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.

 

 

 

 

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