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Seen, Valued, Heard: Honoring Identity to Establish Community

Over the last few years, I have made several identity webs. I’ve made some at conferences, one as part of my creative writing program, others for myself, and a couple for demonstration purposes. Here’s what I’ve discovered: they always are a little different, and I always remember or realize something about myself that’s been a surprise and a seed for a story. 

At conferences, I’ve appreciated creating and sharing identity webs because of what we find out quickly about each other. Presenters have asked small groups of participants to share their webs, and the conversations built connections that would not have happened otherwise. Yes, we can ask questions and try to find similarities and differences, but identity webs lead quickly to what people prioritize and value in their lives. 

Facing History, a website and resource for teaching students about the past in order to create more equity in the future, describes identity webs as tools for considering the many factors that shape who we are, not only as individuals, but also as community members. If you haven’t ever tried making an identity web, you might consider making one now. As an example, I am offering my most recent one, one that I made as a mentor for students who were participating in a virtual writing class.

I leaned on the questions from both the Facing Hard History website, as well as from Sara K. Ahmed’s book, Being the Change, and I tried to answer them in my multi-color notebook page:

  • Who am I?
  • What are my family connections?
  • What do I love?
  • What are key events that have impacted me?
  • What do I do every day?
  • What words might others use to describe you that you might or might not use to describe yourself?

The Importance of Identity Webs for Relationship Building and Supporting Students

I shared my web with my students on the first day I was meeting many of them. We were using a Zoom platform, and there were eleven of them. I share these conditions because some of you may be facing similar circumstances soon. The students asked questions about some of my web. They wanted to know about the key events, and they wanted to know about my daughters. They also related to me as a dog lover, and they asked me about what I liked to cook. 

When I asked students to make identity webs of their own, many of them used my format, but others were more creative than I am, using pictures and representational art. 

Donald Graves, a leader in writing workshop instruction, suggests that teachers should know at least ten things about their students before teaching them. Identity webs lead to understanding students quickly and effectively while also leading to authentic questions and conversations. Looking at these two sample webs, I have inroads for conversations about small spaces, moving, dogs, siblings, family gatherings. Another student whose web is not pictured here shared about her nervousness and anxiety with new situations. Her web led to a conversation about how we could make the online learning platform and week of virtual writing camp feel safe and important. Without the web, I might have figured those aspects out, but it would have taken longer. Through the web, I gained immediate insights into a child’s insecurities and therefore could promptly address them and support her. 

Using Identity Webs for Idea Generation

Because one of the branches of my web focused on key events, I had a few story ideas right there for myself. Students loved telling each other about their own key events, and they realized that these could turn into personal narratives. Additionally, they had tapped into the power of verbal rehearsal since they told each other about those key events. One child had been bitten by a dog, a story she told with enthusiasm, drama, and detail. As soon as she had a chance, she wrote a fabulous rendition of the dog attack — not an experience she’d want to relive, but a powerful story with high emotional impact! 

We also used our identity webs to write “Where I’m From” poems, and students could use various branches of their webs to create stanzas. Kathleen will be writing in depth about using poetry to build communities, but using George Ella Lyon’s Where I’m From poem in conjunction with identity webs to inspire students to write their own identity poems. NPR also has a collection of mentor poems to use as inspiration. When students use their identity webs as a springboard for writing, whether they write poems, narratives, or even information pieces, students are writing about something that matters to them and they are writing material that helps teachers get to know them and build relationships. This can happen regardless of the fall 2020 teaching platform, and it honors students’ lives and gives them a platform for being heard and honored. 

Using Identity Webs to Build Community

While using identity webs to get to know students and help them generate writing ideas and topics are powerful practices, identity webs also can be used for students to get to know each other, understand a variety of cultures, and practice speaking and listening skills. 

In a 2020 podcast from Dr. Sheldon Eakins of the Leading Equity Center, he interviews Kelisa Wing who offers a more interactive way for students to explore identity. Kelisa Wing is a Professional Development Specialist and has written books about equity and social justice. She suggests finding out about identities by having students interview each other, looking for common ground. “Have them interview their classmates and get to know the classmates and where they come from and who they are.”  This interview puts the onus on the interviewer to introduce and share important elements of someone else’s identity. While this activity serves several objectives including speaking and listening skills, it also helps establish common ground for students as they learn about backgrounds, cultures, and identities, all of which build cultural responsiveness in classrooms. 

