Investigating Identity (Ep. 180)

In today’s episode, guest host Sarah Krajewski talks about her own experience investigating identity and how that learning can transfer to the classroom. Listen as she discusses how to approach the topic, what she hears in her classroom, and how we teach our students that everyone is more than simply what you see. Full Episode Transcript Below.

Resources and Links


Sarah: Hello everyone. This is Sarah Krajewski. Thanks for joining me. And thank you to Nic Hahn who’s given me the opportunity to host this podcast for a couple of weeks in her absence. I’m excited to share with you some of the explorations that I’ve had in investigating identity with my students. It’s been quite a ride and our kids have loved having these conversations. So just so you know a little bit more about me, I’m an elementary art teacher in Wisconsin and have been teaching for 10 years. I also have had a few roles with the Art of Education University team, and currently host the weekly Instagram Live chats on our Art of Ed Instagram page. So be sure to tune in on Monday evenings for our weekly chats and all of our past chats are saved to the IGTV tab on Instagram.

It’s kind of like having a live podcast. So if you like listening to podcasts, go ahead and join us live over there, and you can see new guests each week. Also, you have a chance to win a very fancy holographic palette sticker, which shines rainbows in the sun. It is so awesome. And that happens at the end of each episode. We ask a quick trivia question for people that are watching the chat live.

In today’s episode, I’ll be sharing some thoughts, tips, questions, and resources about investigating identity in the elementary art room. Maybe creating self-portraits is part of your curriculum or maybe not. Either way, it can be a really meaningful conversation and even pretty fun to take a step back and reflect on how we talk about identity with our students and the people around them.

So talking about identity has further strengthened my own friendships and relationships, and I’m excited to share. It’s kind of gone beyond the classroom and really reminded me that there is more to people than just of course, what you see. With all of that being said, let’s turn a reflective eye onto investigating identity. I’m Sarah Krajewski and this is Everyday Art Room.

All right, art teacher friends, let’s talk about self-portraits. So we know that when we teach students about self-portraits, it can be a very challenging lesson. There are certain proportions we need, there are mistakes that are made, and it is really frustrating for students when they don’t get their self-portrait to look exactly like them. But now just because something’s hard doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do it.

Of course, if it’s not part of your curriculum to create self-portraits, that doesn’t mean you have to integrate it, but it can be a really meaningful lesson to create with students. So let’s talk a little bit about why it’s important to investigate identity with our young artists and what are some hints and helpful tricks that I have for you. So I’m going to talk about three things today that might help you to get a little bit inspired to have that identity conversation with your students.

So again, just thinking about those frustrations, those complications, those things that make our students kind of shy away from self-portraits are that pressure to get it exactly right. Okay? Even modeling as an art educator, if you create a self-portrait of yourself, chances are it’s not going to look exactly like you because we are not photographers, right? We can’t have portraits look exactly like the initial idea.

Now, some people have really strong talents to make things look more photorealistic, but 1st and 2nd grade and kindergarten kids just don’t. So how we started this lesson was I really wanted to talk to my students about their own identity and taking it a little bit further than simply just what they look like. Of course, we created some collage self-portraits about how our students look, but then when we dug a little bit deeper. So let me start with the first thing I wanted to chat about. And that’s actually how we began our own self-portrait lesson with my 1st and 2nd-grade students.

At the beginning of the lesson, I actually introduced part of a resource by an amazing art educator named Ms. Paula Liz. And you can see more about Paula Liz and how she centers her student voices in the IG live chat that I have hosted with her a few weeks ago. So if you want to see more from her and her resources, we chat a little bit about this in that IG live episode that is saved on the IGTV tab in our Instagram.

So Paula Liz is actually has a lot of really great resources to help students talk about their own identity. And when we started this project, it was around the same time as Martin Luther King Jr Day. And it was important for me to really talk about our students having that connection to what was happening in history and what had happened. Now, of course, you and your students and your class and your administration, you can decide what works best for you. But I was really excited when I found Paula Liz’s video that explained a lot of Martin Luther King Jr’s speech, as well as some really great resources showing what some of the historical artifacts were, as far as some of the really awesome photographs that can help describe things. And some of the past experiences that show us where we are today.

