To Know Me, You Must Know You, First

The youth of our nation cries out.

Are we hearing them, all of them? Are we truly centering their collective cry in our hearts and in our actions?

No. Tragically, we are not.

We can, though, especially in emancipatory spaces, those critical spaces where the voices of youth are centered as they unpack thinking around privilege, power, and oppression, where knowledge is seen as a co-constructed process constantly in negotiation between children and adults, and where adults seek to de-center their power by critically re-examining their positionality with children. Many of these spaces are emerging in classrooms across this nation by critical educators who see education as the practice of freedom, as Paulo Freire eloquently outlined in his seminal work Pedagogy of the Oppressed. As a nation, though, we shamefully are not hearing youth, not even attempting to listen to children in many cases. Adults are caught in the falsity of their adult privilege web, believing that speaking for, over, or around children is their right as elders to a younger generation. We are not listening as a collective adult group, to dire ends.

I am a straightforward and transparent person; there is little time to position myself as anything other. As such, I will be explicit with you about what I want, why, and how you have a critical role to play in this narrative, to make it one of hope for children, not an unending tragedy.

What I Seek, and Why

I seek to see my child survive to adulthood.

And I seek to see my child thrive along the way.

I seek to see my child’s peers survive to adulthood, too.

And I seek to see my child’s peers thrive along the way. All of them.

My child is a transgender person, proudly living his life visibly in all the public spaces he occupies. This matters; it matters a great deal that you know this part of his identity. While it by no means defines the essence of his entire self, it is a part of him, an important part of him. It is one part of the myriad melodies that work in concert to form the glorious person that he is and the breathtakingly powerful person he is becoming.

It matters that you know this aspect of his identity, that of a transgender person, for many reasons, two of which I’ll highlight here. First, you’ve the power to effect change; I’ll get to that in a moment. Second, it matters that you know this aspect of his identity as a transgender person because of the urgency of this matter.  A recent peer-reviewed paper, based on a study of transgender youth (found here and here), outlines the current state our transgender youth find themselves in: transgender “adolescents are twice as likely to have suicidal thoughts as the general population” of adolescent youth, with factors of depression and school-based victimization factoring heavily into this reality. Take a moment to read the articles, please, so you have the words from the researchers themselves. Now, please re-read that sentence I just typed above once more and pause to think about the ramifications of what that means: twice as likely to have suicidal thoughts, much due to school-based victimization. My heart aches for my child and his transgender peers for the world they have to endure, for the situations they are made to confront in the spaces that are supposed to be some of the safest for them: their schools.

Pathways Forward: We Talk About These Things

This is where my first reason for centering my child’s gender identity comes in: I seek you out as an accomplice in this work.  As an educator of children or as a family or community member who has children in your life, you have the power to change this often tragic narrative for a nation of transgender youth who are just trying their hardest to survive the harshness of growing up and simultaneously confronting the school-based bullying, harassment, and often victimization on school campuses.

In addition to seeking for my child and his transgender peers a childhood where they not only survive but thrive, into adulthood, I also seek out pathways that begin to enable educators to create the conditions within their classrooms and schools that can ensure that all children are cared for in safe, inclusive spaces that do not silence their voices or identities. Specifically, I’ve been researching pathways educators are creating in their classrooms that enable them to create these emancipatory spaces, where students engage in transformative dialogue with one another about their growing understanding of the myriad identities we all inhabit, including a growing awareness of transgender youth identities. Ultimately, I seek to support teachers in their efforts to support student’s minds to grow broad and hearts to grow in depth with empathy and compassion for one another.

To make this work concrete for you, I will center Ms. J and her students, a dynamically critical 5th-grade educator in a Title 1 school in a large urban school district. I will attempt to illustrate the work she and I, as a guest co-collaborator in her democratic classroom, created in her classroom at the beginning of this school year to begin this critical work of creating dialogical spaces where children have the opportunities to use critical literacy to center dialogue as they grow in awareness by learning about ideas of identity, privilege, power, and oppression. All this, while also pushing back against the hegemonic narrative that would render much of their lived experiences silent and funds of knowledge underutilized in their school spaces.

