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  • Writer's pictureKate Schenck

Understanding Identity as Student Well-Being

This year I am lucky to teach freshmen again. Working at an all-girls high school, I am honored to join them on the first steps of their high school journey and their first day of school on our campus. I love the first day of school with freshmen; everyone walks into my room quietly and a bit nervously, looking around at everyone else, scanning the room for a seat and for familiar faces, wondering who they might befriend. Per human nature, I know they are quietly making a million judgements about so many things--me as their teacher, our classroom space, our school, the cafeteria food, their schedule…but most importantly, they are making assessments and judgements of their peers, and possibly judging themselves in relation to their classmates’ looks, style, and intelligence.

It is in these early moments of the school year that my students’ curiosity about others and their stories is most acute, and therefore I hope to seize this opportunity to begin exploring our identities and our assumptions about the people around us.

Last year I began researching how well-being competencies such as resilience, growth mindset, empathy, and voice could be explicitly taught and assessed in my English curriculum. This year, I hope to expand this work to include identity as a competency that also falls within the larger well-being rubric. As I progress through this research with my English curriculum, I have been asking myself the question: is identity work also well-being work? And how is understanding our own identity a stepping-stone towards larger social justice competencies, such as racial literacy?

Here is what I am thinking: The inner world of a human--our heart, soul, and spirit-- is where our sense of well-being comes from. To explore our heart and soul, students need to know who they are and how their origin story has shaped them. The care and understanding of our story as being both individual and part of a larger collective and community (such as our race or gender) can only happen if a student can first look inward and understand that their story is their own and a result of a million influences, such as their family, their culture, and their race. If students receive listening and respect from others as they explore and tell that story, they can then give these same gifts to others. And if, during this exploration, they have a positive view of themselves (see Teaching Tolerance Standards) and they know they can take pride in their identity without perceiving or treating anyone else as inferior, then they can participate in our public conversation with care, tolerance, and curiosity. If my students are curious about their own identities, they can also appreciate the complexity of other people, as other people are just as complicated as they are. I know I write often about student well-being, but in this case, understanding identity also feels like a life skill; when students develop fluency with concepts such as identity, culture, race, gender, socioeconomic class, and religion through literature and the writing process, they will be prepared to self-advocate and have the courage to speak up for both themselves and others, building towards competencies in social justice and action.

So as we begin our freshman journey in English class, I want to walk with my students as we explore our identity through literature, and an essential part of identity is our name. I am always struck by the microagression that people, especially white people like myself, make by mispronouncing a student’s name. Exploring, discussing, and pronouncing a person’s name often reveals much about their family and origin story, and it therefore seems like a wonderful starting point for freshmen to also get to know each other and make the connections that pronouncing someone’s name correctly is the first step to understanding their identity. As if by magic, when I was planning this weekend, our school’s Director of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, Estela Ayala, posted a beautiful video by an organization called the “My Name, My Identity Initiative” in which students tell the story of their names. As we watch this video of students telling their name stories, we will also read “My Name” by Sandra Cisneros as a jumping off point to start exploring our own identities. I hope to then have my freshmen make similar videos, compiling the foundations of our classroom community.

In addition, in my research on identity in the classroom, I found a beautiful activity by the University of Houston’s Diversity and Inclusion department that I adopted for my freshmen. In this drawing activity, students will “build their house” by labeling the parts of their house with aspects of their identity, such as their home language, their family, their values, their interests, and their passions. Hopefully, we can then discuss how our identity is multifaceted and complex, but even though our houses are all “built differently,” they shelter us just the same.

My plan is to present my writing and well-being rubric to the girls with an additional identity competency this year:

I included the draft of the racial literacy competency to show that we are always drafting and planning and hoping…although I do not consider this competency ready yet. I hope to continue researching, reading, and writing about what competencies should be part of a well-being and writing rubric. But as we progress through the year, analyzing our texts, we will assess our characters in this identity competency, which will then (hopefully) lead to discussions of culture, race, gender, and even sexual identity. I would love to hear feedback about this identity competency, and if this feels like a starting point on the journey towards crafting a curriculum that supports students as they explore their hearts and minds. I am excited to write about this research throughout this school year, as well as work closely with Estela in her role as Director of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, as we know the foundation of belonging and inclusion on our campus is in our curriculum.

Maybe in these first days of school, in these moments of seeing new classmates for the first time, my freshmen can practice seeing more than one aspect of their classmates' identity, appreciating how complicated we are as people. And is this a step towards acceptance? And if we are more accepting of others, can we be more accepting of ourselves, fostering our well-being?

Kate Schenck is a collector of pigments and spices, dreamer, and builder of tables for lesser heard voices.


University of Houston Center for Diversity and Inclusion:

Social Justice Standards, The Teaching Tolerance Anti-Bias Framework:

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