Summer Reading Series: Being the Change

By Dr. Sarah Ropp

This is the seventh entry in our dialogic pedagogy summer reading series. For more on the series and a full list of texts, see here

Title: Being the Change: Lessons and Strategies to Teach Social Comprehension (published 2018; $25; available to purchase HERE)

Author: Sara K. Ahmed 

Context of Creation: The author is a K-12 educator who has taught in urban, suburban, public, independent (private), and international schools in the U.S. and abroad. She is currently a literacy coach at NIST International School in Bangkok, Thailand and has served on the teacher leadership team for Facing History and Ourselves. She wrote this book in order to help educators “create learning conditions where kids can ask the questions they want to ask, muddle through how to say the things they are thinking, and have tough conversations” about identity, ethics, unconscious bias, injustice, and violence (xxii). She defines “social comprehension” as the ability both to comprehend social issues “and participate in relevant, transparent conversations” about them in order to “make meaning from and mediate our relationship with the world” (xxv). 

Context of Reception: As a teacher who has worked in K-12 public school settings, adult education, and in the college classroom, I firmly and passionately believe that many of the pedagogies we think of as “for children” are equally appropriate and beneficial for older learners — high school, college, and beyond. As an ESL teacher in the U.S. and abroad, I have taught groups of children as young as four years old, groups of adults into their seventies, and virtually every age group in between. In my experience, adult learners respond just as well to playfulness, affirmation, collaboration with classmates, and scaffolded, differentiated learning structures as elementary-aged children do (and need them just as much). I wanted to include at least one text in this summer reading series that was geared at K-12 educators rather than higher-ed faculty, and I chose this one on a whim after having stumbled on it by chance in the course of some other internet search. I read the first couple chapters as the small plane I was in was preparing to lift off from West Yellowstone, Montana — felt immediately buoyed and excited by it — and then had to put it down to watch as stunningly beautiful views opened up outside my little window. The fact that I was literally soaring above a spectacular landscape for much of the time I was reading this book (as well as heading home well-rested and on a high from days of more intimate interaction with that same landscape) no doubt contributed to the figurative sense of soaring I experienced while reading it — but only partly. I found every single activity Ahmed described applicable to a college classroom, and the pitfalls and tensions she addresses are the same ones I’ve experienced in the course of dialogue facilitation with undergraduates and faculty. I will be referring back to this book again and again. 

Overview of Structure and Content: Ahmed has structured the book in five chapters, each dedicated to a core foundational concept for social comprehension: Exploring Our Identities, Listening with Love, Being Candid, Becoming Better Informed, and Finding Humanity in Ourselves and Others. Each chapter contains two to three scaffolded lesson plans related to the concept. In every lesson, in addition to a step-by-step plan, Ahmed also includes the lesson’s rationale and any relevant definitions; ideal moments at which to implement such a lesson; a range of suggested texts; sample student work; and an “Addressing Tensions” section at the end with suggestions for anticipating and responding to common points of friction. 

Every chapter is framed by an introductory section in which Ahmed shares her experiences, both personally and in the classroom, with the topic, referring often to her own identity as a child of Muslim Indian immigrants in the U.S. Every chapter ends with a short section entitled “Synthesis: Making Thinking Visible” with final thoughts to tie the lessons together. 

Resources for Teachers: 3 In-Depth Activities  

For the second week in a row, I am going to depart from the 3-2-1 structure. Instead, I’d like to offer a linked, scaffolded series of three activities, two of which are adapted for a higher-ed classroom from Ahmed’s activities and one of which is fully my own. These activities can each be done separately from the others, but are powerful as a sequential series and applicable across disciplines and topics. 

  • Lesson 1: Where We’re From (Identity Webs + “Where I’m From” poem) 

Ahmed defines identity webs as “personalized graphic tools that help us consider the many factors that shape who we are” (5). In her example, an identity web is a basic cloud diagram, where each person clusters different aspects of their identities around their name in the center of the page. Importantly, Ahmed does not differentiate between personal identities (e.g. “hard worker” or “creative” or “soccer player”) and social identities (e.g. ethnicity; class; disability; religion) for the purpose of this activity, which is to explore and affirm selfhood as well as build community in a group of learners. 

