The Book is Not The Cover

↪ Student Writings
Change is central to the direction we provide and the pedagogical structures we create. At the end of every year we reflect on our efforts, evaluate the challenges, celebrate our successes, and consider new directions for the following year. Then we meet our new students, learn the details of our course schedule and school calendar, and reconsider our plans. It was no different at the start of the 2011-2012 school year. This year we felt strongly that we needed to challenge our students to deepen their understandings of themselves and others and to examine how knowing one’s own identity, ideologies, aspirations, and prejudices influences the networks you engage in, the work you do, and the future you create.

In August 2011, Julie welcomed 45 students into her Find My Voice through Writing ELD courses – mostly new students with a handful of returning Finding Voice participants. After getting to know the students, we sketched out ideas for a project about “identity” that we felt would offer rich opportunities for language and literacy development, as well as shift them toward a space of self-directed learning and personal agency. We framed our project around the past, present, and future. We encouraged the students to reflect and ask themselves: What path did I take to be in this particular place at this particular time? How do I see myself, how do others see me, and how do I want to be seen? Who are the multiple selves I inhabit when at school, home, or work, and how are those selves influenced by the multiple gazes and perceptions of others? And where and who do I want to be in the future?

We anticipated that students might encounter prejudices, gaps, or obstacles they would want to address though social justice work. As the year unfolded, we discussed, debated, got energized and overwhelmed by these challenges, and as a result we adjusted and redirected our work plan.

From November through March students explored their past and present through photography and writing. We first asked students to consider how they came to be sitting in Room M219 at Catalina Magnet High School in Tucson, Arizona. What were the tracks they followed?  Julie told parts of her life story through writing and Josh shared his through photography, and then the students began telling their own stories. Their stories varied in structure, some told chronologically and others as a series of flashbacks, and they grew into the longest texts these English Language Learners had ever written.

After breaking for winter holidays, we resumed our exploration of identity. Our intent was to have students explore how they perceived themselves and others and how others perceived them based on identity traits such as socio-economic status, race/ethnicity, sex and gender, sexual orientation, religion, and culture, among others. It took many weeks to unpack these terms and gain some understanding of what each meant, both generally and in relation to one’s individual identity. We then turned to writing “simple” descriptive essays about self, highlighting those aspects of identity that were most important to one’s self-definition.

To complement and illustrate their writing, students were asked to make photographs of themselves, their homes and their lives.  This work was particularly challenging given the many issues that arise when working with visual media: How do you photograph your past, present, and future identity without getting trapped by stereotypes and cultural expectations? How does one express parts of themselves that are often buried within (compassion, love, insecurity) and not limit the visual representation to a material manifestation? To accomplish this photographic task, students first documented their different identities primarily outside of school – as caretakers, sisters and brothers, employees, soccer players, practicing Hindus, Muslims, or Christians, and so on. Second, students created formal portraits of their identities by photographing each other in an ad-hoc studio we created at school. Lastly, some students dug into their personal family archives to share old photographs from their lives prior to arriving in the United States.

As the year rolled on, we asked students to write and photograph using increasingly abstract forms, such as the studio portrait work and poetry writing, completely unfamiliar genres for many. The third quarter quickly drew to a close and we had to decide if, how, where, and when to share our work, and for what purpose(s), which audience(s), and in what format(s).

Making decisions with 40 people is not an easy task, but eventually we decided to share their essay, poetry, and photo work through t-shirts, website publication, and the creation of a book. Some students were nervous about sharing their work so publicly, but felt assured knowing they would ultimately decide which texts and photographs would be selected for publication. The challenges of selecting text and photographs for publication are profound, particularly when the lens is directed at one’s self and one’s life. Imagine trying to select 2-3 images and 1-2 pieces of writing to represent yourself, while navigating ego, peer pressure, media messages, family and teacher expectations, cultural norms, body image and self-esteem issues, and the knowledge that your photographs and writing will be shared in a book for all to see. Notwithstanding all this, the students persevered in this endeavor because they believed sharing their written and visual texts, could help people see each other from both “the outside and the inside” (as one student put it), and could help reduce prejudice and stereotyping.

What is interesting – and the reason that we love the work we do – is that this enthusiasm did not go unchallenged. One student said he did not want to share his story. When asked why, he coldly replied, “Nobody cares. This won’t change anything.” Similarly, a classmate expressed concern about what might be published and how it might be perceived.  He said, “I don’t want people’s pity.” These sentiments were most clearly articulated by two students, and yet others almost certainly felt at least traces of this doubt, cynicism, unease, confusion, and mistrust. We have encountered this every year since starting Finding Voice, and anticipated it even more this year while exploring self-identity.

What does it mean to present the identity work of 38 diverse young people who happen to have come together in the Finding Voice Project this year? How will their writings and photographs be read and interpreted? What will people walk away with from this book and what will they do with that information? What will the students themselves gain from this publication and from exploring their representations of identity? Will they be able to see each other more clearly and compassionately? Will anyone gain a deeper understanding of identity formation and re-formation? Will there be any transformation?

We hope that the words and images from this year’s work will inspire us, as a community, to recognize the multiple lenses we wear and to celebrate complexity, thus creating space for each individual to play, learn, achieve, build, design, construct, and reconstruct.