane is a character that gets into situations that would be difficult for anyone to handle, regardless of gender. It is only at the very end of the novel where Jane takes on a more traditional role in regards to family.

It is possible that my own gender could get in the way of teaching literature that deals with identity, but the best approach is to be aware of the self. I would be sure that I am always conscious of my craft, which includes practices such as mindfulness. By being aware of how one presents material to his/her students, the main points of identity, and why such issues are important, can be carefully laid out and received by one’s students. The hope is that it will allow his/her students to become aware of diversity and to be able to genuinely participate in our democratic society.

Teaching Identity: Difficult But Worth It

Identity politics–defined by Leitch as “a politics of difference firmly based on some fixed or definable feature(s) of identity” (26)–is a topic which comes up naturally in some form or another when reading literature with high schoolers. Not only is identity a ripe topic for adolescents, who are constantly grappling with what they are and are not, but it is also a focus in much of the works we read in high school. In Jane Eyre, for example, as Sandra M. Gilbert would affirm, our protagonist completes a “pilgrimage” to womanhood, ultimately realizing her identity and agency as a woman (Gilbert). Nonetheless, discussion of identity politics–because of the impassioned views it may incite–must be framed and guided with caution.

In my mind, a person’s concept of his or her identity makes him or her relate to certain “groups” of people more than others and take up certain political or social causes more fervently than others. I think that A.) one’s identity can be comprised of many categories, associations, and experiences and B.) the identifiers which correlate most strongly to either powerfulness or powerlessness in society stand out more in a person’s concept of identity. Jane Eyre, for example, seems to be powerless in the first half of the novel because of her status as an underprivileged orphan girl and powerful in the second half of the novel because of her transformation into a fully conscious, self-reliant woman. Therefore, I believe, Jane’s personal politics would be based most on the identity categories of class and gender; class and gender correlate respectively to Jane’s struggle and triumph.

As the very act of asserting one’s identity seems to me to be necessarily political in nature–one is taking a stand for oneself–I think it is difficult to discuss identity as an apolitical topic. Additionally, not all possible categories of identity hold equal political power in a society, so inequalities will naturally be discussed alongside social realities. Consequently, issues of social justice–even calls to action–could arise in a classroom. Although I don’t think it is appropriate for teachers to suggest specific political actions or candidates, I do think that is is appropriate to discuss what social justice could look like for different categories of identity.

By both anticipating discord before holding such discussions and giving students some scripted phrases for how to validate others’ opinions while respectfully disagreeing with them in non-emotional language, teachers may make such conversations possible in the classroom. I would also consider incorporating a database mini research project into the pre-discussion activities to help students discuss facts as opposed to biases. Before discussing social realities and issues of social justice in Jane Eyre, for example, students could research the economic and political status of women in Victorian era England or the treatment of orphans during that time period. This could help to give the fictional world of Jane Eyre a firm foothold in the gender and socioeconomic realities of its time.

Despite attempted awareness of my own identity politics, I am sure that my own identity as a white, middle-class woman impacts the way I teach feminist theory. I may not be as instinctually aware, for example, of the fragmented nature of the Feminist movement (Leitch 25-26) or of the political advantage I might have in being relatively “mainstream” (25-26). Also, as a woman who already identifies as feminist, I tend to easily get on board with the theories of many feminists, so I have to work to read such works with a critical eye. Fortunately, though, I think that I am open to switching lenses as need be, so I don’t feel locked into any one way of reading.

Although aspects of my identity can sometimes be mental roadblocks for my enjoyment of certain canonical works of literature, I would say that literary theory enables me to access and think critically about most of what I read. Being, as Judith Fetterley terms it, a “resisting reader” (qtd. In Leitch 25), I don’t need to feel oppressed as a reader and I can continue to be me, even if I am not clearly reflected as an agent of power in the text. Just as Jane Eyre journeyed to find her place in the world, readers can peer through the lenses of others’ identities to strengthen their own.

Works Cited

Brontë, Charlotte. Jane Eyre. 1847. Rpt. in Case Studies in Contemporary Criticism: Jane Eyre. 2nd ed. Ed. Beth Newman. Boston, MA: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2015. Print. 21-437.

Gilbert, Sandra M. “Plain Jane’s Progress.” 1977. Rpt. in Case Studies in Contemporary Criticism: Jane Eyre. 2nd ed. Ed. Beth Newman. Boston, MA: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2015. Print. 560-586.

