Rethinking the Student Narrative through Themes from the Queer Experience

OUR MINDSET: To move writers closer to the center of their ever-changing identity.
Educators and students have a lot to fear in 2020; there is no circumventing that reality. There have been jarring questions and radical realizations throughout this year and our sense of self has undoubtedly taken a hit no matter how well we have learned to adapt to our new realities. Our current realities are seen through the lens of our identities and, at every age, our identities evolve through our experiences. Identity is not a static or permanent state of being and neither is the world around us. We are forever a work in progress and every experience we have molds our identity. From the smallest moment to the longest period in time, our identities are shaped by everything we do and everything that happens to us. Although we have all experienced trauma and identity-altering experiences, it should come as no surprise that the frequency of these experiences are greater for those with marginalized and disenfranchised identities.

As educators, we can learn from and teach with those experiences as a way to create trauma-informed writing opportunities for our students and as a way to self-reflect on our own trauma and the role it plays in our everyday lives.

In this month’s writing discussion, we take a closer look at how we can learn from the queer experience to guide students (and adults) through the process of reflecting on their own experiences and identity. 

It all starts with a little self-reflection…
As a 9th grade teacher, I was constantly getting students who were looking to recreate themselves or their image. So, at the beginning of the past few school years, I had my 9th grade students write about their past experience in school and we called it their Educational Autobiography, or Memoir. I wanted to encourage reflection and metacognitive thinking to get them to connect the dots between their past experiences and their current realities. This assignment was a great way for me to get to know where they are coming from and also to simply get them to write, type, and practice MLA format. It was a non-threatening assignment and it helped me establish a relationship with my students, but the last time I did the writing assignment, I felt, especially in our current cultural climate, that I was missing the mark on what experiences the students really go through that make them complex individuals. I got several memoirs that read the same and I realized that it was because of the level of questioning I provided during the discussion and brainstorming phase. Students were responding to prompts in their autobiographies in similar and predictable ways, so I began to ask myself how I could make this writing assignment more culturally responsive and trauma informed.

I began to think about my own culturally specific experiences and traumas that shape my current reality and influence how I interact with others and started researching for something to help me make sense of my world. A significant part of my search resulted in me discovering literature about LGBTQ teacher identity, and I immediately started making connections to some of the big questions that surround the identity questions for all teachers, no matter their sexual orientation. 

While reading, I quickly started considering, not only the implications of teacher identity on the teacher experience, but also the implications of teacher identity on writing instruction. I began reflecting on my own experiences with navigating my teacher and personal identity and thinking about the opportunities I was giving my students to explore their own identities.

I asked myself: “Am I putting their identity in a socially and culturally prescribed box?” Ultimately, I wasn’t so sure that my answer was no.

While reading Sexual Orientation and Teacher Identity, which is a collection of writings that explores the nature of the LGBTQ teacher experience, I was reintroduced to the concept of queer theory through a new lens. Essentially, queer theory, as it applies to education, is all about disrupting what’s normal and heteronormative. Traditionally, “through queer theory, the binary of sexual orientation (heterosexual–gay) and gender (man–woman) are challenged, identities are de-centered, and power is being embodied discursively and through the politics of provocation” (Kennedy). To further help drive home this concept (because there is such a stigma surrounding the word queer), consider the etymology of the word ‘queer.’ It is German for ‘oblique,’ which means to not explicitly or directly address something. Essentially, queer is simply an action, belief, or identity that does not correspond to established ideas.

Ultimately, I started thinking about how we can apply this concept and thought-process to improve student writing and reflection, and stretch students to think and create outside the realm of strictly binary thinking (right-wrong, good-bad student, athlete-nerd). How can we get students to question these traditional ways of thinking to see, essentially, the ‘queerness’ of their experiences in what is commonly portrayed as normal?

Image via GREATIST. Visit to read “23 People Share What Queer Means to Them”

Six Themes FROM the LGBTQ Experience
In a study conducted by Megan Kennedy (Ch. 3), educators with marginalized identities were interviewed and, throughout the process, six themes emerged from their experiences: discrimination, personality, philosophy, isolation vs. support, nonnegotiables, and sense of self. These provide us with different ways to explore identity development and can be applied to helping students write about and discover how their identities are currently developing. We can use these six themes to outline student memoirs or meaningful journal writing to prompt students in the discovery of their developing identities, encourage them to see the world and themselves outside of binary constructs, and reflect on their traumas.The following is a list of prompts based on these six themes that can be used in order to give students the opportunity to see their previous experiences in a different light and consider how they have shaped them as individuals-in-progress.

These prompts can be given to students separately over a course of time to initiate conversation and discussion or to help them make connections to literature. Or, depending on the time available, students can, after responding to each prompt, select one to fully flesh out and explore OR establish an essay that is based on an overarching theme that arose from all categories. These prompts offer flexibility to both teacher and student to determine how to organize an essay based on an accumulation of the responses to each prompt in an informal setting. Upon responding to each over a course of time, each student can create their own roadmap/outline for a memoir that connects their experiences to their current reality and identity.