Final Thoughts

When students engage in making identity webs, teachers learn many important factors that help them to understand students, not only as people, but also as writers. If identity webs are displayed in the classroom or on writing folders, they become a tool for idea generation and class conversations  throughout the year. Perhaps most important, students learn about themselves, developing their awareness of what matters to them, how they take in events and information, and how they are the same and different from the people around them. All of this information matters as we build our learning and writing communities from six feet away or from separate learning spaces. More than ever, identities matter, and more than ever, we must rise to the challenge of learning about our students, valuing them, and inspiring them to share all that matters in their worlds. 

GIVEAWAY INFO:

  • This giveaway is for a copy of each of the following books: En Comunidad: Lessons for Centering the Voices and Experiences of Bilingual Latinx Students by Carla España, Luz Yadira Herrera. Thanks to Heinemann for donating a copy for one reader. (You must have a U.S.A. mailing address — Sorry, no FPOs — to win a print copy of this book.)
  • For a chance to win this copy of En Comunidad, please leave a comment about this or any blog post in this blog series by Sunday, August 9th at 6:00 p.m. EDT. Betsy Hubbard will use a random number generator to pick the winner’s commenter number. Their name will be announced in the ICYMI blog post for this series on Monday, August 10th.
  • Please leave a valid e-mail address when you post your comment so Betsy can contact you to obtain your mailing address if you win.  From there, our contact at Heinemann will ship the book to you.  (NOTE: Your e-mail address will not be published online if you leave it in the e-mail field only.)
  • If you are the winner of the book, Betsy will email you with the subject line of TWO WRITING TEACHERS – SEEN, VALUED, HEARD. Please respond to her e-mail with your mailing address within five days of receipt. A new winner will be chosen if a response isn’t received within five days of the giveaway announcement.

Melanie Meehan View All

I am the Writing and Social Studies Coordinator in Simsbury, CT, and I love what I do. I get to write and inspire others to write! Additionally, I am the mom to four fabulous daughters and the wife of a great husband.

11 thoughts on “Seen, Valued, Heard: Honoring Identity to Establish Community Leave a comment

  1. Thanks, Melanie. This was great. I’ve used identity webs for the last two years (and made several of my own), but I haven’t always been satisfied with how I’ve used them (capitalized on them?). This gives me several more ways to approach things. I loved your ending: “and more than ever, we must rise to the challenge of learning about our students, valuing them, and inspiring them to share all that matters in their worlds.”
    I also really appreciated all the links. The Alisa Wing interview was great. Following all of the links made your entry like taking a whole workshop.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thank you for sharing the identity web. I just realized today that something I have used to get to know my students isn’t going to work this year. This will be a great replacement! I also like how it ties into speaking, listening and writing. I’m all about “getting more bang for my buck”!

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  3. Thank you for this. It is so important to allow & assist students in recognizing & bringing voice to their identities. This can not be lost in the static of all of the other “noise” we have going on in our world today.

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  4. Loved this post! I’m currently researching how to establish relationships virtually. Your insight certainly provided me with many ideas. Thanks for sharing!

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  5. Thanks for this post, Melanie. I have saved the questions in a document in the folder “Beginning of School”. I don’t know yet if I’ll be teaching in person, but this idea works well for both.

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  6. Donald Graves was a brilliant pioneer! His book Sea of Faces gets the heart of our profession – knowing each other! It is a profession rooted in human interaction. In this slice, you make it clear that the work of knowing and releasing stories can be done purposefully in an in person environment or virtually. I say, yay you, for taking it virtual, connecting Graves work with Ahmed’s work, doing it yourself and then bringing it to the kids! Great, inspirational slice, Melanie! Thank you!

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  7. Thank you for sharing how/what this looks like over Zoom as we all think about how to connect and know and build relationships with students who won’t be in the classroom. Also, I have always loved that Donald Graves tip. Really enjoying this blog series.

    Liked by 1 person

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