Last week, I wrote about getting to know students by thinking about their academic knowledge and skills, as well as their use and understanding of language. (For those of you who read that post and found time to watch Firefly Lane, how was it???) This week, I’ll shift to considering cultural and social-emotional aspects of students’ identities.
Over the last several years, I have worked with many high school students as they are writing their college essays. I have worked with students who I know well, students I meet in person, and students I only know through a virtual platform. While I am proud of all of the essays, it’s been easier to get started with the students I already know because… well, because I know them. Emotions and vulnerability are powerful in college essays, and those elements appear and develop more quickly when students have a foundation of trust with me. My knowledge and understanding of them is critical to the process.
My experience with the high-schoolers underscores the importance of knowing students– who they are, who they love, what they value, what they do when they go home, how they think. These concepts comprise the cultural and social-emotional domains that Kelsey Sorum and I wrote about it The Responsive Writing Teacher.
Learning about the cultural identities of students requires commitment and intention, but is worth doing. Many educators have shared the practice of creating identity webs with students, including Sara K. Ahmed in Being the Change and the creators of Facing History Ahmed share the following questions to inspire web design.
- 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?
Facing History is a website and resource for teaching students about the past in order to create more equity in the future, and describes identity webs as tools for considering the many factors that shape who we are, not only as individuals, but also as community members.
Additional resources that Kelsey and I created to facilitate information gathering emphasize the importance of tapping into the insights of caregivers and the collective make-up of the class:
Closely related to cultural identities are the social-emotional identities of students. What matters to them? When they go home, what do they do? These interests impact and relate to both what they might write about and what habits of mind they bring to the writing process. How do they view a challenge? What helps them take on the daunting task of revision? If they are inventors, how can they bring that innovative mindset to their writing lives? The tools below may help you to think and learn about the answers to these questions, and thereby develop some inroads and pathways toward high impact writing instruction.
As a teacher, I know I spend a lot of time thinking about what to teach students, but I’m also trying to shift my focus toward what I can learn from students. My hope is that all of these systems and structures support and build a stance of curiosity and appreciation for the personal and learning lives of all students.
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.