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How should we respond as teachers–as a society–to the news that a 14-year-old boy has taken his life?  How do we digest the news that once again this tragedy occurred because he just couldn’t endure further bullying regarding his sexual-orientation?  There are no easy answers to these questions, and the truth is, if educators could prevent this type of behaviour and its unfortunate results, we would have already done so!  We are powerless to control the out-of-school behaviour of students on social networking sites, but we can model an acceptance and support of all youth identities within the four walls of our classroom!  Recent events have forced me to consider deeply what it truly means to ‘support youth identities’ in my classroom.  It’s my privilege to share my ideas thus far, in hopes that together we might further this important conversation.

While it is important to support the identities of subgroups within our classes (ie. gay/lesbian, racial, etc.), my concern is that we may be ill-equipped to do so if we haven’t first given sufficient consideration to what is meant by ‘supporting youth identities’ in a broader sense.  All teenagers (and pre-teens) we encounter will be undergoing many changes as they mature and develop, and will be formulating and refining their understanding of their ‘personal identities’.  As educators, (particularly in English classrooms, where literature and oral/written expression are perceived as gateways to greater understanding of self/others/the world) we have a unique opportunity to provide support and a framework through which students can arrive at a greater understanding of how their identities are shaped as they negotiate a place within youth culture, and the world at large.  As such, it is my assertion that to truly support the identities of our students, we must 1) validate who they already are, and 2) encourage/promote exploration of who they are becoming.  The second part can’t happen unless we successfully do the first part (a harder task than we might think).

It is essential that we first build a vocabulary around personal identity that is not unlike that often employed in the English classroom when students are asked to enunciate the ‘traits’ of a particular character in a piece of literature.  I might seek to define ‘personal identity’ as the culmination of the individual the subject professes to be, and the one he/she displays through action.  We describe our identity by talking about who we believe we are, and for many teenagers this is understood in the context of what they do and do not ‘like’.

This follows with the Post-Structuralist notion that we perceive our identity in opposition to others, differentiating from one another through careful selection of what we will ‘consume’, thus emphasizing by omission what we are not.  We are regularly reminded that our identities are not fixed, are in fact unstable, and consequently, the idea of the ‘bounded self’—of a solid, finalized identity that must be constantly re-enforced through repeat performance–is disrupted.

By asking students to bring into class something that has recently proven to be ‘meaningful’–in other words, something they ‘like’–we establish the classroom as a place where their interests, their culture, and their personal lives are not only welcome but worthy topics of discussion.  It’s so much more than a ‘fact-finding mission’.  Many teachers begin the year with a survey that asks students to list favourite movies, books, musicians, hobbies, etc.  What exactly happens after that?  Does the teacher go home and download all those songs and watch all of those movies in effort to understand his/her students?  Would it matter if we did?  These, and other ‘get to know you’ activities, neither challenge or validate youth identities!

I would guess that in the majority of cases, one of two things is typically done with such surveys:  a) the teacher reads that student X likes hip-hop music or skateboarding and makes a snap judgment about that student based on all the other students he/she has taught who liked hip-hop music or skateboarding, or b) the teacher conscientiously and with the best intentions tries to incorporate hip-hop music into a poetry unit, for example.  I think it’s obvious why the first response is problematic.  The difficulties with the second response are perhaps a little less apparent.  To understand why a teacher introducing hip-hop music into the poetry unit may prove problematic, I’ll turn to one of the giants of Cultural Theory, but first, this clip from “Modern Family” illustrates the point in a humorous way.

It’s always fun to laugh at dads who think they’re hip but aren’t.  The problem is, as teachers we often act the same way.  What was ‘hot’ when Zac Efron did it just doesn’t have the same effect when it’s your dad, or your teacher, and I’m sure that if we’re honest, we can think of times when we at least approached this type of behaviour!  Last fall, I checked out the new Kanye West album because everywhere I looked there were phenomenal reviews of this album, and I consider myself to be open-minded, so even though I usually listen to folk and indie music I thought I’d give it a serious listen.  Secretly, I was thinking about application for the classroom, but in the end I decided that even though I could appreciate the creativity and some of the lyrics, I wasn’t going to use it until I took the time necessary to understand in greater detail what it meant to my students.  Several of my colleagues have attempted activities involving creating Facebook pages for literary characters, and students have been less than enthused.  Pierre Bourdieu presents a compelling argument for why this occurs.

Bourdieu says that, “[a] work of art has meaning and interest only for someone who possesses the cultural competence, that is, the code, into which it is encoded.”  I could transport Kanye West into my classroom, but if I didn’t possess the cultural code necessary to truly understand his music and his lyrics, the students would quickly recognize that I was merely appropriating it for my own educational purposes, and consequently, cheapening something potentially meaningful and influential in their lives.  Bourdieu’s work is, of course, aimed at describing the variables that account for ‘taste’ with regard to artistic appreciation, but I think it’s reasonable to argue that this notion of ‘cultural competence’ can also be understood as a strong reminder that we must exercise humility as we seek to incorporate youth culture into our lessons and our pedagogy.  We can never hope to remain current (even if we do spend hours on YouTube listening to all of the artists named on the student surveys) and despite our best efforts, we may never ‘get it’.

In many ways, we’re not supposed to get it.  In the late 70’s, guys like Hebdige, and later on, Malcolm McLaren, wrote about ‘punk subculture’ and how it was all about “a decisive break with the parent culture”.  It “[represented] the experience of contradiction” and “expressed itself through rupture”.  Much of collective youth identity and youth culture today exists to a lesser degree for exactly the same reason, and thus, we will and should meet resistance if we work too hard to sanitize and legitimize it for the purposes of ‘learning’.  So what’s the alternative?

Perhaps it is appropriate, even in an age where we agree that engaging students using New Media and modern-day alternatives to traditional texts is a positive step forward, that we recognize the dangers of boldly trespassing where we haven’t yet been invited to tread.  True validation of the identities of our students and the cultural artifacts that are so closely tied to their identities comes when we 1) invite students to educate us about who they are, 2) humbly relinquish any pre-conceived notions we have that our expertise qualifies us to aptly ‘read’ their code, and 3) aim to bring clarity to the ways in which what they find meaningful (what they ‘like’) is an outward expression of feelings, truths, and relationships that make them who they are.

Let us not discount our influence and our ability to validate and encourage the development of student identities.  We may never know when the support and acceptance of a respected adult might prevent the next Jamey Rodemeyer from a devastating and irrevocable decision.

What might you do or what are you already doing in your classrooms to support youth identities?  How can we apply in practice the theoretical framework outlined above? (I have a few ideas but I’m excited to hear yours!)

If you are interested in reading more regarding Cultural Theory, I would be pleased to pass along bibliographic details for the sources cited above.