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.
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.
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