Teacher resources and professional development across the curriculum

Teacher professional development and classroom resources across the curriculum

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Who Am I? Help Students Explore Their Identity

57188443 - brand new green shoes from above on asphalt with who i am sign

Being an English language learner, in middle school, was a really difficult experience. I had many questions about my identity, and who I was as an individual. This was a result of the language shift, but a culture shift played a huge role in this complex narrative that played in my head as well.

As a result of this experience, it was so important for me (the teacher) to create a safe classroom culture where students can explore, discuss and more importantly, express their identity. One of the important benefits from being able to discuss one’s identity is for students to feel confident in who they are as individuals. At the same time, identity exploration in the classroom can help students to also develop an appreciation for diversity in their communities and ultimately be more empathetic for others.

A teacher can help to facilitate an activity in the classroom that focuses on identity expression by using prompts to get the conversation started. For example: ask students to explore some theme questions that deal with identity, such as “Who am I?” “What do I care about?” “What do I want others to know about me?”.

One of the hardest things for many of us to answer is “Who am I?” Help students explore this question by having them do an Ingredients of Me activity. We did this in my class, and my students’ answers looked a bit like this. This activity helped my students explore what they care about, who is in their immediate life, and what they do on a daily basis.

Sharing our answers with a small group allowed students to understand who their classmates are, and what responsibilities they had outside of the classroom. However, what’s so special about this activity is that students started to see how many things in common they had with their peers. They started to have side conversations about their interests.

Exploring identity in the classroom should be practiced regularly throughout the year. The teacher can take the above activity and extend the conversation by asking other questions focused on the theme of identity and knowing oneself. Examples of questions to explore with your students include:

  • “What was the hardest thing you’ve ever encountered? How did you deal with it? Who helped you along the way?”
  • “What inspires you? What drives your motivation to keep going?”
  • “What is the most important thing in your life?”
  • “What are the most meaningful relationships you currently have in your life?”

Here are additional resources for teaching about identity:

Watch a middle school class explore the theme of identity as they read and respond to the cultural and social experiences of characters in a variety of texts in Teaching Multicultural Literature, workshop 1, “Engagement and Dialogue.” Students learn to define their own identity and share their personal stories as well. Also, in workshop 8, students examine media representations of various cultural groups and how writers and artists from those groups represent themselves in their works. Students then represent themselves using photography and essays, and exhibit their work to the community.

Another way to discuss identity is to explore how people define themselves through their possessions. In Essential Lens: Disaster and Response collection, see the “Belongings from Home” activity. Students use the activity to analyze photographs of relocated farmers during The Great Depression. Some of the encamped people have musical instruments because this is a core of their identity, for example.

It’s important for students to explore their own identities in a safe learning environment, as this will help them to be more empathetic towards their own peers. Exploring identities in the classroom can dispel stereotypes and perceptions that we often have about specific groups of people, and instead allows us to build stronger relationships with each other.

Share your experiences, as well as additional activities and resources, on this topic in the comments.

Image copyright: badmanproduction / 123RF Stock Photo

Teaching Multicultural Literature: Asian/Pacific American Heritage Month 

AmPassMaxineHongKingstonDuring Asian/Pacific American Heritage Month, explore Annenberg Learner resources to discover the rich history, cultures, and personal stories of Americans of Asian and Pacific Island heritage.

Students come to understand the plight of Japanese-Americans in World War II as they read poetry by Lawson Fusao Inada in the The Expanding Canon: Teaching Multicultural Literature in High School, “Critical Pedagogy: Abiodun Oyewole and Lawson Fusao Inada.”

New York City students explore “dual identity” by reading the literary works of authors Gish Jen, Tina Yun Lee, and Lensey Namioka. As students discuss the works, you’ll see effective teaching strategies, including peer facilitation circles, in action. See “Engagement and Dialogue” of Teaching Multicultural Literature: A Workshop for the Middle Grades.

Maxine Hong Kingston, the daughter of Chinese immigrants, writes stories that explore balancing cultural values with the expectations of American society. Read about her life and works in American Passages, “Search for Identity.”

Share additional resources in the comments.

Using Poetry to Facilitate Discussions

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Poet Nikki Grimes talks with students. Click on this picture to watch the classroom video in Teaching Multicultural Literature.

If you present poetry as if it were castor oil, no one will be interested. Instead, teachers can approach it as something fun, and also explore poetry that connects to the students and their lives (as opposed to choosing poetry that they feel “should” be studied).” – Nikki Grimes, in Teaching Multicultural Literature

Poetry is a type of genre with which many students have a hard time engaging. In fact, it’s also a genre that many teachers struggle to teach, as a result of its complexity and form. I, for one, am one of those teachers. Helping students to decipher lines, tropes, and the meaning of poems, while at the same time keeping the lesson engaging was a struggle for me. Consequently, I was a little worried before the start of a poetry unit that my students would be disengaged from the lesson. As a result, I decided to ask students to bring songs, lyrics, or poems that they enjoyed and that conveyed a special message or meaning to them.

