Reframing the school as an identity playground: a space for exploration and affirmation


Credit: Allison Shelley for American Education

When you think of a schoolyard, what do you imagine? Children come together to play, explore, share stories, ask questions and more. There is joy. There is curiosity. There is learning. There is no formal structure for how these interactions happen, they just do. It’s natural, organic and comes from a place of humanity.

The playground provides a common space in which exploration and learning are the goals. Imagine if we applied this playground metaphor to students exploring identities in the context of the classroom? Like the playground, they are joyful, curious and learning who they are, comfortably sharing stories and exploring new ideas around identity with their classmates and teacher.

Unfortunately, the traditional (but pervasive) mindset about school purpose does not allow students to dig in and share who they are while feeling affirmed in their identity. In their work, researchers Erendira Rueda and Amy Noelle Parks (2020) discovered what many of us have seen in schools: that students are often encouraged to conform to what the school and society consider the “model” student, which involves not talking, not to question/challenge the teacher, to complete the work and to follow the rules.

Schools are often positioned as places of socialization. Searcher justin saldana has focused much of his work on power and conformity in schools today, and he asserts that “the purpose of the school is the transmission of culture, the process by which the culture of a society is transmitted to his children”.

But whose culture is transmitted? Whose beliefs and values ​​are implicitly and explicitly taught? If members of our districts and schools have a certain set of beliefs about how students look, think, and behave, then students will be stifled in their opportunities to discover, share, and be proud of who they are.

A fourth-grade student in my district, whom I will call Derrick to protect his privacy, revealed that he no longer wanted to be called by his first name, “Brianna”, and asked to be called “he”. and no longer “she”. Derrick’s teacher and classmates honored his request as if he had asked for peanut butter instead of jelly. When curiosity arose, the teacher allowed questions and she or Derrick answered them pragmatically. It was comfortable. It was natural. Humanity was at the forefront of conversations.

Until Derrick’s father heard his teacher call him Derrick, not Brianna. He immediately contacted the principal, demanding that his daughter be referred to as “her” and her first name. For the rest of the year, Derrick was no longer called Derrick. Fast forward to the start of this school year in which Derrick quickly asks to be called Derrick and “him”. This year’s teacher and classmates react the same way to last year’s class; however, the parents soon contact the teacher and warn her to address Derrick by his biological sex. Although reluctant, this teacher continues to see and affirm Derrick for who he is, despite the parents’ request. She is also aware that her choice to honor Derrick’s gender identity is supported by federal legislation Title IX.

Situations like Derrick’s happen in many schools. The students are seated in the classrooms, but are not seen. How do we reframe schooling so that students feel comfortable exploring and sharing their identities? We need to change our mindset so that school is this metaphorical playground. When beliefs about personal matters (for example, culture, gender, and religion) arise, we should not set them aside, but rather honor each student’s right to their identity and beliefs. To clarify, it’s not about elevating one set of beliefs or one type of identity above another. It’s about putting them out there to be explored and understood. Thus, the school can be the playground of everything identities.

In the classroom, we need to consider multiple ways to integrate identity. We often use activity types to get to know you at the start of a new school year. But we should keep revisiting them as the identity of our students goes deeper and deeper, as well as the evolution as they grow throughout the year.

Tools that can help facilitate these explorations include Identity Portraits and Identity Icebergs.

While activities like these help spark the exploration of identity in the classroom, it ultimately depends on the teacher and the lens through which they choose to view their students.

From this perspective, the school is no longer just a place of education, but a place of humanity.


Leigh DelaVictoria, Ph.D., is an instructional coach in the Fontana Unified School District and a 2021-2022 Teach Plus California Policy Fellow.

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