Identity is my favorite theme to teach. I am constantly trying new ideas in my classroom but year after year, identity is something I make time for (see here and here) because it's powerful, personal and wonderfully open-ended. My students are invested in it for the same reasons, and because identity is such a prevalent force in their lives in high school, as they deal deciding who they are and who they will become.
This year I introduced identity differently than I have in the past. On a recommendation by our school's equity coach I started the unit by unpacking the concept of identity by looking at it through different lenses. Students filled out Identity Wheels developed by the University of Michigan, pictured and linked below.
After reviewing expectations for the discussion (which important discussions can't happen fairly for everyone without!) I introduced both the Personal and Social wheels, taking time to explain the difference between terms on the Social wheel like "race" and "ethnicity" , as well as "sex", "gender" and "sexual orientation". I asked students to fill out the Personal wheel and the think about the Social wheel as part of planning and processing, filling it out or not based on their comfort level.
Next, we discussed the work of three artists (pictured below) using my favorite Visual Thinking Strategy of asking students "What do you see?" and going around the classroom with each person naming something they notice. This open-ended, student directed tool leads to students actively creating meaning based on their personal experiences and connections. After looking, we discussed how the facets of identity depicted on the wheels related to the artwork.
This activity hinges on thoughtfully chosen artworks. I always use my "rule of three" when selecting artworks to show my students - two non-white and or non-male artists for every white, male artist whose work I show. I also intentionally featured work that addresses many facets of the Social wheel These works lead to thoughtful discussions about race, ethnicity, gender and how we connect with/ experience disconnect from the objects in our lives.
I noticed that students this year understood the concept of identity more fully and were able to speak to social factors of identity, as well as personal ones, with increased confidence. To end this experience each student shared their work in a presentation to their table group, which gave us all the opportunity to learn from and celebrate each other.
Working with the theme of identity provides a challenging art experience, but maybe more importantly, it provides an opportunity for students to explore who they are and understand a little more about others and how their life experiences may be different from their own. In a society that is often politically polarized and clouded by bias and assumption, building tolerance is powerful.
I'm interested in creating a student student centered space for my high school students through choice and abundant opportunity for self expression. I'm also a writer for SchoolArts co-author of The Open Art Room.