Leitch, Vincent B., William E. Cain, Laurie Finke, Barbara Johnson, John McGowan, T. Denean Sharpley-Whiting, and Jeffrey J. Williams, eds. The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. 2nd ed. New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Company, 2010. Print.

Teaching Identity Through Literature

Teaching about identity politics is a difficult task for any teacher and very difficult when this discussion is with 8th graders in a predominately white (96.6%) upper middle class (average household income is $73, 053) community. Almost all of my students are similar in race, class, ethnicity, nationality, and culture and are similar to me as their teacher in these aspects. My students also enjoy the same music, sports teams, movies, television shows, clothes, and literature. If you were to observe my students you would notice the boys all wear $300 sneakers with jeans and hoodies and the girls wear Uggs and leggings and Vera Bradley backpacks, it is difficult to distinguish one student from the other.

However, like with all social groups there are small pockets of social groups that are being oppressed with in it and it is important to help them find their identity  which we can do through literature. Also important is to open the majorities’ eyes to the fact that there are other people in the world that don’t feel, look and act as they do. I always explain in the beginning of the school year that I have spina bifida and personally always had a difficult time with identity because of it. I have never really identified as having a disability or with others that have disabilities (when I went to a spina bifida support group once I felt bad for ever feeling sorry for myself and never went back) I also have a difficult time identifying with my peers who have never struggled with physical adversities. I have also always looked different having to wear leg and back braces, walking with a limp  I remember in middle school reading Judy Blume’s Deenie about a girl diagnosed with scoliosis (that I also have because many with spina bifida do) and for the first time not feeling so alone. Being in the minority in a social group is difficult, finding one’s identity is also, and trying to do so in the face of adversity is often impossible.

In the last two years I have seen the impossible happen with the acceptance of gay and transgender students in the classroom. This happens when the majority has been influenced by the beliefs, opinions, and views of a minority and in this situation the only way to do so is by raising consciousness. Raising consciousness in this situation is simply by students being comfortable enough in their environment and supported both at home and at school to be their authentic selves. In order to achieve this we need to ensure a safe, open, understanding, accepting, supportive, respectful, learning environment for all students.

At the middle school level one way to teach is this through literature. I have done this in my own classroom through reading the book The Misfits by James Howe. This novel revolves around a group of friends, one that is gay, which opens up a conversation in the classroom that does not often get discussed. This is the link to the book description and discussion questions. https://www.teachervision.com/tv/printables/simonschuster/Misfits_TG.pdf

One resource that is particularly helpful when teaching this book and identity politics is http://www.GLSEN.org, the web site of GLSEN (the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network) which has a “Create Your Own School Climate Survey” as well as state and school district anti- bullying laws, educator resources such as GLSEN programs and lesson plans by grade.

In class we discuss how to create a safe school environment for LGBT students, this is a great resource for support.

http://www.glsen.org/sites/default/files/glsen_familiav2014.pdf

My school has not done much as a whole other than create “Safe Zone” posters for any teacher who wants to put one in their room to nonverbally communicate to LGBT students that they are a safe person to talk to if they need to. However, the students within the classroom have been more accepting now than years passed. I believe there has been a shift and students are more aware that there are teens that are gay or that identify as a different gender than they were born as. Even five years ago this was not the case, it would have still been very difficult for a student to identify as gay or transgender in their social group.

After doing some research it is a little disheartening how little my school does for LGBT students compared to other middle schools. I know at the high school level there is more support offered, at the middle school level it is really not discussed at all. This must be difficult and isolating for students who already feel so much in the minority. Hopefully by incorporating other strategies students may feel more connected. For example, other ways to teach identity politics could be keeping a variety of literature in the classroom library. My favorites are Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Sáenz, I’ll Give You the Sun by Jandy Nelson, Openly Straight by Bill Konigsberg, Becoming Nicole: The Transformation of an American Family by Amy Ellis Nutt, Some Assembly Required: The Not-So-Secret Life of a Transgender Teen by Arin Andrews, Rethinking Normal: A Memoir in Transition by Katie Rain Hill, Redefining Realness: My Path to Womanhood, Identity, Love & So Much More by Janet Mock.

