Your identity is your most valuable possession. Protect it.
Figure 1 Identity X-Rays Adapted from Cultural X-Rays (Short, 2009)
The identities that we carry with us matter more than ever. They decide the spaces we are and are not allowed to enter. They decide which borders we can cross and which we cannot. They are a predictor of college graduation, incarceration, and even health later in life. Identities matter. As educators, we have an ethical responsibility to make sure that our classrooms include, respect, and give voice to the many identities that enter them.
Children bring into classrooms lived experiences, meaning-making and communicative practices, sets of skills, and customs that assist them in making sense of the social world. Unfortunately, our education system perceives these assets children bring in as deficits (González, Moll, & Amanti, 2005). It is no secret that this neglect of our children’s cultural, social, and emotional assets is no longer holding up in non-White, linguistically-diverse, and low-socioeconomic classrooms. Most upsetting is the detrimental effects the literacy practices being pushed off on children in schools have on the learning and developing identities of the children our system serves (Delpit & Dowdy, 2008; Gay, 2010; Lee, 2000).
When we enter the classroom this new school year, students and educators will bring with them diverse cultural groups, lived experiences, values, languages, dispositions, and social contexts. These may or may not align with those privileged in schools. This is important to consider because we cannot expect children from diverse backgrounds to be motivated to engage in learning from perspectives and lived experiences that do not connect with their own.
As Gay (2002) put it, “When academic knowledge and skills are situated within the lived experiences and frames of reference of students, they are more personally meaningful” (p. 106). As a result, children will be interested in and absorb the learning more completely. In other words, when children can connect to the experiences, history, and people presented in the teaching and learning, motivation to engage in them will increase.
If we want to begin connecting with, learning from, and authentically interacting with the children that enter our classrooms, we have to explore the many identities they bring with them. If not, we cannot build on them. We have to set conditions early in the year to get to know our children beyond a surface level and continue that curiosity about them throughout the year, as they grow, change, and expand their perspectives.
Freire (1998) posed the question, “Why not establish an ‘intimate’ connection between knowledge considered basic to any school curriculum and knowledge that is the fruit of the lived experience of these students as individuals?” (p. 36). This “intimate connection” requires a reconsideration of the way we build on the identities in our classrooms and use our children’s assets to inform the teaching and learning. In order to do that, we must get to know these identities beyond a surface level.
So what theoretical ideas ground identity-based curricula? I turn to the work of Culturally Relevant Pedagogy (Gay, 2010; Ladson-Billings, 2009; Lee, 1997), Cultural Modeling (Lee, 2001), Funds of Knowledge (Gonzales, Moll, & Amanti, 2005), Funds of Identity (Estaban-Guitart & Moll, 2014; Estaban-Guitart, 2016) and Biography-Driven Instruction (Herrera, 2010). All of which are grounded in the beliefs that:
This past spring, I taught a graduate literacy course, Making the Literacy Connection: Language to Reading, and we explored ways of tapping into our children's Funds of Identity. Using Esteban-Guitart and Moll's (2014) five major types of Funds of Identity, we compiled an Identity Inventory that could be used with students of all ages. The questions position us as educators to get to know our students beyond a surface level and to begin setting conditions in our classrooms so children see their lives reflected in the teaching and learning. Since then, I have edited, added, and thought more deeply about this as a tool. I hope that this inventory can be a starting point for you to think about the types of questions you might ask to get to know students and their families.
Exploring Students' Scripts Through Visual Autobiographies
Each of use carries with us “a database of stored emotional memories that influence the way we think, feel, and behave,” which are known as “scripts” (Jennings, 2015, p. 60). Getting to know the scripts our children bring into the classroom with them is crucial if we want to build a community where they see their lives reflected. The following multimodal literacy and language experience opens a space to explore our many scripts and identities.
Figure 2 Sample of a Visual Autobiography.
Digital resources to create a digital visual autobiography:
Tatum (2000) noted that identity is complex, shaped by historical, social, political, and cultural contexts. She further acknowledged that the answer to the question, “Who am I?” is one that “depends in large part on who the world around me says I am” (p. 9). Some of our identities we choose, some we are born into, and others are given to us without our permission. This experience positions us to think about the many "masks" we wear.
Figure 3 Identity Masks from the Assembly of Expanded Perspectives on Learning Conference