“What Are you?”

We are currently working with Shrevewood Elementary School in Fairfax County, VA. We have brought together a group of 20 students who the counselors have hand-picked for our after school book club. The curriculum for this book club was created to support identity development, an understanding and practice of empathy, and an increased sense of belonging. Literature anchors our curriculum and is used as a tool to lead discussion and launch us into activities. We have chosen to read: The First Rule of Punk by Celia Perez.
At one point in the story a child asks the main character Malú, “What are you?” We were surprised to see many hands go up when we asked students if anyone had ever said this to them. Seems an odd question to me, slightly dehumanizing in fact. As if you are more of a thing than a person. This question could accompany a curiosity about a peers sexuality, “What are you, a boy or a girl?” or it could be accompanied by a curiosity about someone’s culture (their race, ethnicity, religion, etc). I think that this question proves one thing: we are in an age where identity is more multi-faceted than ever before and we are not doing a good enough job supporting our children though it.
While I have learned a lot through the last 9 weeks of the program (3 weeks left to go). I think the greatest take-a-way is how important the topic of identity really is. The growth in either of either empathy or belonging in our curriculium is dependent upon their understanding of who they are.  For example, how could we possibly reach a true belonging with others if we do not first know who we truly are? How could we truly know who others are (providing them a sense of belonging) without then understanding and practicing empathy?
The use of the word identity, according to the Google Ngram Viewer, has grown more prevalent alongside globalization. Globalization saw significant growth in the 1800's which was followed by a monstrous hike in the latter part of the 20th century. This makes sense.
The growth of multinational corporations equates to growth in families with children that are transplanted around the world. What was previously a more homogenous upbringing has now become a mosaic of various cultures. It is logical to assume the effects of globalization only impact those children that are moving around, but this is not true. Children with a fixed geography can be surrounded  by a consistently shifting landscape.
Children are not only beginning to ask others: What are you?, but they are also asking themselves, What am I? Am I American? Korean? Korean-American? Asian-American? The last four questions were presented to me during a 5 minute lunch conversation with my daughter and her friends in their school cafeteria. Children are crying out for definition. Are we providing it? At the very least, we should be sharing that culture is not a fixed construct but fluid and evolving over time, even within them.
Let's take a step back from the effects of globalization on children and education and consider corporations. My husband works for Deloitte and I have seen how they have supported productivity and collaboration within their multicultural communities through personality tests, cross-cultural communication training, and team building exercises. This is the norm in any well established, growing, and healthy company. It makes sense! If a company is going to succeed internationally they have to invest in unifying their global communities.
How are we investing in our schools global communities? I would argue that this is an even greater imperative for our children. They are at a vulnerable state of development and the impact we have on them now will shape the type of working professional they become. Self-assessment and identity development is a crucial first step.
Sadly, there is usually a short unit on identity for students with a couple activities for them to share their unique culture with the class.  Instead, there should be a progression of activities and discussions that promote an understanding of self, of others, and the world throughout the entire school year. Literature is a great place to start developing this. We are blessed with a plethora of multicultural children's literature now that can support identity development along side other academic disciplines. The challenge for educators is finding the time to identify these books and consider the right discussion questions, and having the resources to buy them.
Our book club curriculum uses literature, guided discussion questions, and activities to support identity development in our students but this was coupled with a Gallup assessment called the Strengths Explorer (for children 10 - 14 years). If you are like many other educators, lacking the time and resources to explore ways to incorporate identity development through literature then consider the Strengths Explorer as an addition to the school supply list.  This rather cumbersome topic that can be very challenging for educators and students alike can be simplified once you have identified your students top three strengths. This assessment provides clarity to parents, educators, and the students themselves.
During our book club we made a production out of presenting our students with their strengths. We printed each individual strength out, laminated them, and put them on an “o” ring for club members to clip to their backpacks; which many of them did. They have taken ownership of their strengths. Their strengths have become an anchor for them amidst the cultural complexity that exists within them and around them. Regardless of where they are in the world, what language they are speaking, or custom they are practicing, they know they can be confidant in the strengths they have.
This tangible take-a-way is not the end but the beginning. Recognizing what their strengths are should be a launching point for a more in depth understanding and practice. Knowing their strengths is one thing, but learning how to use them is another. If you are working within a culturally complex classroom with students between 10-14 years this might be a great option for you to start supporting identity development in your kids.
If you are interested in the support services or materials we can provide along side the assessment or would like to discuss what we are currently working on with in our book club we would be happy to connect.