Research suggests that students, especially those experiencing socioeconomic challenges, academically benefit from having their values, personal stories, and identities lifted up and respected in schools.
This series will explore what that might look like in the classroom.
You might also be interested in Three Excellent Student Identity “Self-Portrait” Activities.
Crystal Watson is an educator located in Cincinnati. Her work is centered on providing space for young people to be partners in their learning experience:
Through sharing of stories, young people have the chance to build authentic connections within themselves and among each other. Rudine Sims Bishop conceptualized this and coined the phrase “windows, mirrors, and sliding glass doors” (Potter, 2019). Encouraging young people to share their own stories with us and each other allows us to learn about others, see and examine ourselves, and engage with others’ experiences at different points in time. Stories can be a powerful tool to build lasting, authentic relationships as well as sharpen transferable skills as students matriculate through K-12 and beyond.
Creating a safe and supportive environment is nonnegotiable. As humans, we all need to feel physically, emotionally, and psychologically safe and supported in order to share our stories. Educators, it’s important to create a classroom culture that values and respects each student’s unique perspective.
· Share your stories first: Modeling is a powerful tool of encouragement.
· Model empathy and deep listening through things like affirmations, clarifying questions, and/or appreciation.
· Encourage personal stories often, not just at the beginning of a year or unit.
· Model what vulnerability and correction look like through apology and/or acknowledgement of others’ experiences.
· Intentionally choose and/or create curriculum, assignments, activities, etc., using identities of young people in the classroom.
Once the environment is built to be safe, inviting, and supportive, there will be more opportunities for young people to voluntarily share parts of themselves with us and with each other!
Exploration of Self and Others
Educators do more than teach … we help build identities. The space we provide for exploration of both self and others for young people should be intentional, authentic, and rooted in the humanity of each one in our classrooms.
· Opportunities for reflection: Reflection is an important part of the storytelling and identity-building process. Encourage youth to reflect on their experiences and explore how those experiences have shaped who they are today. Try journaling and/or discussion.
· Opportunities for choice in how to engage: Allow for choice in the ways in which youth share stories with each other. They could write, make a video, do a presentation, or engage in an art form that reflects their own cultural background, experiences, and perspectives. Allowing for choice increases comfort. Remember, environment matters.
· Feedback and support: As young people share their stories, provide feedback and support. Encourage them to revise and refine their work and offer constructive feedback that helps them improve their skills and shows we are listening/recognizing what they bring to the space.
Resources: Exploration of self and others
Content and Context
I’d be remiss not to acknowledge the great number of concepts and skills we must ensure young people grasp each year. It is imperative we find ways to incorporate what we know to be best for building safe environments, encouraging storytelling, and building positive identities. Contextualizing our content through stories, communication, and reflection is our goal.
· Use storytelling as a teaching tool: Storytelling can be a powerful teaching tool. Use stories to introduce new concepts, spark discussions, or illustrate complex ideas. Encourage youth to share and/or create their own stories that relate to the topics being studied.
· Plan well and thoroughly: Planning must be done with intention. Planning must evolve to include a Pedagogy of Voice (Safir, 2023), storytelling, and a student-centered approach each and every day.
· Know your content: Know, deeply, the content you’re teaching so that you understand the most efficient ways to incorporate voice, stories, and reflection.
Resources: Content and Context
Encouraging young people to tell their own stories can be a transformative experience for both them and teachers as it relates to learning and identity. By creating a safe and supportive environment, providing opportunities for reflection, using storytelling as a teaching tool, providing feedback and support, celebrating diversity, we can help young people develop important content-specific and transferrable skills while also fostering a deeper understanding of themselves and the world around them. Listen and be heard.
Kwame Sarfo-Mensah is a 15-year veteran educator and the founder and CEO of Identity Talk Consulting LLC., an independent firm that provides professional development and consulting services to K-12 school districts, educators, colleges and universities, and educational nonprofit organizations. He is also the author of the book, Shaping the Teacher Identity: 8 Lessons That Will Help Define the Teacher in You:
One way that I encourage students to share their own stories is by having them put together a “Me” bag. It is a great activity to do at the start of the school year because it’s simple and can be done with students at any grade level!
The “Me” bag activity is a fun way for students to present to the class three to four personal artifacts that have significant meaning to their lives and represent who they are. The personal artifacts could represent their favorite hobbies, a pivotal moment in their life, or parts of their racial, cultural, linguistic, religious, and gender identities that they feel comfortable sharing with their classmates. Each student stores their artifacts in a bag and pulls each one out of the bag to share a short story about what the artifact signifies in their life.
