In a typical year, eighth-graders read several pieces about identity, both fiction and nonfiction. For the past two years, the fall curriculum has started with Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, moved to excerpts from Amy Tan’s Joy Luck Club, and lands on a short personal essay by Alice Walker titled “Beauty: When the Other Dancer Is the Self.”
Then we take a deep dive into what we call the “identity unit.”
On Day 1, students answer two questions in a writing exercise: When someone meets you, what is the first thing that you think they notice about you? What are some things you wish someone knew about you when they first met you? The students break into pairs, sharing some or all of the bullet-point lists they’ve created with each other.
Next, I have students read a modified version of anthropologist Edward T. Hall’s article, “Iceberg Theory of Culture.” In 1976, Hall theorized we all have two significant layers: how we present to others—racial and gender presentation, etc.— and what’s “below the surface”—learning differences, morals, ethics, etc.
Students are asked to process these topics in different ways, sometimes physically. I’ll pose statements like “I think about my race on a daily basis,” or “I have been judged based on perceived socio-economic status,” and students will then move around the room to show where they fall on a spectrum, “agree” on one end, “disagree” on the other. We’ll usually have some class discussion afterward, and I’ll ask them to free-write a paragraph based on the topic.
I recently reached out to one of my former students, Darcy, who now attends Phillips Academy Andover in Massachusetts. She told me by email she still remembered the activity, a full three years later.
“Discussing our identities for the first time felt foreign, strange, and perhaps awkward,” she wrote to me. “However, the conversation about identity became more fluid with each new discussion. I appreciate that the iceberg concept was introduced to me at a young age because the activity forced me to communicate with myself in-depth, something that I know is hard even for adults.”
Once the class has discussed the iceberg and various identifiers, the students turn the lens inward. They spend some time brainstorming all the aspects of their identities, mulling over how much these elements contribute to their self-perception and how the rest of the world sees them.
To drive home these concepts, I have them visually create their own interpretation of the iceberg to depict their identity. In the last few years, I’ve seen students create models to speak for them—an advent calendar, for example, that featured “white” under a box labeled “race,” revealing “multiracial” once a tab was lifted. The student sought to show how important his multiracial Asian ethnicity was to his sense of self, though everyone else perceived him as white. Another student drew a cross-section of an apple, listing her presentational identifiers on the outside and her morals and ethics in deeper layers inside.