Because I currently do not have students of my own, I decided to ask my adult friends to respond to these prompts, which may seem odd to some, but reflecting on these themes at any age is an important part of personal growth. We are constantly in search for ways to get in touch with our identities and these questions offer a place to start or deepen our understanding of how experiences shape reality. They were asked to respond to just one prompt that spoke to them and use the questions to inspire their writing, which means that if it takes them down a particular path, they should explore that rather than Of course, when using these prompts in the classroom, discussion, vocabulary pre-teaching, and scaffolding would need to be a part of the process.

Theme #1: Discrimination
Recount an experience in which you were either on the giving or receiving end of discrimination, hate, or exclusion. Or, in which you have experienced the discrimination of or from those close to you. What were the motivating factors behinds these acts of discrimination, hate, or exclusion? Consider how these experiences (specific events, moments, periods of time) have informed your identity or changed you as a person. Did these experiences alter the way you view yourself and/or the world?

Theme #2: Personality
How do you present yourself depending on the social situation? For instance, consider how your personality shifts from school to home to social situations (both online and in person). For each facet of your personality, consider what previous experiences have created these differences in the way you present your personality. In what ways do you use your personality to avoid discrimination, protect yourself (or others), or seek acceptance?

Theme #3: Philosophy
What is your philosophy on life? Consider, in your explanation of your philosophy on life, what your values, beliefs, and the qualities you believe life should have. Essentially, explain how you like to approach life and relationships and how you have learned this philosophy. Also think about is your approach to life and relationships differ between your public and private life. Do these approaches/philosophies contradict themselves? If so, what experiences do you think have created this divide?

Sample adult journal response in the form of a poem and traditional writing format that offers an explanation and insight into the he approaches life.

Theme #4: Isolation versus Support
Recall moments in your life in which you have felt isolated and times in your life when you felt supported by family, friends, community, or school. Consider what the isolation and support were characterized by (in other words, what emotions and thoughts came along with those situations). Identify relationships and situations that helped you from a place of isolation to a place of support. Once again, consider the characteristics of these relationships and situations and how they have changed your current outlook on life. 

Theme #5: Nonnegotiables 
What are written and unwritten rules that you have established for yourself to follow in private and public situations? What experiences or relationships do you credit for these nonnegotiables? How do your self-prescribed nonnegotiables influence how you interact with and treat others? Also consider how these rules or guidelines you have established for yourself have influenced how you treat yourself.

Sample adult journal response pinpointing the experiences that formed unwritten rules in her mind and how she has been able to fight through that to get closer to her more true self.

Theme #6: Sense of Self
What is your inner dialogue when you are making decisions in private and public interactions? What experiences have shaped the positive and negative ways in which you talk to and present yourself? What are the different aspects of your identity? In other words, how do you identify yourself? Are there any parts of your identity that you feel are underdeveloped or need more exploring? Consider situations in which you have the most positive sense of self… During these times, what other aspects of your self improve? What questions about your identity do you still have to answer? Have you begun questioning anything about your current beliefs or experiences? 

Sample paragraphs from an adult journal entry reflecting on his past experiences, how it has shaped his self-image, and considering how this is a basic right for everyone.

Instructional Considerations
With each writing task, scholars would be advised to revisit their previous writing in order to make a connection to an emotion, relationship, or experience. An important part of this narrative process would be to return to and edit writing as their understanding of their ‘self’ and identity begin to take shape.

Since identity is recursive, so should the writing about identity.

You may also notice that these prompts may fit quite well with literature students are reading in class or for their independent reading assignments, which means these prompts can be used to discuss and write about literature as practice and about themselves for continuous journal writing. This journal writing can take several forms that students should have an opportunity to explore without high stakes and fear. In additional to traditional paragraph format responses, students can respond using comic strips, sketches, or poems or use traditional drafts in order to create one of the more creative options.

Of course, one of the best ways to guide students through answering these difficult questions is to have answered them for ourselves first. Spend some time with these prompts and you might remember, discover, and explore things you hadn’t thought of in years or make connections between past experiences your current reality. Despite these themes being rooted in the LGBTQ experience, they are truly universal themes of the human condition. The queer experience is everyone’s experience and, let’s be honest, growing up is queer–it’s different and new and unorthodox. And, in a year where nothing feels normal, these seem fitting for writing instruction in the year 2020.

— Starian Porchia

How do you seek to engage students in writing and conversations about identity? How have you reflected on your own experiences and how they shape your ever-changing identity? Continue the conversation with me on Twitter @StarianBlake, on Facebook at, or email me at

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Thank you!

Kennedy, Megan S. LGBTQ Teacher Identity: Transgressing the Linear and into the Spherical Identity Model. Sexual Orientation and Teacher Identity. Professionalism and LGBTQ Politics in Teacher Preparation and Practice. Edited by Patrick M. Jenlink. Rowman & Littlefield Publishers. Kindle Edition. 

Planning on using these or have you already tried these? Send me your thoughts, reflections, and questions! =)

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