Citizen By Claudia Rankine
“When you are comfortable in your own skin, you become truly you.” (page 146)
This quotation captures the essence of the conflict Maleeka is having. Maleeka was told her dark skin was beautiful by both her deceased father and her ex best friend and boyfriend, Caleb, both in poems. Maleeka was proud of her skin while she had strong and healthy relationships with those two people. Maleeka loses her father and Caleb around the same time. This is a very traumatic event in a middle school girl’s life. Her quest to love herself is definitely one of the main themes in the novel. This short excerpt from Claudia Rankine’s book captures the notion that identity cannot be solid until you wholly accept yourself. This is a complicated and painful part of growing up, especially for students who have also experienced trauma.
I feel that it is crucial to teach this novel while analyzing what Maleeka has been through in order to understand how her experiences have informed her choices. This is something that we need our students to notice, understand, and eventually relate to. It could truly be a therapeutic experience for some of our students. In understanding how trauma effects their own lives helps to arm them with the skills to take on new challenges and to come out successfully on the other side.
Locomotion By Jacqueline Woodson, Select Poems
“Memory” (page 5)
In this poem, the poet and main character Lonnie is describing memories of his parents who died in a fire leaving him and his sister orphans. They were then sent to separate foster homes. The memory is a painfully nostalgic description of his mother’s love for him and his sister. Much of Lonnie’s identity is shaped by the abrupt and traumatic loss of his loving parents. Maleeka is similar. Her father was the source of her confidence, and without him she is having trouble finding it on her own.
Many of our students have experienced loss or traumatic loss in their young lives. Some have lost parents, siblings, friends and neighbors to violent acts. When someone is torn from your life at a young and impressionable age, that can leave scars that are intense and deep in our students’ lives. It launches an identity crisis because these kids have less or no guidance in these confusing times. Puberty by nature is a confusing and complicated time for any young person, but compounded with trauma can truly disrupt their capabilities to succeed. It is crucial for our students to find commonality with the books they read. This is turn helps them to become more engaged in their schoolwork because they can see a true purpose in learning. When their learning helps them to cope and engages them in new material at the same time, real difference can occur. “Poetry is a free elixir” (Dwayne Betts) that can truly help students to come to terms with, and overcome, the adversity many of them have prematurely faced.
“Describe Somebody” (pages 22-23)
In this poem, Lonnie is describing traits of his classmates during a class discussion before a poetry activity. Most of them are physical traits but some describe the interests of each person. Two of his classmates, Eric and Lamont, are talking in the back and are not engaged whatsoever. It is implied that this is normal behavior for them. They begin to make fun of poetry and say its nothing more than “lots and lots of stupid words.” At the end of the poem, Lonnie describes how Eric is a fantastic singer in their mutual churches’ choir. He contemplates writing his poem about this, but changes his mind, and the poem ends with him saying, “Eric would be real mad if I told the class / about his angel voice” (page 23). In this poem, Lonnie is dealing with the complexities of having interests and talents that may not be considered “cool” or “acceptable,” much as Maleeka hides her intelligence and purposely fails many of her classes.
This is a very typical middle school conundrum. In my experience, almost every student I have ever had has had either a “secret” or not-well-known hobby or interest. As their teacher, I very much enjoy learning these new things about my students. It truly helps me to understand them and what type of learning suits them best. It is important for us teachers to remember that these pieces of their identity must remain private until they are ready to share them. We should encourage them to pursue their goals with pride, but respect the process. Using this excerpt could help students to understand that they all indeed have talents that maybe are not public knowledge. Perhaps as a supplemental activity, students could each share or illustrate something they are good at, that not everyone knows about.
Frankenstein By Mary Shelley, Classical Comics Graphic Novel Adaptation
Frankenstein is a lengthy and challenging text for 6th grade students in terms of reading level and language style and use. About half of the students at my are below grade level in reading. But the themes in Frankenstein of identity and rage associated with school trauma shaping that identity are too strong to ignore. Themes of “freak” and “creature” are so connected to the way so many pre-pubescent 6th graders feel. Maleeka always feels that way, as she is constantly bullied about her appearance and lacks a solid parental structure, much as the creature in Frankenstein does. Much of the Creature’s identity develops from his abandonment by his creator Dr. Frankenstein. He was born “benevolent and good”, but terrifyingly ugly. Society imposed an identity on the Creature through their assumptions that he was evil due to his ghastly appearance. This angered him to the point where he became the very thing he never was or would have been with love from his creator.
Many 6th graders can relate to the feeling of having an identity imposed upon them. Some students come from a family of high-achieving students or, conversely, low-achieving students and are often assumed to fall in line with that pattern. Some students accept what society labels them as, and others do not for a plethora of different reasons. In The Skin I’m In, Maleeka purposely fails math to disrupt the assumptions of her high intelligence to her peers. Many students do this in order to seem tough or hard. Many students seek approval from their peers as opposed to adults especially if they have not historically had positive adult role models. Unfortunately this leads to students obtaining attention for poor choices, which often gains popularity among peers. Maleeka feels so out of place that the only identity she can find is one that aligns her with Char for a duration of the book. Maleeka also often feels like the Creature as she is ruthlessly teased for her dark skin, something which she cannot help and does not define her. When teaching this point, it is
imply that extremely dark skin is likened to the extreme ugliness of the Creature in Frankenstein, but rather to stress how your outward appearance can often gain the judgment of others.
American Born Chinese, By Gene Luen Yang
This graphic novel is set up with three alternating stories. The first is of a Chinese-American boy trying to balance his Chinese family culture with his desire to be seen as American in a world where they only see his Asian-ness. The second story is a fictional legend about a Monkey King who is constantly seeking identities which he is not, and who sells his soul to obtain traits he sees as ideal. They do not fit who he truly is and cause him many troubles. The third story is of an extremely purposely offensive character who embodies the harshest and most offensive Asian stereotypes. He makes life for his American cousin unbearably embarrassing. As the novel draws to a close, you as the reader begin to see the parallels and connections between the three stories, and may resolve that they are all of the identities that the main character feels fighting for the title of his true, or main identity. The novel explores the complex nature of being the American born child of an immigrant, as well as the conflicting feelings we often feel regarding our “non-negotiable” identities and who we truly want to be seen as to the world.
Maleeka writes a journal from the perspective of a slave girl named “Akeelma” (whose name is a variant of her own) to metaphorically talk about her problems with her teacher in a way, through an assignment, that is discreet and non-obtrusive. This graphic novel serves a similar purpose. It is a way for a teenaged first generation American to grapple with the aspects of his identity battling for a spot at Number 1. The novel concludes by streaming the stories together and drawing to a conclusion incorporating aspects of all three competing identities and explaining how they informed one another.
If our students were able to analyze the aspects of their identities possibly battling in their minds, they could draw out the crucial aspects of themselves and how their identity is formed. Many of my students would absolutely relate to Jin being first generation American preteens. I see that identity crisis on a daily basis. Students whose parents come from abroad are constantly trying to balance the love (or distaste) for the strong role traditions take in their lives with the lure of the world of American teenagers. Many of them are able to reconcile the two. Those students usually have strong adult presences in their lives. Many students do not have this for a plethora of reasons. Many parents work multiple jobs, many parents travel back and forth from their home country to America, and many feel uncomfortable coming in to schools for many reasons, to name just a few. If these students were able to connect with one another and identify with that very
, they could begin to form their own solid identity.