Credit: Allison Shelley for American Education

When you think of a school playground, what do you envision? Children coming together to play, explore, share stories, question and more.  There is joy. There is curiosity. There is learning. There is no formal structure for how these interactions happen, they just do. It’s natural, organic and comes from a place of humanity.

The school playground offers a common space in which exploration and learning are the goals. Imagine if we applied this playground metaphor to students exploring identities in the context of the classroom? Like the playground, they are joyful, curious, and learning about who they are, comfortably sharing stories and exploring new ideas surrounding identity with their classmates and teacher.

Unfortunately, the traditional (yet pervasive) mindset regarding school’s purpose does not allow for students to dig into and share who they are while feeling affirmed in their identity. In their work, researchers Eréndira Rueda and Amy Noelle Parks (2020) found what many of us have witnessed in schools: that students are often encouraged to conform to what school and society deem as the “model” student, which entails not talking out, not questioning/challenging the teacher, completing work, and following rules.

Schools are often positioned as places for socialization. Researcher Justin Saldana  has focused much of his work on power and conformity in today’s schools, and he asserts that “The purpose of schooling is the transmission of culture, the process by which the culture of a society is passed on to its children.”

But whose culture is being transmitted? Whose beliefs and values are being implicitly and explicitly taught? If those in our districts and schools have a certain set of beliefs regarding how students should look, think and behave, then students will be stifled in their opportunities to discover, share and take pride in who they are.

A fourth-grade student in my district, whom I’ll call Derrick to protect his privacy, revealed that he no longer wanted to be referred to by his given name, “Brianna,” and asked to be referred to as “he,” and no longer “she.” Derrick’s teacher and classmates honored his request as if he’d asked for peanut butter instead of jelly. When curiosity arose, the teacher allowed for questions and either she or Derrick answered them in a matter-of-fact way. It was comfortable. It was natural. Humanity was at the forefront of the conversations.

Until one day, Derrick’s father overheard his teacher refer to him as Derrick, and not Brianna. He contacted the principal immediately, demanding that his daughter be referred to as “she” and her given name. For the remainder of the year, Derrick was no longer called Derrick. Fast-forward to the beginning of this school year in which Derrick swiftly requests to be referred to as Derrick and “him.” This year’s teacher and classmates respond similarly to last year’s class; however, the parents soon contact the teacher and warn her to address Derrick by his biological gender. Though reluctant, this teacher continues to see and affirm Derrick for who he is, despite the parents’ request. She also is aware that her choice to honor Derrick’s gender identity is supported by federal Title IX legislation.

Situations like Derrick’s are happening in many schools. Students are sitting in classrooms, yet not being seen. How can we reframe schooling so that students feel comfortable exploring and sharing their identities? We must shift our mindset toward school being that metaphorical playground. When beliefs about personal topics (e.g., culture, gender and religion) arise, we must not push them aside, but rather honor every student’s right to their identity and their beliefs. To clarify, this is not about elevating one set of beliefs or one type of identity above any others. It’s about putting them out there to be explored and understood. In this way, school can be the playground for all identities.

In the classroom, we must look at multiple ways to integrate identity. We often use getting-to-know-you types of activities at the onset of a new school year. But we should continue to revisit these as there is increasing depth to our students’ identities, as well as evolution as they grow throughout the year.

Among the tools that can help facilitate these explorations are Identity Portraits and Identity Icebergs.

Although activities like these will help spark identity exploration in the classroom, it ultimately comes down to the teacher and the lens through which they choose to view their students.

Through this lens, school is no longer just a place of education, but one of humanity.

•••

Leigh Dela Victoria, Ph.D., is an instructional coach in the Fontana Unified School District and a 2021-2022 Teach Plus California Policy Fellow.

The opinions in this commentary are those of the author. If you would like to submit a commentary, please review our guidelines and contact us.

To get more reports like this one, click here to sign up for EdSource’s no-cost daily email on latest developments in education.

Share Article

Comments (11)

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked * *

Comments Policy

We welcome your comments. All comments are moderated for civility, relevance and other considerations. Click here for EdSource's Comments Policy.

  1. Elizabeth Silva 1 month ago1 month ago

    This is happening in our local school district. I have a kindergartner who will not be continuing in public school, because I refuse to allow the first grade teachers to tell her she can be he, she, or they!! Talk about confusing! There is a gathering storm of angry parents out there. Schools will be losing more and more students because of this imposition on impressionable little ones. My daughter still brings up her host of imaginary sisters at times!

  2. Brenda 2 months ago2 months ago

    Parents, we need to stand up for our kids. These schools are brain washing our kids. Kids don’t even know about this stuff until they start going to school. When does it stop??