Now in the beginning of our identity unit, we simply just watched the video that Paula Liz had created and talked. So a lot of our first day of creating was talking about what does it mean to be us? So I posed the question to my students. I said, “What does identity mean and what can we do to create something that looks like us and how do we see the differences of other friends?” So, admittedly, let me tell you, I was a little bit nervous about this project because I had never had these kinds of conversations with my students before. Talking about things like skin color, talking about differences between humans.

I hadn’t really gone there with my students and had those conversations. So I was a little anxious. I was a little bit vulnerable, but the more I practiced it just like anything else, the better I felt talking about it. So I decided it was important to model these conversations for my students and using those resources of amazing educators who have already kind of talked about this with their students, and could be there to support me.

So the first day when I had students come to class, we chatted for a bit and we started using the amazing resource that I just called the apple analogy from Ms. Paula Liz. And she has a resource on Teachers Pay Teachers that is called layers of identity, and there’s a photograph or kind of a drawing of an apple, and then three parts of the apple. So for students that I was teaching in 1st and 2nd grade, it felt reasonable to make an analogy to an apple, something that they know and see and understand when speaking about their identity.

If you were to have a conversation with kids that are six-years-old, seven-years-old and talking about what their identity is without comparing it to something, it can be very tricky. So we used our layers of identity worksheet from Ms. Paula Liz, and she broke it down into three ways that we can talk about it. The first way that is kind of like the first layer essentially is our skin. Now when we look at the skin of an apple, you can learn a lot about an apple. Is it bruised? Is it green? Is it red? Is it variegated, right? What does the apple look like? But we know there’s deeper details to an apple than just the skin.

So we talk to our students about what their first layer was. How do they look? What’s their hair color? What’s their race? What’s their age? What kind of clothes do they like to wear? What height do they have? And of course, I modeled this with my students and I said, “All right, Mrs. K is going to start. I’ve got blonde, curly hair. My race is white. My age is 34. My clothes are usually thrifted. I like colorful outfits.” So I kind of showed them what it looks like to reflect about myself.

Let’s also keep in mind depending on how young your students are when you have this conversation, you might want to think about some key terms that they may or may not know. A lot of my students hadn’t heard or really understood the term race. So I needed to just explain to them that that meant sort of a social construct or a term that people use to talk about someone’s skin color. And that we talked about the difference between when that feels negative and when that can be used as an identification. Okay?

So we did have those conversations. And again, the more I talked about it, the more comfortable I felt. So after the skin layer, Paula Liz then digs a little bit deeper with that apple analogy. And she says, “Look closer to the flesh.” So after we look at somebody’s skin and their physical appearance, how do we look a little bit deeper? And the flesh layer has all to do with what we do and what we like. So just a little bit more about us that we can’t see, things like our actions, our interests, our talents, our skills, our language, our ability, all of those things that make us us that we can’t always see.

So again, I modeled this for my students. I said, “All right, friends, Mrs. K, loves making art. I speak English. I love teaching kids. I like running. I did a half marathon a few years ago. I like trying new foods. I like traveling. I like creating books.” So there’s all sorts of things that I quickly listed to show my students that there is something deeper to my identity than what they could just see.

Now, then I threw it out to my students and I said, “All right, friends, can you tell me something about your flesh layer? Meaning the things that you do or like.” Oh, all the hands shot up. The first graders want to tell me all about what video games they love. They want it to tell me about their pets, about their favorite colors, about the vacation they’d been on. You know how kids are. They want to share. So after they’d started talking about, “Okay, these details have to do with my identity.” Then we took it even one more step further.

So we already discussed how the skin layer or the looking layer is the first part, the flesh layer, what we do or our actions is the second layer, but there’s an even deeper layer about our identity. So again, using that apple analogy, we talked about the core of our apple and the core of ourselves. And that core involves things like what we think, what we believe, what we value. Maybe if there’s a religion we practice, our traditions, our hopes, our feelings. So many of those things that are a little bit deeper.