While we may often have students name and reflect on their identities in a college classroom, in my experience, we commonly focus exclusively on a prescribed list of major social identities, and exclusively through a privilege/oppression lens (for example, having students name their social identities and then reflect on the degree to which each major identity they possess confers privilege or disadvantage in social institutions and situations, as in this basic activity). This is absolutely a valuable exercise and conversation in which to engage students (preferably many times over and with increasing complexity and nuance). The “Fish Is Fish” activity, below, is in fact a version of such an exercise. 

However, I suggest that we run a few risks in focusing immediately and only on identity through the privilege/oppression lens. One is that we might inadvertently communicate to students that their various identities only matter or have meaning through this lens. Another is that we might unintentionally center Whiteness, maleness, able-bodiedness, and other privileged identities through this exercise, since a common assumption is that members of oppressed groups already know they are disadvantaged due to these identities, but it’s people who possess a lot of privilege who really “need” the exercise (and it’s their epiphany moments we are often striving for when we facilitate the activity). 

An identity web, combined with a “Where I’m From” write-alike poem that explores objects and details related to the writer’s identity, focuses first on the student’s own sense of who they are, both personally and socially. Ahmed presents identity webs and “Where I’m From” poems as two distinct lesson plans, but I think they can be combined into one for a college classroom, particularly since the poem can be done as homework. 

Where We’re From Lesson (50-60 minutes, or 20-30 minutes of in-class time + homework)

  • Introduce the concept of an identity web and model its creation by sharing your own identity web (you can have this prepared or do it in real-time; either way, perform a think-aloud so students can access your process of reflection). Make sure that your web is not just a simplistic list of your social identities but also includes personal identities related to your qualities, passions, and values. Not everything you include needs to be something you feel unequivocally “positive” about — and in fact, Ahmed stresses that it is helpful for students if you address aspects that you feel some sense of tension, friction, ambivalence, or conflict with. Ahmed notes that you can also model the right to assert privacy by, for example, including an aspect of your identity but declining to comment on it (“I’m not prepared to share about this one yet”). I’d add that you can also censor out an identity on your web with a black bar and let students know you included it for your own purposes but don’t want it to be public. You can see a version of Ahmed’s own identity web here. (5 minutes)
  • Have students make their own identity webs (5 minutes). Let them know that they can modify the format if they like (for example, a more visual web that includes sketches). 
  • Have students share their webs. Turn to a partner and present, or do a gallery walk in which webs are posted on the wall or to a digital whiteboard (like Padlet) and students can roam around, physically or virtually, checking out each other’s webs. Make it clear that students should not be critiquing or commenting on the contents of one another’s webs — just taking them in, and thanking each other for sharing. (5-10 min)
  • Discuss as a whole group the experience of making and sharing the webs: what students chose to include or not include, connections they discovered with others in the room, how it felt to share them, etc. You can also ask students when they last did something like this and why they think they are being asked to do this in a college classroom (5-10 min).
  • “Where I’m From” activity. This asks students to first take in 2-3 examples of others’ Where I’m From poems (5 minutes) and then write their own (10-15 minutes, or as homework). As the instructor, you should write your own version, too! After they’ve written their poems, come back again to debrief the activity. Share your poem, or portions of it, and invite students to share as well. Something I like to do when I am facilitating writing workshops is to invite everyone to share out their favorite line or section from what they’ve written, without disclaimers or explanations about the context. This can be done orally, in a go-around, or folks can copy-paste into the Zoom chat. It can also be done anonymously via Mentimeter, which will generate a real-time visual map that can be saved as a PDF.
  • Circle of Objects” is an activity that is a close cousin to a Where I’m From poem that could either supplement or replace the poem, depending on the time you have, the topic of your course, and your own style. 
  • Lesson 2: Perspectives (Fish Is Fish narrative reflection). 

