This year in my school district, my colleagues and I have held rich and ongoing conversations about ways to be more culturally and historically responsive in our curriculum and instruction. Within these conversations, we discovered that part of being more responsive in these matters involves valuing our students’ sense of identity in their learning. In turn, this led to curiosity about how we can create more authentic reading and writing experiences that provide a space for our students to grapple with and reflect on their own understanding of themselves.
With this theme of identity in mind, my colleague, Laura Malick approached me a couple of months ago with an idea for a new assignment: The Identity Synthesis. For frame of reference, Laura and I both teach AP English Language and Composition and often discuss and collaborate. As the course nears its end, we are both currently teaching synthesis writing, where we guide students in exploring ways to combine information from an array of different sources to form a coherent whole.
Fittingly, Laura’s idea of a new writing assignment was perhaps a synthesis of its own, converging our aim to focus on identity with our goal to teach students how to synthesize. I always enjoy collaborating with Laura, and this assignment in particular required plenty of back and forth conversations and brainstorming leading up to the moment of sharing the assignment prompt with our students. We thought about introducing this assignment for next school year, but our excitement got the best of us – we wanted to try it out this year.
In this post, I’d like to share the process of putting together this assignment, which blends the skills of narrative, research, and reflection, as well as share how we kept elements such as authenticity, vulnerability, and revision at the core of this processed writing opportunity.
Design of the Writing Task
The writing task challenges students to answer the question(s): Who Am I, Who Am I Not? We know that answering a question like this is no easy task; however, we believe the challenge of it is an accessible opportunity for students to engage in meaningful reading, writing, and thinking surrounding their identity.
We recognize that the rigor of this assignment, in part, stems from the abstract nature of its central question(s). Also, while narrative writing – in and of itself – has its own unique challenges, we acknowledge that, certainly, at face value this question presents a challenge for an adolescent (who very well may be in the process of trying to answer those questions). But understanding and being self-aware of the fact that identity is fluid and sometimes everchanging is certainly a nuanced takeaway on its own. Ultimately, our goal was to provide students a chance to read, think, analyze, reflect, and write about their own sense of self.
This assignment’s abstract and philosophical nature is coupled with the concrete, pattern-seeking, analytical thinking skills involved with synthesis writing. In order to answer the prompt’s questions, we wanted our students to synthesize evidence from a variety of sources: memories and anecdotal experiences, perceptions and opinions gathered from friends and family, personality tests, surveys, local and national Census Bureau numbers, articles, studies, and nearly anything that could give insight into one’s identity –especially in relation to and/or by product of one’s environment and influences.
In a way, this piece feels like a researched narrative, which sounds like an oxymoron. Why would you need to research for a piece about yourself? Wouldn’t you know everything about yourself already? To some degree, perhaps, but in many ways, identity can be more than just a surficial view of ourselves – but rather, a holistic view of all the components that make up who we are. It’s the personality traits others clearly see in us but we might not perceive ourselves, it’s the way you match or defy statistical or societal norms, it’s the way all of the pieces of your environment and social spheres work together to mold the very idiosyncrasies that we call our identity and understanding of self. Underneath all these layers, the mix of anecdotes and concrete evidence gives us pieces of ourselves and the world around us to analyze and reflect on.
Pre-Writing and Writing Models
We knew that to be prepared and to find success with such an assignment (and any writing assignment for that matter) students needed two things: a strong pre-writing experience and writing models.
To help our students, we planned pre-writing experiences that would help them gather evidence from a variety of evidence pools – anything from opinions and memories to facts and figures. To begin, Laura and I completed all the pre-writing activities and shared our own results and findings with our students as a way to break the ice and, simply, model our own willingness to share.
Sharing our pre-writing findings allowed students to learn new things about us and allowed us to drum up some excitement before they would try the activities.
Beginning their own research, students really enjoyed taking personality tests like the Myers Brigg or the Enneagram test as a springboard to discuss their own personalities.
After a series of scenario questions, these tests provided results of their personality types.
Between laughter and moments of enlightenment, I heard students already thinking and reflecting.
- “Wait, that is so me!”
- “I hate to admit it, but yes, that’s true, that is one of my biggest challenges.”
- “That’s not exactly true about me, but I can see why that’s in my results.”