And when I talk to my students about this, I asked them, I said, “My friends, do you think that you share things about your core with everyone you meet?” And of course we said, “Oh no, probably not.” But if you have a trusted family member or a trusted friend, they might get to know you at that core level. So then I demonstrated for them. And I said, “My friends, this is Mrs. K being a little bit vulnerable because I don’t share my core with everyone.” And I told them about how important it was to me that I believe everyone be treated fairly, no matter their ability, their race, their gender, who they love or anything about them.

I also told them that I have special food traditions that I grew up in a household that did some sort of German celebratory food things and we made a pfeffernüsse, which are these special little peppermint cookies. And I would explain things that were special to me and my heritage. I also told them things like, “Mrs. K struggles with anxiety sometimes and I get kind of nervous. I get worried to do something, even though there may not actually be a problem. I get nervous and scared to do it.” And I’d say, “Even sometimes when I teach my students, I get nervous.”

So I was showing how vulnerable I was being by sharing something about my core. Then my students, if they so chose to could share something about their core and they would share important feelings that were important to them. Maybe some would share about their belief in a religion and kind of discuss that a little bit further, what that looked like to have some core ideas to themselves. Now, is this a pretty big topic? Absolutely. Is it kind of intimidating to talk about in the classroom? Of course, it is.

I was a little bit nervous, but can I tell you the conversations that came out of this identity lesson were amazing? I felt like I had an even closer connection to my students that were willing to share a little bit more about what was important to them and their identity. Okay? So then we took after this conversation, we did some steps like creating our skin tone paper, where I gave students black and white and orange and brown and pink and a bunch of different art colors of paint on a plate. And then students were encouraged to experiment and try to get the color that matches their skin most realistically.

Now, the reason probably why they loved this part of the lesson was because I let them paint on their hands to test their skin color and anytime you let them do something out of the ordinary, kids love it. So they created a skin tone paper that matched their own skin. And then the next class, we created some face proportions and I taught them about the parts of the face that we need to add, including how expressive our eyebrows are. So I demonstrated, again, I teach in person right now so I have a mask on and I would just do different facial expressions with my mask on and ask the students, “All right, how’s Mrs. K feeling right now?” And I’d raise my eyebrows and they’d say surprised.

And I would make kind of a confused eyebrow and then see if they could identify what I was feeling. So we talked more about those facial proportions and why it was so important to include all those things on their self-portrait. Now, something that was very silly about this, because I am a firm believer that if we make things kind of silly and low pressure, students will be more willing to try because they don’t fear that failure as much if they’re okay knowing we can just giggle about our art and our art can be funny if it’s a little tricky.

So the very first day we created these really awesome facial proportions. But because of the time we have, we didn’t have time to add any other details. We just had a bald head with all the face details of ourselves. So we giggled and said, “Everybody in our class is bald right now and we love bald people. I have a lot of bald friends, but right now all the 1st graders are bald.” So we giggled about that too.

And the next day they came to art, we added our hair by collaging different kinds of hair details on. And we talked about how we can collage and create work that looks like us. And then I told them they can add some fashion, which is essentially not even something they might own, but maybe they want to make a really cool art shirt using some splatter paint paper. Or maybe if they want their ears pierced at some point and they want to make really cool dangly earrings, they could create some fashion. So giving that a little bit more of an open-ended assignment allowed our students to be really excited about adding their collage.

Now the last part, because you’re probably thinking, “Okay, Sarah, right now, you’re only talking about things that your students look like. You made skin tone paper, you made a face, you made fashion, you got hair on there. Awesome.” But how do we take that to the next level? Well, since we had this discussion using that apple analogy from Ms. Paula Liz, we talked about how we can think about portraying other parts of our identity besides just what we look like.

So the simplest way that I thought of to add to our 1st and 2nd-grade projects was when they were done with their self-portrait. They simply glued that onto a background. And then they had this beautiful, thick frame where they could add words and imagery and pictures and drawing and symbols and patterns that had to do with something that they could not see on themselves. So again, modeled that behavior that had them look for things like, “Can you draw a picture of your favorite video game? Can you draw a picture of the way you think people should be treated? Can you draw a picture or write a word about your favorite show?”