There is also a lesson on http://www.GLSEN.org that I love titled Using Literature As a Tool to End Name Calling which uses Bibliotherapy, or “the guided use of books to help solve problems”. The lesson’s objective is “to introduce students to literature that provides realistic and thought-provoking depictions of name-calling and bullying, to increase students’ identification with targets of bullying, and to develop their sense of empathy toward others, and to help students identify safe and empowering ways to cope with and respond to name-calling and bullying in their lives”. This lesson can be used with a number of pieces of literature, I use it with The Misfits but the lesson online uses it with Judy Blume’s Blubber. However, this could be used at the high school level when reading about racism and/or feminism as well. Although racism, feminism, sexual orientation, and gender identity can all me uncomfortable and controversial topics (especially to teach in the middle school level) they are important when teaching identity through literature.

 

 

 

 

Identity Politics in the Classroom

Introducing and teaching complex, and sometimes controversial, issues relating to race, gender, sexual orientation, and nationality can be a difficult task for a teacher. The politics of the classroom don’t always allow for a feasible approach to such topics. With that in mind, I strongly believe, as teachers, it is our responsibility to not only educate students but also foster their growth as individuals and develop caring, open-minded members of society. Finding creative ways to incorporate issues of identity, such as through literary criticism, can provide students with a different perspective on identity. It will also provide opportunities to discover identity issues that exist, relate to characters that may struggle with these identities, and also develop and understanding and open-mindedness. Through introducing identity issues, students are given the opportunity to develop an understanding of social justice, which is very important to teach in a society that still consists of racism, discrimination, and a distorted view of what it considers different.

Despite society’s constant changing of norms and opinions, politics still exist in every aspect of our lives. Identity, just like everything else can be very political. Discussing issues involving identity such as race, gender, and sexual orientation can be politically driven and can often be influenced by the views of teachers and schools. I teach at a school that over the past few years enrolled several transgender students. The transition was difficult in the beginning but the school community took an approach that promotes equal rights for all students and establishes a caring and accepting environment where students are treated equally despite their gender preference. At first it was difficult for some students to accept but through the establishing of clubs like Gay Straight Alliance and teaching principles of social justice, transgender students are viewed as students rather than by their gender preference. I think it’s crucial to be able to separate our own personal beliefs, opinions, and gender preferences in order to provide students with an unbiased perspective on literature and issues of identity. This is a difficult challenge that is easier to accept when we personally agree with the philosophy of what we are teaching. For example, I would find it easier to teach feminist literary criticism compared to psychoanalytical criticism. As a professional though, It is my job to provide students with an unbiased perspective on both perspectives and allow them to understand that they are both lenses we can use to analyze literature and let them construct their own opinions on which we prefer.

I strongly believe that the culture of a school plays a major role in fostering open-mindedness and acceptance when discussing various issues relating to identity. Given my school has already established a culture that allows for discussion of issues of identity, I feel comfortable using literature to introduce and discuss issues relating to identity. Feminist literary criticism, for example, would allow me to teach my students to read texts through a lens that allows for understanding of the philosophy and perspectives of feminism in the literature we read. Feminist criticism allows for the understanding that the relationship between men and women in society is often unequal. Through this perspective we can think critically and analyze various aspects of a text like the gender of the author or reader, portrayal of female characters, and stereotypes of women. Although our society has come a long way, this inequality between women and men still exists. Using texts like Jane Eyre, we can explore literature through a feminist critical lens and grasp an understanding of the inequality that existed in Victorian England. Reading Jane Eyre through a feminist lens allows for understanding of Jane’s journey through a society that consisted of many patriarchal obstacles. Jane exists in an oppressive society that undervalues woman and marriage exists as their only path to social mobility. Analyzing the female character in the novel also sheds light to their roles in society. Jane is a governess, which had ambiguous status at the time. Miss Temple, who is described as with the upmost qualities, also knows her role in society and dares not speak up to Mr. Brocklehurst. Adele is a perfect example of society’s hand in the construction of a woman. She displays a sense of instilled vanity and what is expected of a woman. Through these aspects and perspective Bronte allows us to take into consideration of the role of women and the inequality that accompanies it.

In teaching my student to analyze texts through a feminist perspective I would incorporate activities like those of Deborah Appleman. In doing so I would teach my students to think about the portrayal of male and female characters in novels, their relationships, and also the attitude of the author. Learning to analyze a text through different perspectives, such as a feminist criticism of Jane Eyre, allows students to think critically and uncover identity issues that exist. Issues relating to identity are very difficult to navigate in a classroom but through literature I believe we can establish an outlet of discovery and understanding.