Teacher resources and professional development across the curriculum

Teacher professional development and classroom resources across the curriculum

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Teaching Multicultural Literature : A Workshop for the Middle Grades
Workshop 1 Workshop 2 Workshop 3 Workshop 4 Workshop 5 Workshop 6 Workshop 7 Workshop 8
Workshop 1: Engagement and Dialogue
Authors and Literary Works
Video Summary
Teaching Strategies
Peer Facilitation Circle
Talk Show
Identity Stories
Student Work
Interactive Workbook -- Explore two poems using strategies from these workshops. Go.
Channel-Talk -- Share your views on the discussion board. Go.

Teaching Strategies
Identity Stories


Language arts teachers find creative ways to help students see literature as a window into themselves. As they ask how situations shape literary characters, teachers also ask how the students' backgrounds have shaped them. Carol O'Donnell takes these questions a step further. In a unit on identity, the students not only explore how literary characters articulate their identities, they also craft their own "identity stories" of various genres to share with the class.

Identity Stories in Carol O'Donnell's Classroom

From the beginning of the unit, O'Donnell asks the students to think about their identities in terms of race, class, ethnicity, religion, gender, and culture. "Why does identity matter? When did you even realize you had one?" she asks. She begins with poems by Diana Chang and Naomi Shihab Nye, and has the students talk in pairs about critical moments in which they realized something about their identities. She then has the students fill in census forms; they note how difficult it is to categorize themselves. O'Donnell then asks the students to listen to music selections in different genres (opera, rock, and R&B), to generalize about what kind of people like each, and to think about which piece they most relate to. She also asks the students to write about and share in small groups a family cultural practice. Throughout the unit, O'Donnell encourages the class to question their assumptions about identity and examine stereotypes.

At the end of the unit, O'Donnell asks her students to collect what they have learned from the readings, discussions, and other activities into a three-page "identity story," which they will share with the class. She tells them that the stories should capture the unit's themes, and "some sense of duality in your own lives." She invites them to write the stories about two parts of themselves: one based on their understanding of how race, class, gender, ethnicity, culture, or religion has shaped them, and the other about any aspect that they believe represents an essential part of who they are.

For the presentation of the identity stories, the students sit in a circle and share their work. O'Donnell ends by telling the students how much she appreciates being in a classroom where "we're trusting each other to speak about these things and share our lives." (See Student Work.)

Tips and Variations for Identity Stories

  • Teachers should work with students to build a safe and respectful environment. The students are more likely to look deeply into themselves when they feel their ideas and identities will be respected.

  • This strategy is well-suited to the study of stories, memoirs, monologues, poetry, and essays about identity. The students' investigations are then grounded in both text and personal experiences, and connections between the two.

  • Students might also illustrate their stories by selecting or creating visual images to represent who they are. (Teachers might have the students practice this by creating visuals that represent a character they have read about in literature.) (See Teaching Strategy: Creating Visual Representations and Symbols.)

  • Students can combine writing with art, drama, music, or even food to create an expression of themselves that is meaningful in both content and form.

Benefits of Identity Stories

  • Identity stories in any form bring students' lives into the classrooms. O'Donnell tells her students she considers their writings among the essential texts they will study for the unit, as important as the published literature they will read. O'Donnell says that this assignment is "a hallmark of multicultural education where students aren't simply reading a text about another cultural group, they are also studying themselves" and reflecting on their own experience.

  • Students understand that all perspectives are welcome, and that one's home life is an important part of what one brings to school. As the culmination of a unit on identity, crafting an identity statement -- especially in a student-chosen format -- can synthesize reading and discussion into one personally meaningful whole.

  • Writing identity stories helps students to find and develop their "voices." They must create something that represents who they are in a way that is appropriate for their peers.

  • As students read, write, and share identity stories, they honor the unique, diverse, and complex cultures in their classrooms. They discover that everyone -- published authors, characters in books, their peers, and themselves -- has an "identity story" to tell.

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