  3. PHILLIP LEASURE 2 months ago2 months ago

    And there is the problem with critical instruction in a nut shell. It has no way to teach in the traditional model because it is incapable of describing how things work and is obsessed instead with "other ways of knowing", "identity", and "systems of oppression". They can't even conceive of the possibility that they are the ones screwing up children by affirming every whimsical fantasy the children may come up with as reality rather than … Read More

    And there is the problem with critical instruction in a nut shell. It has no way to teach in the traditional model because it is incapable of describing how things work and is obsessed instead with “other ways of knowing”, “identity”, and “systems of oppression”. They can’t even conceive of the possibility that they are the ones screwing up children by affirming every whimsical fantasy the children may come up with as reality rather than play. This is due to the rejection of objective fact and universal values, and a failed emphasis on tool building in favor of ideological transmission.

    I know that I prefer to live in a home designed by an architect that gained the relevant skills so that my home doesn’t collapse around me. I would also prefer to drive over a bridge in which the people building it didn’t rely on “other ways of knowing”.

    As far as affirming Brianna, against her parents request, this is absolutely ridiculous child abuse on the part of the teacher to substitute their own personal preference over that of the parents. You are not the parent and affirmative therapy is lunatic treatment. I couldn’t imagine if your student came to you at 5′ tall and 90lbs and explained to you she was fat and needed support in losing more weight that you would go along with it?

    If I was Brianna’s parents, I would have pulled her out of such a destructive environment immediately because this is no different than children cutting, anorexia, bulimia, and so forth. The only difference is that as a society we weren’t idiotic enough to affirm people that were engaging in these behaviors just like we wouldn’t put a gun in the hands of a suicidal person.

  4. Zack Quinn 2 months ago2 months ago

    Strongly disagree with the author. School is not meant to “transmit culture,” that vague and subjective term means far left ideologies. How can a four year old select their gender? They can’t even read properly. This is child abuse and it needs to stop.

  5. Bob Williams 2 months ago2 months ago

    I think the person who needs help here isn't Brianna's father, but Leigh Della Victoria. I'd like to know why she feels the need to virtue signal, and to impose this on children who can't possibly understand or parse it. I'd like to know why she is spending time in class with things like this, rather than actually teaching things that might be of some use. I'd like to know how her students score on … Read More

    I think the person who needs help here isn’t Brianna’s father, but Leigh Della Victoria. I’d like to know why she feels the need to virtue signal, and to impose this on children who can’t possibly understand or parse it. I’d like to know why she is spending time in class with things like this, rather than actually teaching things that might be of some use. I’d like to know how her students score on reading and arithmetic, and how she has the time to fit things like gender identity into her classrooms.

    She may feel she is winning some kind of war here, but in her own small way she is abusing these children, abusing their parents and abusing her position as a teacher and an educator. In time, schools are going to pay a mighty price for this, because the parents will not submit to it, and eventually, yes eventually, I can guarantee you they will be lawsuits brought against all of these teachers and all of these school districts, by the children who were subjected to this psychological abuse, and as adults, demand recompense for what was done to them.

  6. Darlene 2 months ago2 months ago

    Thank you Mercedes for your viewpoint. I really think that you represent most of us who have children in traditional schools. I am somebody who feels very uncomfortable with my children in traditional school but have to work and cannot offer them homeschool. I’m really confused about why people are taking their viewpoints and bringing them to schools and forcing those points upon our vulnerable children. These are viewpoints I don’t believe and that I … Read More

    Thank you Mercedes for your viewpoint. I really think that you represent most of us who have children in traditional schools. I am somebody who feels very uncomfortable with my children in traditional school but have to work and cannot offer them homeschool. I’m really confused about why people are taking their viewpoints and bringing them to schools and forcing those points upon our vulnerable children.

    These are viewpoints I don’t believe and that I don’t support. I feel that my rights are being stepped on for the very very few. And those few are confused, so does it mean that we didn’t call them by a name that they feel that belongs to them that week, that month, that year?

    I do not want to be forced to play this game that is unhealthy for children. How did our world shift in this manner? I don’t remember any of us having a vote in this?

  7. Bill Simmons 2 months ago2 months ago

    Districts throughout California need to realize they will lose an unknown number of families to home schooling or private schooling, along with moving out of the state. The vast majority of these families leaving or never entering the public school community will not vocalize what they are doing. They will simply just leave (or never enroll).

    California public education, in many cities and towns, prior to the 1980s, was the envy of districts throughout the United States. How far we have fallen.

  8. Mercedes 2 months ago2 months ago

    I think this thought process is contributing to many parents being reluctant to put their highly moldable children in school.

    Many parents want their children to get an education in skills/ knowledge that will contribute to their future. Cultural influences is not the aim.

    I will almost certainly home school or private school my child, because of disturbing trends I read like this, the advocation of mental health issues.

  9. Tony 2 months ago2 months ago

    I applaud Derrick, his classmates, and teacher who supported him in his identity. As a voter, I will do what I can to protect students, teachers, and administrators who act to empower students to choose their own identities.

    Replies

    • Jim 2 months ago2 months ago

      Do you have children?

  10. Jim 2 months ago2 months ago

    Great exemplar of why we have a culture war. So many people who don’t have children want to usurp the rights of people who have undertaken that commitment.