How can educators help students develop their sense of identity?

How do we help kids explore who they are? Where do our kids find mirrors of themselves?

That is not something we can dictate, but something we can encourage. 

Teachers who want to promote a positive sense of self must create a safe place for children to explore their identity. They create that space by promoting diversity through children’s literature.

In her recent professional development webinar, Dr. Noelle Carter, Studies Weekly chief curriculum architect, said the books students read become a part of their identity. The problem is students don’t always see mirrors of themselves in children’s literature, especially students from marginalized groups.

“Focus on reading that brings identity to students,” Carter said about choosing literature for the classroom. “That’s something I’ve gradually learned to be aware of and to think about.”

As Rubine Sims Bishop said in her foundational paper, Windows, Mirrors, and Sliding Glass Doors, “Books are sometimes windows, offering views of worlds that may be real or imagined, familiar or strange … Literature transforms human experience and reflects it back to us, and in that reflection, we can see our own lives and experiences as part of a larger human experience. Reading, then, becomes a means of self-affirmation, and readers often see their mirrors in books.”

Developing Empathy Through Children’s Literature

Books not only develop a child’s sense of identity but also their ability to understand others. When children read stories about people from various cultures, they learn to welcome differences and connect with people in their communities.

“Sometimes we need to see ourselves in the literature we read, and sometimes we need to see new experiences and new worlds, and build empathy,” Carter said.

By incorporating diverse literature into the classroom, educators give students a larger view of the world and the people they share it with.

Love 12 Miles Long, by Glenda Armand

This book tells the true story of Frederick Douglas’ mother. She had to do slave labor in the fields 12 miles from where her son lived. Every day after work, she walked the 12 miles to see her son. She fed him dinner, tucked him into bed, then walked all the way back so she could wake up early the next morning for work. Her love and sacrifice inspired Douglas to become a writer and abolitionist.

Carter said of this children’s book, “You’re seeing them as people of power even though they were in a position where they didn’t have power.”

Love 12 Miles Long not only inspires students, but also gives them a chance to think about their racial identity, how their parents influence them, and who they want to become.

Hair Love, by Matthew A. Cherry

In this children’s book, a father and daughter get ready to go pick up her mother from the hospital. Wanting to look nice for her mom, the daughter asks her father to do her hair.

Carter said she loves this story because it focuses on the daughter’s love and concern for her mother.

“It has nothing to do with race or language or ethnicity,” Carter said. “This is a human-centered issue. Who wouldn’t worry about their mom in the hospital? Who wouldn’t be excited to go pick her up? And yet the way that they get ready and the things that are important to them is very culturally specific, and yet very accessible, so you can feel a part of the story.”

Students are sure to see a mirror of themselves in this story. Even if they have a different family culture, each child can relate to wanting someone they love to come home from the hospital.

Sulwe, by Lupita Nyong’o

Carter shared another example of a human-centered theme in the book, Sulwe. In this book, a girl thinks she’s not as beautiful as her mother and sister because she has darker skin. Her mother tells her, “Real beauty comes from your mind and your heart. It begins with how you see yourself, not how others see you.”

“That’s what cultural authenticity gives students,” Carter said. “Doesn’t every child need to internalize this message?”

Not all children worry about their skin color, but everyone has something they feel insecure about. By sharing this beautiful story with students, educators help children develop positive self-esteem.

And Tango Makes Three, by by Justin Richardson and Peter ParnellAnd Tango Makes Three, by Justin Richardson and Peter Parnell

In this children’s book, based on a true story, two male penguins in a zoo bond, and want to have a family together. The zookeepers give them an abandoned egg, which they help hatch together.

While representing the LGBTQ community, this book focuses on the importance of family.

“All children deserve to be loved, all children deserve to have a family community,” Carter said. “And sometimes, for whatever reason, family or community doesn’t turn out the way you planned, or thought it would. But we can find ways to support each other, rally around each other, build community, and have relationships.”

This book will make students who identify as LGBTQ, or have parents who do, feel welcomed in the classroom. For other students, this story helps them recognize different types of family units, and think about how they can support people in their community.

Studies Weekly Article on Romana Acosta BañuelosRomana Acosta Bañuelos

As another example of a human-centered story that helps students explore their identity,
Carter shared a Studies Weekly article on Romana Acosta Bañuelos.

Bañuelos came from a poor family who immigrated from Mexico to California. She started a successful tortilla factory. Then, to help the Hispanic community, she founded a bank and later became the US Treasurer.

“The beautiful thing about this story is that her background was no longer a liability, but a sign of strength and an opportunity,” Carter said. “If she had not had those fundamental experiences, she would not have known how to help the people that she did.”

Not only does this story give Hispanic students representation into the classroom, but it also inspires students from all backgrounds to turn their challenges into opportunities.

Exploring Identity Activities

Carter shared two teaching strategies to help students use cultural inventories to explore who they are and develop their voice.

This first one from Studies Weekly “is a nice one to help kids enter into the very beginning of exploring who they are and how they define themselves,” Carter said.

This other culture inventory from Janine M. Schall’s World of Words article allows students to identify their age, race, and other factors that shape their identity. Students can do this activity for themselves, but they can also use it to examine characters within literature.

“You can see how this leads into finding out that you have things that are the same and that are different,” Carter said. “And if you’re in literature, this is a great compare and contrast opportunity to find things that are similar and different about a character — and to not be afraid of those, but to welcome them and explore those differences and similarities. So, someone who you thought was very different from you, you may find out is not that different after all.”

Feeling at Home in Children’s Literature

If educators don’t provide an avenue for students to explore identity, where will these children find representation?

Carter’s research shows that children tend to look for a sense of self by joining interest groups online. While these groups can help with child identity development, they cannot replace the unique insights that come from books.

In literature, students read what a character thinks and feels, which helps them develop empathy for the character, regardless of their background. Therefore, educators have a responsibility to introduce students to children’s literature that represents various cultures and creates a safe space for children to discover who they are.

“What I hope is that our students don’t need permission to be a part of the medium of literature because they already feel at home,” Carter said.

To watch the full webinar, sign up here.

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