This activity moves from exploring identity and background to considering the limitations of the perspectives afforded by our identities, experiences, and environments, using the children’s book Fish Is Fish (Leo Lionni, 1970) as a framework for reflection and dialogue. I find endless reason to draw from children’s literature in my courses, whatever the topic is and whatever the age group and demographics of my students. In my experience, people never outgrow the pleasure of being read to, and it brings me so much joy to open a picture book and see my students first smile indulgently, and then visibly relax into peaceful, rapt listening and genuine engagement. Beyond this atmospheric, community-building aspect, children’s stories are frequently richly philosophical and allegorical, and a wonderful springboard for dialogue for this reason. 

In this story, a frog returns to the pond where he lived as a tadpole to visit his old friend the minnow, now a full-grown fish. He regales the fish with fantastic tales of life on land, but the fish, in trying to picture creatures like birds and cows and humans, can only imagine a fish with wings, a fish with udders and horns, a fish on two legs, dressed in a suit and carrying an umbrella….

This activity asks students to reflect, write, and discuss moments of “mis-imagination” they have experienced. There are multiple read-alouds of the story on YouTube (here or here, for example), but it’s nice to read it aloud yourself to your students, if you can. Ahmed stresses the importance of modeling and “making thinking visible” throughout Being the Change; like bell hooks, she believes that we should not ask students to be vulnerable in ways we are not prepared to be. Therefore, please do share the limitations of your own perspective with students. 

The activity as created is pretty basic, but there is plenty of potential for layering in nuance — by linking the dialogue more explicitly to privilege and oppression, asking students to create an action plan for further interrogating and addressing their biases and gaps in knowledge and experience, and so on. Other extensions include the following: 

  • Ahmed has her students center their identity webs on a larger piece of paper, so that there is a border framing it. Inside this border, she has students write how they are perceived by others based on their identities (e.g. “terrorist” as a Muslim; “tomboy/not girly enough” as an athletic woman). She then has students craft “I Am” statements to reject these misperceptions and assert pride in their identities. 
  • This video resource from the Blanton Museum uses Tavares Strachan’s 2012 installation I Belong Here to have students reflect on their journey from their “home pond” to the “UT pond” and articulate why they belong here.

 

  • Lesson 3: My News. 

This final resource is lifted whole-sale from Ahmed, and is designed to “push forward from student-centered to socially minded classrooms” (77) by providing students with a framework for understanding how their reactions to the topics that consume their concern are related to their identities, as well as taking action to address gaps in understanding. 

Ahmed starts by having students list their “news,” which is not narrowly defined to news media but includes “any topic, event, feelings, or pieces of information that they have on their mind[s] and will most likely carry with them all day” (79) — from an upcoming party or recent fight with a friend to a police shooting or natural disaster, or anything in between. Using the first two columns of this chart, students record their reaction to their news: thoughts, feelings, opinions, and questions. 

Sharing her own news of the day, Ahmed models thinking through how the topics on her mind and her strong reactions to them are linked to her identities and experiences. She also models how her strong reactions might affect her ability to be more thoughtful or empathetic at times and thinks aloud through the process of slowing down and considering what she does not know about this piece of news. 

Finally, students are asked to craft a plan for action that might include further inquiry and research and/or mobilization to contribute towards healing for themselves and others, mitigation of the problem, etc. It might simply be to think and process a while longer through journaling or to take care of themselves/seek care through their sorrow. Ahmed gives students time in-class to initiate their action plan and then calls them to report back, reflect on how/if their initial thinking has evolved, and re-assess to determine new/ongoing action (e.g. are they ready to move into inquiry or mobilization now? Have new questions come up that they now need to research? etc). 

While this is a lesson that can be done as part of this series on exploring identity and perspective, Ahmed notes that it can be brought in or revisited whenever “the world hands us a curriculum the night before” in the form of large-scale events shared widely on social media, as well as “when there is any measure of crisis at school, as a way to address the issue without artificially smoothing it over” (80). If you have wondered how to meaningfully address such events and crises beyond a helpless and awkward acknowledgment, perhaps this will help.

Another option is to borrow Dr. Gloria González-López’s collective freewriting technique

Next week . . .

We will be reading How to Talk About Hot Topics on Campus: From Polarization to Moral Conversation (Nash, LaSha Bradley, and Chickering, 2008). 

 

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