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Unpacking Identity

I’m sure that many of you felt that this summer’s vacation would never arrive. Parents and teachers alike have just completed the complicated dance of balancing teaching and parenting their children and sustaining work from home. Now that summer is here, it’s important to step back, slow down, and unplug. There is one type of effort however, that need not pause for vacation, and that is social justice work. Whether you are a parent or a teacher, we continue the effort to make our world a more just and equitable place. Even our youngest learners can continue the practice of understanding diverse perspectives, understanding identity, and developing empathetic intelligence. One of the most powerful ways to weave this work into our daily lives is through literature.

Thinking about characters in books is similar to the ways that we must think about the individuals in the world around us. As a teacher, there are questions that I ask ritualistically throughout every read aloud and book club. Whose voice is represented? Whose voice is missing? How can we uncover the point of view that is not present? Who has the power in this situation? Who lacks power? These are the same questions that we ask over and over again when we study history. The goal in the repetition of these questions is that eventually they are internalized by students. They beat like a heart whenever they read, study or meet someone new. 

As we coach children to think deeply about the voices of the characters that they read about, it is essential as students begin to assemble the facets of a character’s entire identity, they learn to unpack the factors that shaped their identity. This may include, socio-economic status, race, gender identity, privilege, trauma, and much more. As children begin to understand these identity shaping elements of character, they can begin to build a better understanding of why the characters make the choices that they make. The practice of working to understand the complex equations of a character’s identity supports the efforts that we as citizens must take in understanding one another. If we learn to analyze the shapers of identity twice removed in the books that we read, once removed as we examine the past, and in real time as we interact with one another, we begin to sculpt a more empathetic world. 

This lesson about the factors that shape a character’s identity was originally designed to be applied to Nathan Hale’s Hazardous Tales graphic novels, which offer humorous historical accounts of turning points in history. It can, however, be applied to any book or story that you read as it coaches students to examine the multitude of factors that influenced a main character’s identity and how those factors may have played a role in the choices and opportunities that the character had. 

Though unplugging this summer is well-deserved, charge up your thinking about the people in the world around you. Understanding the characters in the books that we love, is a step towards understanding the people in our lives. Begin this practice with young children. Repeat it always. Perhaps it will begin to pave the way to a more just, equitable, and empathetic world.

While we are taking some well-deserved time to unplug this summer, let’s continue to improve our empathy about the people in the world around us.  Developing a deeper understanding of the characters in the books that we love is a step toward understanding and embracing the diversity of the people in our lives.  Let us begin this practice with young children, and repeat it often.  Perhaps it will begin to pave the way to a more just, equitable, and empathetic world.

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