Can I find myself in literature? Can I find and identify the me I am to become before I know my current self? How do I try on possible future selves when they don’t exist around me? How do I search for a new self when my current self is in a major state of development? These questions plague my middle school students often, along with a myriad of other questions.
As a 7th/8th grade English language arts teacher, my presentation of the New Haven Reading curriculum’s core reading book is sometimes an experience fraught with remonstrations of “How come we gotta read this? There’s no black people in these books. Or this is stupid, Puerto Ricans would never do this. This would never happen in my neighborhood.” My first impression upon hearing such remarks was that my students did not like or enjoy the various prescribed texts. Upon further inquiry, I learned that this was not necessarily true. Some students did like the prescribed text. However, what they most objected to was the lack of connection they felt between the text characters and themselves. In short, they wanted to see more of themselves in their text—they needed a greater connection.
However, what avenues of exploration of self for a “tween” or a new teen exist if he or she is not reading and does not have the ability to leave his current environment and “see how the others live?” And if I preface my present identity as “I am not a good reader,” what is my incentive to self-direct an identity exploration within literature? It is hoped that through this unit’s exploration of literature and subsequent discussions, students will commence thinking critically about themselves and their world. Through small and large group discussions, ideas will be elicited, expanded, re-configured and synergistically altered. Through this process of exploration, it is my hope that students will connect with literature, develop their respective individual voices, and seek additional reading experiences outside the classroom.
Within my 7
grade English Language Arts classes, I have found that there are students who are vigorously struggling with how they have defined themselves, and what rules school was requesting them to follow. Oftentimes, they are singled out or pointed to for exhibiting a lack of verbal filters, boisterous, and often inappropriate language (both content and context) and other less than desirable classroom behaviors. Once spotlighted, these students will then defensively lash out at whomever they deemed to have cast a negative aspersion. They justify their reactive response as standing their ground against being unjustly treated for expressing their true self. For them a request to cease talking is a personal attack—a demand to stifle their voice or oppress their freedom of expression.
Teacher student conversations (usually question and answer periods where the students are interrogated for the “source of the problem”) reveal that students do not have the requisite language or life experience to adequately articulate inner struggles and are often acting out. Students experience inner struggles, family issues and peer problems that are not related to their academic reading challenges. However, elements within the educational environment (for instance, authority figure—teacher, bullies, diverse populations of students—black, Latina, females, males) serve as triggers. Students were simply enacting their own behavioral scripts.
This phenomenon is supported anecdotally when students acknowledge a perplexity with an awareness of grappling with a “something” or a “someone” (not in class) and being unable to cease the “automatic” response when faced with a conflict—internal or external. Others are astute enough to determine that certain things or situations cause them frustration and elicit negative behavior and admit either an inability or a lack of desire to restrain the resultant negative behavior. Consistently while “in the moment,” they are unable to adequately describe with their current language the discomfort and/or frustrations encountered prior to an acting out occurrence.
Right, Wrong, and Along the Continuum…You,
students have an opportunity to gain voice or language to converse about their internal and external conflict through discussions of primarily short stories. Students will be exposed to a diversity of voice through dramatic narratives challenging individual and group identity. Conflicts revealed by the short stories compel students to think critically about identity development. Using reflective writing and small and large group discussions, students will develop voice, and appreciate the multi-dimensions of and perspectives contained with the concept of identity as they define and re-define for themselves its meaning.