To my great surprise, while many students opted to bring song lyrics, a large number of them shared poems that they liked and that resonated with them. One particular student shared Maya Angelou’s “Phenomenal Woman.” As she read it, she started tearing up making for a very emotional read.

I asked her about what made her tear up. She answered me with the following, and I will never forget it:

“We’re always put down by society, men, and sometimes those who love us. It’s why I have this on my mirror, it gives me strength every day to walk into the world as a black woman.”

Maya Angelou’s poem resonated with my student and many students who heard it that day, because it touched on what it means to be a woman of colour in society. The poem challenges traditional notions of beauty constructed by society and elevates the beauty of a woman to which we can all relate.

For this lesson I learned three things.

  1. Never underestimate the interest of students in a certain subject area. It might not be a popular subject or theme or unit, but what students might share may allow us to get to know them and understand them.
  2. Poetry, just like literature, has the power to start an open conversation about issues that students care about and that directly touch students’ lives.
  3. By giving students a choice to bring their own examples, I opened room for discussions about topics that are relevant to them. Our particular conversation taught my students about what feminism means and that everyone, not just women, shares a responsibility in advocating for women’s rights.

Facilitating a conversation by teaching poetry began with sharing selections and samples. To help my students start the conversations, I asked them: Why did you choose the piece? What was so special about it? What resonated with you? From there on it’s crucial to build on that conversation through more questioning, inquiry, analysis, and reflections.

In Teaching Multicultural Literature, workshop 2, “Engagement and Dialogue,” read an interview with writer Nikki Grimes about teaching poetry to students. Also explore methods of teaching poetry to help students engage in the work. Find strategies for helping students to connect with the texts they read, and instructions for how to host an open mic event with students.

The most important thing to remember is to enjoy the experience of teaching poetry and learning with and from students.

Multicultural Literature Helps Middle Schoolers with Search for Identity

TeachMultiLitAs immigration reform is debated in the halls of Congress and in communities across the nation, now is a good time to shine a spotlight on the contributions that immigrants are making to American culture and commerce. Annenberg Learner offers dozens of resources for teaching and learning about immigrant experiences, but in honor of Asian-Pacific American Heritage Month, I’m going to hone in on some strategies for teaching multicultural literature. The workshop series Teaching Multicultural Literature: A Workshop for the Middle Grades demonstrates how teachers across the country are using literature to engage students in reading and responding to the work of writers such as Gish Jen, Tina Yun Lee and Lemsey Namioka.

The works that you will see students exploring in Workshop 1, for example, focus on the theme of dual-identity and the challenges of trying to fit into a new culture while honoring family heritage. These themes are a perfect fit for middle grade students who are often struggling to form and express their own identities.

For example, students will relate warmly to Gish Gen’s character Mona Chang from the story “What Means Switch” who was “ad-libbing [her] way through eighth grade.” As teacher Carol O’Donnell points out, “Junior high school students are really travelers between worlds. On one hand, they’re very young children who need a lot of nurturing and support and encouragement. On the other hand, they’re young adults who really need an incredible amount of challenge and independence and pushing.”

O’Donnell uses poetry, short stories and biography to give students insight into the authors’ experiences with being perceived as “other.” The literature also serves as a springboard to discussion of their own experiences with identity issues, bias, and self-discovery. O’Donnell uses structured Peer Facilitation Circles as a strategy to help students make deep explorations of the readings and appreciate these authors’ voices as part of the American story. In the Workshop 1 video, you will see students who take responsibility for their own learning and show genuine respect for their peers’ thoughts and opinions.

The work of many Asian-Pacific American writers is featured throughout the eight Teaching Multicultural Literature workshops. You’ll find content and strategies that fit your students’ interests and needs. When you introduce these writers to your students, some will see mirror images of themselves; some will see worlds they didn’t know existed. How do you use the richness of multicultural literature to engage your students?

 

Read and Write Poetry to Explore Identity

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Carol O’Donnell’s students discuss dual identities, being caught between two worlds, in Teaching Multicultural Literature, workshop 1, “Engagement and Dialogue.” Poetry written by Naomi Shihab Nye is used to introduce the concept of exploring one’s own identity.

Naomi Shihab Nye was born in Missouri to an American mother and Palestinian father. She has lived in old Jerusalem and San Antonio, Texas and traveled to the Middle East and Asia.  Her work incorporates the voices and perspectives of Mexican Americans and Arab Americans. Nye is inspired by small things and everyday events, and she journals “because I wanted to remember everything. The quilt, the cherry tree, the creek. The neat whop of a baseball rammed perfectly with a bat. My father’s funny Palestinian stories.”  See more about Nye here and read her poem Half-and-Half here. Use her story and poetry to inspire your students to think about their own identities and what it means to be part of a multicultural community- whether your definition of community is as small as a classroom or as big as the world.

Nye says in an ALAN review: Anyone who feels poetry is an alien or ominous force should consider the style in which human beings think. “How do you think,” I ask my students. “Do you think in complete, elaborate sentences? In fully developed paragraphs with careful footnotes? Or in flashes and burst of images, snatches of lines leaping one to the next, descriptive fragments, sensory details?” We think in poetry. But some people pretend poetry is far away.