In order to promote engagement and engender achievement in the classroom, we as teachers must appreciate how “identity narratives” impact perceptions of societal roles.
The great Nigerian novelist, and a professor of mine at Bard College, Chinua Achebe once stated that:
“People from different parts of the world can respond to the same story if it says something to them about their own history and their own experience…”
It is thus in classrooms where we can help to nurture these commonalities and identify connections. I believe that in today’s pluralistic society, we must be ever more flexible in our teaching-styles and use a variety of tools in evaluating success. Our mandate is to develop pedagogy that respects and values differences, to create learning communities that deliver warmth and opportunity without devolving into rigidity or conformity, to cultivate character by promoting academic growth and personal transformation.
Children, especially those growing up in under-privileged inner city neighborhoods, are at risk of reverting back to their community’s expectation and scripted narrative of failure. In Young Gifted and Black: Promoting High Achievement Among African-American Students, the authors argue that if “identities are the stories we tell ourselves and the world about who we are…” then the most important thing schools, families, and communities can do is to figure out how to develop among African-American children and youth, identities of achievement.”
As we ourselves are in constant negotiation with those “stories,” our purpose as educators is to help students to recast their identities in ways that contribute to a story of hope and success. In the final analysis, teaching is about connecting with people, as individuals, on a personal level. By helping students identify shared stories – narratives which render virtuous tales of courage, humility, integrity, and kindness in spirit – we are modeling for students how those principles can be applied to a common way of life, giving children the confidence to open up in order to connect with anyone, regardless of cultural beliefs or customs. In doing so, we are fostering a shared understanding of what it means to be a member of today’s pluralistic society.