So things that tell me a little bit more about that student going just a bit further than their own self-portrait and what they look like really took that project to the next level. So that was a really fun way to start having those conversations. One of my favorite things to think about when I talk about identity with my students is the fact that there’s a really special awareness when students realize that there are other humans in the classroom. You know those kiddos that come in, they get work in, they get cruising on their work. And then all of a sudden, art’s done and you didn’t even have a chance to talk to them.

So I think it’s important to show our students we see their identity, we see who they are. I see you in the things that make you unique and I know what those things are. Just like an example that I use is when the kids actually turned to me as the teacher and say, “How are you today, Mrs. K? It like kind of throws me off for a second. Because I don’t know about you, but sometimes kids they live in their own world and that’s great, but they don’t always ask about you. So it’s that really important feeling that you’re seeing, seeing your students, seeing your other teacher, being aware of what’s happening around you and noticing what makes someone who they are. So kind of wrapping up that first point was using that apple analogy from Ms. Paula Liz to create our self-portraits with my 1st and 2nd grade students and pushing that self-portrait just a little bit further was a really great way to start investigating our identity.

Now the other two and three tricks I’m going to tell you are just quick things to think about as you potentially investigate your own identity or the ones of your class. So the second tip I have for you is maybe thinking of some other analogies that you feel would be appropriate for your class. So for example, the analogy would be something like an iceberg. When you look at an iceberg, you don’t see all the things below the surface that make an iceberg, an iceberg. There’s stuff hidden. And we know as adult humans, there are almost always things we don’t understand, things we can’t see about the people around us.

So that is not too much different from our students. Maybe they have things that just happened in their classroom that they didn’t share. Maybe they have something happening at home we don’t know about. But showing them an analogy of an actual iceberg and kind of describing and chatting about the fact that there is something below the surface helps students realize that what we see is never all there is.

Another analogy that could work to talk about with your students would be, for example, roots and flowers. So again, things that are sort of hidden below the surface, just like that core of the apple or the flesh of the apple, and then the things that we see. So again, hitting home to our students, the fact that our identity, yes, it’s about you, but it’s more than just what you look like. So I just wanted to give you one little, little hint. In fact, before I tell you about the third little trick and tip that I noticed, I wanted to tell you about another individual that sort of inspired that identity conversation.

And it was, again, another individual that I had the pleasure of chatting with on an Instagram Live chat. And that was with Louis Boria, who is a Puerto Rican knitting, amazing artist who created some knit works and has become like global. He’s amazing. So Louis actually created the beginning of his knitting passion by going to Michael’s one day. He had a dream. He decided that he wanted to investigate knitting a little bit, but had his own anxieties about taking that passion, that desire for knitting a little bit further. And he’s an individual that lives in New York and he was nervous to knit on the subway because he thought people would judge him.

So I love that story and talking to students about what it looks like to identify maybe an anxiety, something you’re nervous about, and then realizing you can push through those anxieties to see, okay, there’s more to the story that I can’t see. There’s more to Louis than we could see. It’s not just a matter of being a little bit nervous or anything on the subway, but there’s more there.

So the second tip that I have is using that identity iceberg to just think about how there’s more to your students that you can’t quite see. And maybe you can connect that to some conversations that you would be interested in having with your students. And the last wrap-up and kind of tip that I have is to use sort of the approach of windows and mirrors. If you’ve ever heard of that, a conversation regarding how our students see themselves and extending their point of view has to do with windows and mirrors.

So let me just give you a quick recap. The phrase windows and mirrors was initially introduced by Emily Style for a National SEED Project. And in this analogy here, in this conversation, she says, “A mirror is a story that reflects your own culture and helps you build your identity.” Absolutely important. “A window is a resource that offers you a view into someone else’s experience, which is of course, incredibly critical to understand that students can’t truly learn about themselves until they learn about others.”

So, yes, of course, it’s important to show our students mirrors. And of course it’s important to show our students outside the world. But those two together< mirrors and windows are able to give our students a really beautiful grasp on their identity [inaudible 00:21:48] And so if you haven’t already taken a peek into the conversation of windows versus mirrors, a great way to do that is to look at or listen to a TED-Ed Talk by Grace Lin. And she talks about the windows and mirrors in your children’s bookshelf, which is of course very appropriate for her conversation regarding the art education world.