Regardless of the outcome, it was the ideal start for students to consider how a piece of evidence (like a personality test result) matters in their identity, if it doesn’t, if it is accurate or fitting to any degree, or if it contrasts who they believe they are.
Plus, it’s fun.
In my book, they were already synthesizing, comparing an on-paper portrayal of themselves with the reality of their own personal experiences and view of themselves.
From there, students engaged in personal surveys, which asked them questions about their likes and dislikes, memories from childhood, who they were in terms of different contexts (family, race, gender, etc.) and more. Note: On the personal survey, we provided a disclaimer to students that they only had to share things about themselves that they felt comfortable sharing.
Next, students looked into Census Bureau data, conducted interviews with friends and family, and researched relevant topics based on their own surveys. For example, a student deeply involved in music or art might look for research or an article on the role art plays in a child’s upbringing.
Once all the evidence was gathered, students could then step back and begin to look at all their pieces and draw connections and conclusions.
Writing Models – Authenticity and Vulnerability
One challenge of starting a new writing assignment is always the fact that you do not have former student writing models. So, Laura and I saw this as an opportunity to write alongside our students and provide fresh-of-the-press, authentic writing models.
While we teach separate sections of the course, we found it helpful that our students to see two different approaches from two different people/writers.
This piece is undoubtedly personal and offers writers the chance for authenticity in their writing.
Naturally, the authenticity of the piece also comes with a degree of vulnerability, but we wanted to show students 1.) how vulnerability can lead to powerful and honest writing and 2.) how much agency and choice they have in deciding what aspects of themselves they feel comfortable writing about. That was evident in our pre-writing experiences and drafts we shared with our students.
For example, while we both discussed factors such as personality, class, race, gender, and education, we each took different approaches and leaned more heavily on the elements that we found were most integral to our identity.
By sharing our drafts with our students, we modeled vulnerabiltiy in two ways: as individuals and as writers.
As individuals, we shared reflective thinking about our own experiences, personalities, challenges, and understanding of ourselves.
As writers, we shared the vulnerabiltiy of what writer Anne Lamott would call the “crummy first draft,” in all its flaws and messiness. Throughout our pieces, we even notated where some ideas were still developing and left notes to ourselves for later revisions. It’s an important reminder for our students: our best writing takes time and gradual revisions, and our first draft is merely our starting place.
Beyond just different approaches in content and synthesis, students benefited from seeing two pieces that were organized differently. While Laura organized her piece by creating sections based on the layers and factors of her identity, I organized my sections on how factors of my identity developed chronologically. Again, this difference in our drafts suggests to our students how much agency is involved in crafting a piece that is personalized and organically written.
Modeling Authentic, In-Real-Time Revision
Along with seeing our first drafts, we wanted students to continue seeing the full process as we write alongside them. When students finished drafting, we both shared with students copies of revision notes that Laura and I had given one another after swapping pieces and peer-revising.
While with other pieces, I will regularly show revision notes on a draft of writing, it’s not quite the same as revision in real time. As opposed to showing writing that I did months ago, students can see, in that very moment, that I don’t have the final copy yet, that I am, in fact, working through revision right in front of them, thinking out loud and rationalizing decisions I am making as a writer. There is so much power in writing alongside students, allowing them to see all the authentic and vulnerable elements of the writing process and how we work to revise, think, revise, think, and revise again.
This part of the process had a number of meaningful perks for our students:
- Students could see the kind of honest, constructive feedback we were giving one another (a mix of strengths and areas to improve).
- Students could see how we were planning to morph and revise our pieces based on that feedback.
- Students could then consider the type of revision needed for their own drafts.
During the revision stage, authenticity and vulnerability once again made their appearance.
Currently, our students are continuing to reflect, revise, and polish their pieces. As students channel all their learning of synthesis and reflection into their final copies, I am thrilled to see how it all turns out, both for my students and for Laura’s.
When I think about this writing task, I am reminded of some of the core tenets of what I value in writing instruction. I value offering my students the chance to write authentically and to learn about themselves. I value the vulnerability involved in the task of writing. I value teaching my students the obstacles and rewards of revision. And lastly, in terms of identity, I value the opportunities that writing can present to help us reflect and understand ourselves more deeply.
How do you engage students to incorporate reflection surrounding their identity in their writing? If you are looking to do this assignment or a similar assignment, please reach out. You can connect with me on Twitter @kenbuiCBSD.
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