Ms. J and I have been colleagues for many years now and we’ve centered this work together going on two school years (you can find some posts outlining our work together last school year on this blog). A question on our minds as we went into the beginning of this school year was: How do we artfully edge into the conversation of power, privilege, and oppression and the societal implications of wearing identities that are constantly being pushed to the margins by those around you? Our developing answer to this initial question of ours: With humility, honesty, and critical literacy practices that center identity, so children can begin to deepen their awareness and empathy of all the breathtaking identities we all wear, can be respectful and compassionate toward one another, can begin to understand how power is linked to certain privileged identities in our nation, and how they can work against this narrative to change it in big ways. Essentially, we seek for children, and the adults they will one day become, to have concrete ways to show one another their humanity. Because I am transparent with you, I’ll name this plainly: I hope you see yourself in this journey of ours and can find it in your will to construct a pathway of your own to center this deeply critical work with the youth in your life.

Empancipatory Spaces: Curriculum, Methodology & Structures 

As Ms. J and I pondered ways to imagine her democratic space as one of transformative power, where her students could begin the deep work of delving into these courageously brave and critical conversations around identity, it hit me. What do kids love beyond love? Anything visually captivating, especially if it’s of digital origin, right? Using an artfully visual documentary to begin to unpack the concept of identity seemed like a beautifully engaging way for her students to co-construct their understanding of the identities we all wear. Through the methodology of shared reading with much room for exchange of dialogue among peers, we used visual literacy as our first step.

Visual Literacy In Dialogic Spaces.

Kalhil KJ Adames’ award-winning short documentary entitled “Identity” is truly magnificent. It’s essentially about the creation of self and evolving identity. You can find it here. It’s under 5 minutes, so have a look, and then come on back. If you go watch it now, it’ll build much-needed schema for you. Okay, you’re back! So here’s a bit of how we designed this first step: All Ms. J’s students were gathered in her meeting area, ready to take in this film. We set them up to watch it three times, each time with a different lens in mind.

  • First, I asked them as they watched it to think about what they noticed. After watching it, they did a quick turn and talk with a thinking partner about their noticings.
  • Second, I asked them as they watched the short film again, to think about how it made them feel. After watching it a second time, they checked in again with their partners to add to their emerging dialogue.
  • Third, I asked them to consider what they thought the adult filmmaker/writer wanted the audience to take away from watching the film; essentially the author’s message to their audience.
  • They watched the film for the third time and again discussed their thinking. We then opened up a grand conversation with the entire group of 34 students to build upon one another’s discussions to see what themes emerged.

Wow, did they all have a depth of thinking. Kid thinking always captivates me (I often tell children I work alongside I learn more from their thinking than I do from most adults daily, and that’s true). Ideas are below from students’ moments of turn and talk with their thinking partners and our grand conversation with all students after the last viewing of the film:

Students’ Noticings:

  • The students wore masks because they didn’t want to show their emotions to others.
  • The girl thinks others will be scared of her.
  • It’s like August in Wonder, he doesn’t want to reveal to others and have them take advantage of who he is.
  • The teachers didn’t have masks because they didn’t care what people think about them.
  • Some kids had two masks just to fit in with different groups.
  • All the students were in groups, but not the girl.
  • When the girls bumped into the one girl, no one helped her.
  • All the people looked at her when she took her mask off.
  • People were disgusted by her because they didn’t see a face without a mask.
  • People weren’t looking at the teachers, all their heads were down.
  • The girl had a notebook with sketches of a dad leaving and the child’s head is down.
  • The teacher was talking and the girl’s sketches made sense: the teacher talked about a cave like a dark wall, that one person tries to escape, like a teacher without a mask.
  • The girl realized the mask does not make you beautiful.
  • I noticed the girl said, “Today the truth found me” and she found her true identity, she finally looked at herself for the first time.

Students’ Feelings.

  • Makes me feel like you don’t have to wear a mask as long as you love yourself.
  • This makes me feel bad because they are wearing creepy masks and you shouldn’t have to wear a mask to feel beautiful, like in Wonder, just love him the way he was.
  • Makes me feel sad because in real life it was the truth about people, people hide how they look.