If you have students who aren’t comfortable opening up about their lives to a new group of people, it’s OK for them to engage in this activity at a later time once they feel emotionally safe in their new environment. In the past, I’ve done this activity with 6th, 7th, and 8th grade students and I’m always amazed by how much I learn about who my students are outside the classroom. The “Me” bag also gives me an opportunity to reveal parts of my life story that will lead to an instant connection with students.
In terms of how I ensure that students’ identities are affirmed and supported, I collaborate with my students to co-create a list of community agreements that promote mutual respect and accountability. Every member of the classroom community is responsible for ensuring that the agreements are always honored. This process can be done as a gallery-walk activity. Here are the steps:
- Start class with the following questions:
- What does respect look and sound like to you?
- What does responsibility look and sound like to you?
- What does collaboration look and sound like to you?
- What do you need from (teacher’s name) to be your best self?
- What do you need from your classmates to be your best self?
- Record each question on a piece of chart paper and then have the papers posted and spread out in different areas of your classroom.
- Have your students circulate through the classroom to record their responses on each chart paper. Once they’ve completed the desk, have them return to their seats to indicate that they’re done.
- Collect all the chart papers and transfer their responses onto a Word document.
- Teachers and students will then recategorize given responses based on common themes that emerge from the list and synthesize those responses into agreements.
- Present the new list of agreements to the class for final review and approval. For any agreements where the class doesn’t have a full consensus, you can either eliminate them from the list or ask the class if there is anything specific that must be added or edited in the agreement before the entire class can agree on it.
‘It’s a Two-Way Street’
Courtney Rose, Ed.D., is a professor, educational consultant, culturally relevant/responsive educator, founder of Ivy Rose Consulting, and author of the upcoming book, Woven Together: How Unpacking Your Teacher Identity Creates a Stronger Learning Community. She currently serves as a visiting assistant teaching professor in the Educational Policy Studies department at Florida International University:
In my time teaching and working in schools, and with school-aged children in other capacities, I’ve found that the real question is not how can we encourage students to tell their stories and share their identities and passions but, rather, how can we stop discouraging them from doing so.
Think about it for a second. Most preschool and lower-elementary students can’t wait to tell us about something they thought of connected to, and sometimes VERY loosely connected to, the topic of the lesson we’re teaching or share a piece of information (prompted or not) about themselves or their family. But over time, we see this tendency toward sharing, or speaking up period, begin to fade in many students. Here are a few tips to weaving students’ stories and identities into the fabric of your practice:
1. Co-Create the Learning Environment: At the start of every school year, I get very excited to see all of the teachers posting their photos of their classrooms. Often, these beautiful and meticulously designed and organized spaces are posted, and while looking at many of these classrooms tells us a lot about who the teachers are, there is little representation of their students or space for them to add their own touches to the room.
While well-intentioned in wanting to curate a nice space for students, the students may internalize the message that this is the teacher’s space, and their job is to figure out how to fit themselves into it. On the other hand, leaving spaces around the room for students to add their own photos, creative works, or other meaningful artifacts invites them to share pieces of themselves in meaningful ways.
Additionally, co-designing the classroom creates a deeper sense of belonging and identification with the learning environment and, by extension, the academic content. Think about how much more supported, seen, and valued a student feels when they say I love my/our classroom vs. I love my teacher’s classroom.
2. Weave It in All Year: Oftentimes, the sharing of personal stories, experiences, and passions are encouraged more at the beginning of the year or right after long breaks as teachers engage in “relationship/community-building practices” and then leave them behind once they get deep into those pacing guides.
If we want students to feel comfortable and supported in bringing who they are into the classroom, these practices must be woven into our instructional practice year ‘round. Starting each class or week with some time to journal or draw freely or pose a question about a current topic/event impacting the school/neighboring community for collective class discussion and reflection provides opportunities for collective reflection on relevant issues and events happening both inside and outside of the school environment. This not only invites students’ perspectives and voices into the space but often helps to process/release emotions that cloud their educational experience. It sends the message that what matters to students matters, period.
Similarly, scheduling individual or small-group conferences or casual chats with students at various points throughout the year provides opportunities to get to know them on a more individualized basis and gain useful insights for how to further personalize the learning environment.
3. It’s a Two-Way Street: Asking students to share pieces of themselves and their stories can raise certain anxieties and unexpected emotions, especially in spaces like schools and classrooms in which many of them have felt unsupported, unseen, and unvalued.
