Understanding Students’ Identity: Starting the Year With a Student-Centered Focus

Dr. Gholdy Muhammad’s book Cultivating Genius: An Equity Framework for Culturally and Historically Responsive Literacy offers many excellent ideas designed to learn about the identities of our students and plan for joyful learning experiences. In this post, I want to highlight some ideas, especially those experiences that are powerful to explore at the beginning of a new school year in order to create classrooms where students feel seen, heard, valued, and loved. When students feel belonging, they thrive and can engage in deep learning. In addition to Dr. Muhammad’s ideas, I will explore ideas I have used with students and that colleagues have shared with me.

“Knowing self prepares young people to live joyfully in the world…. Young people need to know themselves as well as others who may be different from them…. This knowledge teaches young people how to love and live with differences as they grow older.” ~Cultivating Genius

Dr. Muhammad writes that, “Identity is composed of notions of who we are, who others say we are (in both negative and positive ways), and whom we desire to be” (Cultivating Genius). When teachers provide experiences for students to grow a stronger understanding of their identities, and classmates’ identities, they feel a sense of community and belonging. Belonging is necessary for learning and for feeling human. Identity refers to all of the parts of a person’s self, including in part: culture, learner identity, gender, ethnicity, income, language, neurodiversity, religion, appearance, and sexual orientation.

First teachers must explore their own identities, understanding that these may change over time, and that the more we explore our identities the more we learn about ourselves.

Next, teachers can explore learning with students. Teachers learn about students’ identities, in order to do many things, including:

  • Build relationships and a community where all students feel seen, heard, and loved. These communities are inclusive and value the unique identities and funds of knowledge of each member.
  • Design engaging and relevant learning experiences. When we start with a rigorous standard and what we know about student identity, learning can be meaningful and affirming.

Some ways to explore students’ identities include:

  • Begin by building a safe and trusting community with discussion norms.
  • Have students create self-portraits or collages. They can use any media available, and can include as much about their inner and outer identity as they choose. Some teachers provide a fingerprint template, a folding template, or a web (see Mr. Melvin Makes an Identity Map Fingerprint and Mr. Melvin Makes a Folding Mask Self Portrait).
  • Ask students and observe them with curiosity about who they are. Some questions from Cultivating Genius include:
    • How would you describe yourself to someone who didn’t know you?
    • What would your family say about you? 
    • What would your friends say about you?
    • What do you read, write, or think about in your home and community?
    • How is science, math, social studies, or English language arts important in your culture/ethnicity?” (p. 72)
  • Tell your name story, read stories about names, and ask students to tell their name stories. Emphasize the importance of pronouncing names correctly and calling people the name they wish to use. Make sure students know that some people have a more elaborate name story than others. They can approach this by telling their naming story, telling why their name is important, discussing nicknames and their importance, or anything connected to their names. Connect name to identity by discussing what names tell about our identities and which names we choose for ourselves. Students can share whether their names have a connection to their cultural identities. (Cultivating Genius has more information on this on pages 74-6.)
  • Provide many opportunities for students to tell stories about themselves, through drawing, writing, video, song, talking, etc. Model and provide opportunities to explore all types of stories, because as humans our experiences cover a range of emotions (funny, sad, embarrassing, proud, worried, etc.).
  • Explore hopes and dreams for the year and for the future. This gives powerful insight into what students wish for and who they hope to be. 
  • Seek to understand students’ learner identities by asking questions and finding out about students’ experiences with various subjects. Cultivating Genius offers the idea of inviting students to write biographies of a content area (pages 90-1). Biographies can include when students fell in love with or started to dislike a subject and why; how they learn a subject best (which may change depending on the topic); and how the subject could support hopes and dreams.
  • Collaborate to create a class chart of the various ways a learning experience feels, looks like, and sounds like. Explore how this chart may be different depending on the activity and purpose. Add to the chart over time and make it fun by using a different color each time, to show changes.
  • Provide students opportunities to reflect their learner identity after activities throughout the year. Save these as evidence of deep learning, reflection, and growing knowledge of identities. Some prompts include: I like/d learning about __ because __. It is hard/fun for me to learn __ because __. I showed that I was a learner in __ by __. I learn best when __. I felt __ when learning today because __.

I have witnessed and experienced joy in classrooms where students feel seen, heard, valued and loved. It is evident that the teacher built a strong foundation of trust and community, that the teacher explored their students’ identities to get to know students deeply and plan instruction with intention. When we design instruction based on a deep understanding of standards and the students in each of our classrooms, we create belonging and relevant experiences. As a result, our students experience joy.


Mr. Melvin Makes
Cultivating Genius: An Equity Framework for Culturally and Historically Responsive Literacy, Dr. Gholdy Muhammad