Identity Texts: A Pedagogy for Self-Discovery

Image created on by Shwetangna Chakrabarty

In a world that is becoming more and more globalised, there is an emerging tension clearly visible in the definition of identity. While we have managed to travel around the globe, experience diverse cultures, food and fashion, we also seem to have developed an identity crisis. By ‘we’, I mean all people who identify themselves as global citizens but fail to identify themself. For example, my son represented Tanzania on International Mother Language Day at school even though he is an Indian citizen. Some argue, citing this as an example of global mindedness, the way students/children can adapt to diverse cultures and appreciate them. But on the flip side, these global citizens find it extremely difficult to develop a well-defined identity or a sense of belonging. I find students struggling with the idea of identity when related to language, culture, race and nationality, to the extent that they feel completely alienated. How do we instil a sense of belonging in our students when we want them to relate to every culture they experience? How do we identify a global citizen or how do we create an identity for a global citizen?

A simple idea that I recently came across is integrating Identity Texts into the narrative of global citizenship. Identity text is a way of creating a sociocultural space in the pedagogy and curriculum that can facilitate the learner to share their experiences and identify their natural inclination to their preferred cultural and linguistic context. Students get an opportunity to express their learning approaches and experiences by writing about themselves, their cultural identity, as developed by their experiences. Identity texts can be written, spoken or visual and even musical. They are pieces of evidence from a students cultural heritage, language, ethnicity and race. Identity texts help students to tell and share their stories with their peers and teachers. Identity text is not a pretence rather a prerogative. A simple example is asking students to write about their life journey, family and friends. Students are prompted to share this journey with the rest of the class in the form of a research study, this not only builds vocabulary but also makes the student feel included within a very diverse classroom. Being able to share their stories allows students to go on a journey of self-discovery, which in turn leads to developing an identity in the beautiful but chaotic fabric of diversity.

Identity texts can be used in any classroom particularly in a diverse inclusive classroom. In a diverse classroom, students are from different cultures, nationalities, socioeconomic background, hence they can use their context for learning to feel included. There are opportunities to include identity texts into pedagogy; while activating prior knowledge; when providing a rich contextual background to make the input comprehensible; actively encouraging comprehensible output; drawing the student’s attention to the relationship between form and function, developing learner independence. The whole idea is to make it an integral part of pedagogy, this will also have academic benefits; students will take ownership of their learning; improve communication; learn vocabulary. This is an approach to the holistic development of the student. 

Let me explain with a personal example, I speak four languages, but being multilingual has been very challenging. I think in one language and communicate with another, I even switch to a particular language when I am stressed or angry. Rewinding to my early years, I spent my childhood in the beautiful country of Bhutan, I started my schooling in school in a town called Wangdue Phodrang where the medium of instruction was English. After completing my primary and middle years in Bhutan my family moved back to India where I started school in the Indian system. Though the medium of instruction was English the methodology was very different, and I had to learn a new language-Hindi. Even though I was in my home country India, I felt like a misfit. This experience evoked a sense of wanting to go back into a very diverse classroom with friends who would look different, speak different languages and yet have a sense of camaraderie, belonging and understanding each other’s differences. I had to adapt to this new system without questioning or asking for help as there was no system in place that helps students to transition and adapt to a new environment. I struggled the first few years due to a lack of support for cognitive development and negative stereotypes towards students not fluent in Hindi. My parents hired a tutor to teach me the language, even though I picked it up I struggled with it even through high school. For most of my school life, I focused on improving on Hindi while I could have used that in subjects that mattered to me. I could have benefited if my curriculum included a provision for identity texts. If I was allowed to share my story, I would have felt more included in my school and probably learnt better. Identity texts did not exist in pedagogy or curriculum.

Respecting cultural identity improves teacher-student interactions and peer-to-peer relationships. This also allows the development of language, vocabulary, identity and self-esteem. The use of identity texts can improve cognitive engagement and identity investment (Cummins, 2001). Identity texts will help students in their journey of self-discovery.

Cummins, J. (2001). Negotiating identities: Education for empowerment in a diverse society. 2nd Edition. Los Angeles: California Association for Bilingual Education. 

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