Many of our students, particularly those living at the intersections of historically marginalized identities, have experienced schools and classrooms as spaces that in almost every way taught them they should be anyone and anything but who they are. So, it’s no wonder that when students are asked to share pieces of themselves in educational spaces, there is a degree of uncertainty, and potentially, distrust.
Educators can help to build trust by engaging in a consistent practice of sharing our own stories with students. In doing so, we not only model the vulnerability necessary to engage in these processes of personal storytelling but also humanize ourselves and our practice in the process.
Erica Silva leads professional development with schools and districts across the country to advance racial equity. She is also an adjunct assistant professor and former elementary/middle school teacher and instructional coach. Follow her work: @doctorasilva on Twitter/IG:
Having students write an autoethnography is an incredible exercise to incorporate into your classroom. However, a strong foundation of respect, trust, and vulnerability must be set in order for students to feel safe writing about the experiences that have shaped their identities.
Understand that in doing so, not every student will go as deep as you want—and that is OK. We must respect where they are coming from and what they choose to share with us. We must also protect what they do share with us and thank them for trusting us enough to share their unique racial and cultural backgrounds, experiences, and beliefs with us as their teachers.
Additionally, it is extremely important that we model and share our own autoethnographies with our students. Sharing our own racial and cultural backgrounds, schooling experiences, and important moments/people in our lives humanizes us as educators and allows students to make connections and develop a deeper understanding of who we are in the classroom. This lays a great foundation for us to build a strong working relationship together throughout the school year.
Thanks to Crystal, Kwame, Courtney, and Erica for contributing their thoughts!
Consider contributing a question to be answered in a future post. You can send one to me at email@example.com. When you send it in, let me know if I can use your real name if it’s selected or if you’d prefer remaining anonymous and have a pseudonym in mind.
You can also contact me on Twitter at @Larryferlazzo.
Education Week has published a collection of posts from this blog, along with new material, in an e-book form. It’s titled Classroom Management Q&As: Expert Strategies for Teaching.
Just a reminder; you can subscribe and receive updates from this blog via email. And if you missed any of the highlights from the first 11 years of this blog, you can see a categorized list below.
- It Was Another Busy School Year. What Resonated for You?
- How to Best Address Race and Racism in the Classroom
- Schools Just Let Out, But What Are the Best Ways to Begin the Coming Year?
- Classroom Management Starts With Student Engagement
- Teacher Takeaways From the Pandemic: What’s Worked? What Hasn’t?
- The School Year Has Ended. What Are Some Lessons to Close Out Next Year?
- Student Motivation and Social-Emotional Learning Present Challenges. Here’s How to Help
- How to Challenge Normative Gender Culture to Support All Students
- What Students Like (and Don’t Like) About School
- Technology Is the Tool, Not the Teacher
- How to Make Parent Engagement Meaningful
- Teaching Social Studies Isn’t for the Faint of Heart
- Differentiated Instruction Doesn’t Need to Be a Heavy Lift
- How to Help Students Embrace Reading. Educators Weigh In
- 10 Strategies for Reaching English-Learners
- 10 Ways to Include Teachers in Important Policy Decisions
- 10 Teacher-Proofed Strategies for Improving Math Instruction
- Give Students a Role in Their Education
- Are There Better Ways Than Standardized Tests to Assess Students? Educators Think So
- How to Meet the Challenges of Teaching Science
- If I’d Only Known. Veteran Teachers Offer Advice for Beginners
- Writing Well Means Rewriting, Rewriting, Rewriting
- Christopher Emdin, Gholdy Muhammad, and More Education Authors Offer Insights to the Field
- How to Build Inclusive Classrooms
- What Science Can Teach Us About Learning
- The Best Ways for Administrators to Demonstrate Leadership
- Listen Up: Give Teachers a Voice in What Happens in Their Schools
- 10 Ways to Build a Healthier Classroom
- Educators Weigh In on Implementing the Common Core, Even Now
- What’s the Best Professional-Development Advice? Teachers and Students Have Their Say
- Plenty of Instructional Strategies Are Out There. Here’s What Works Best for Your Students
- How to Avoid Making Mistakes in the Classroom
- Looking for Ways to Organize Your Classroom? Try Out These Tips
- Want Insight Into Schooling? Here’s Advice From Some Top Experts
I am also creating a Twitter list including all contributors to this column.
The opinions expressed in Classroom Q&A With Larry Ferlazzo are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.