Take a look at the books you’re using in your classroom. Take a look at the conversations, the artists, the resources that you’re bringing up with your students and see if you have a diverse group of people. Again, not simply stopping at race, but do you have a diverse group of genders? Do you have a diverse group of ages, a diverse group of creators, of styles? There’s so many ways to really encourage multiple points of view for our students to see.

There’s also a pretty inspirational talk by a high school student, a TEDx Talk by Akhand Dugar. And he talks about windows, mirrors and sliding doors. And the fact that he had a little trouble as a kid seeing himself in the books that he was reading. Just like that windows and mirrors analogy, he was noticing that everything felt like it was somebody else and wasn’t him. So really taking a look at your population of your students and not simply matching them to be mirrors, but trying to challenge yourself to extend a little further. And give them the resources to see outside themselves passing through that beautiful window and seeing a reflection of them and those around them.

So just to kind of end a little bit of this conversation here, Grace Lin is one of the people that was speaking during the TED Talk and a question she posed after she started becoming a children’s book author and illustrator was, “How can I create a vision to share the world if I never even looked at myself?” And I’ll pose that same question to you. When you create with your students in your classrooms, if you’ve taken the time to investigate your identity, it can help you be a stronger role model to talk to your students.

And again, just hitting home those facts, there are many, many conversations about identity that span from similarities and differences of race, gender, religion, interests, location, families, more, so, so much more. So reflecting on your own identity allows you to be better for your students.

And lastly, if you’re a little bit nervous like I was to have these conversations with your students, remember, start small. Maybe part of it is just talking with your students first and showing a little bit of vulnerability to tell them a little more about how you feel or what makes you you. And if you’re even nervous to bring these conversations into your classroom, try it first with the people that you love around you. I can tell you when I chatted with my friends and I was talking about this lesson, it was really cool to tell them about the analogy of the skin, the flesh, and the core of the apple and realized, “Ooh, some of our friends, I don’t know a lot about their core.” Or Hey, “M partner, I really know a lot about their core and that makes me feel like I have a strong connection to their identity.”

So maybe just taking that step back and saying, “Hmm, can I practice a little bit about investigating identity with those around me first and see if it’s something I want to continue in my classroom?” So remembering, taking that step back and just thinking for a moment about what identity looks like in your classroom and how you’re talking about it with your students.

Thank you so much for joining me today. We chatted about three main things when investigating identity. The first tip that was really helpful for me in my classroom was the apple analogy from Ms. Paula Liz. And again, you can look up any of those resources from her to using your classroom. The second thing that helped me was using that analogy of an iceberg and just realizing that there is more beneath the surface of your students and of people around you that you can’t see. Really making an intentional point to see your students and give them that affirmation, “I see you. I noticed that you’re doing a good job or that you need help, or whatever it might be.” So that second one was noticing really specifically what you see in your students.

And the third thing that really helped me today was thinking about encouraging that mirrors and windows approach in your classroom. Making sure your students can see themselves, but can also see further to the people around them. The Art of Ed has a list of 100 children’s books about diversity and inclusion that was compiled and can be a really great stepping off point. If you’re looking to expand your library at your classroom.

There are also many places to find lots of other resources on how you can expand your library or a few TED Talks to think about how you’re talking about identity with your students. And of course, you can see more about my identity lesson or message me on my Instagram page @artroomglitterfairy If you’re looking for a little bit more. The act of forever learning and growing is what makes this job of art education and let’s be honest, this life so amazing. It feels good to learn. It feels good to grow, and it helps us be a little bit stronger to push ourselves outside our comfort zone, which I can assure you I did. And you will also reap the benefits from a little bit.

So consider taking your self-portrait lesson a step further to learn more about your students or try telling your students each day that you see them, you notice what they’re doing and what makes them them. If nothing else, have a discussion with your own kids, your family, your partner, or the people around you about the parts of their identity and see if you’re willing to connect on that core level. In the meantime, keep showing up, keep learning and keep your head up, my friends. We’ve got this.

Magazine articles and podcasts are opinions of professional education contributors and do not necessarily represent the position of the Art of Education University (AOEU) or its academic offerings. Contributors use terms in the way they are most often talked about in the scope of their educational experiences.