Author’s Message.

  • You shouldn’t care how you look, love yourself the way you are. Keep your opinions to yourself.
  • Be yourself. You are the best you.
  • Be ourselves because no one can control us.
  • You need to stand up for others and stand out and not be like others.
  • You can spend a  life covering your face with a mask and they won’t ever know how beautiful you really are.
  • Be yourself, instead of like everyone else.
  • You should find your identity and reveal your identity and not be behind a mask and fake.
  • Don’t let other people’s words and actions offend you.
  • In real life, masks are invisible.
  • Everybody isn’t better than other people, they’re not better than nobody; we’re all the same.
  • Some people act like others to be cool, be your own self, it’s way better.

Centering Youth Voice to Lead the Way for Emerging Curriculum.

As a way to help Ms. J’s students process this initial shared reading experience and the conversation had among their peers, we provided space for students to spend a few minutes capturing their thoughts in a quick write. They collected their ideas for a few minutes as they wrote out their reflections. Interestingly, as I read all their ideas that night, a theme emerged that did not emerge much during the in-class discussion that day. Her students reflected a ton on their feelings about the film. They had not spoken much about their feelings during the class discussions or the partnerships moments, in fact. This was curious to Ms. J and me. Even more curious, though, was the fact that nearly 90% of her students expressed sadness from watching the film, with one writer even expressing, “This film made me devistated.” When speaking that evening, Ms. J and I decided to follow her student’s thinking to lead our discussion the next school day.

We spent some time in a new grand conversation centering student’s voices around this question: What made you feel sadness from this short documentary? Below are the ideas Ms. J captured of her student’s discussion around their feelings of sadness.

One other theme that emerged from both their discussion of the film and their reflective writings was this: the message from the film was one of being proud of yourself and showing everyone who you really are. As Ms. J’s students expressed sadness that the children in the film weren’t revealing who they really were, it occurred to me that perhaps talking about the reasons why it’s hard to be who you are, might shed some light on their noticings in the film. I posed this follow up question to the group: Why is it hard to be brave enough to be who they are? Below are the captured responses during our discussion.

As they delved deeper into the idea of why it was hard to be brave to reveal who you are to others, many students spoke of being judged for your true self. So Ms. J and I followed this line of kid thinking to explore this notion of judgment. We posed this question: What are other times people judged? As her students revealed their ideas about why people judge one another, we noticed they began to discuss the notion that particular identities caused some to judge others. And there it was: they began to delve into a discussion of identity naturally.

Democratizing the Classroom: Centering Students’ Cultural Capital.

As Ms. J and I reflected upon the day’s discussion and the very astute thinking her class had engaged in, the same thought emerged to us: what did her students already know about the concept of identity, what identities did they see in themselves, in their community, in the world, and how might they come to expand their notions of identity through a dialectic engagement with peers? This emerged as our next day’s focus: finding out what students already knew about these concepts, what funds of knowledge they already possessed about these topics, so we could leverage that to build an inclusive foundation upon which we could anchor all future learning we delved into about identity. We de-centered the power that comes with adult “knowledge” and created spaces where student knowledge would frame the entirety of the study of identity this school year.

The next school day, we posed this question to build upon the previous day’s work: Identity. Who are you? How do humans categorize themselves? We jotted a few ideas on the board from the previous day’s kid thinking to get the conversation going with her students (e.g. interests, language, abilities, styles, action). Students then turned to a partner to discuss what they defined as identity and who they were. As we listened into partnerships, they continued to restate the ideas on the chart from the previous day: interests, actions, styles. They were staying in this realm of thinking. Ms. J and I checked in with one another really quickly as her students wrapped up their thinking in partnerships. I mentioned to Ms. J that they were seemingly not yet delving into more complex ideas of identity for some reason. She noticed the same thing. We were trying to figure out what was preventing her students from naming some of the really big pieces of people’s identities and that’s when it occurred to Ms. J. She said to me, “Maybe they are afraid to name some of these identities.” That’s when it hit me, too. The power dynamic was off: her students thought they couldn’t discuss some of these identities because two adults were in the room and they thought they weren’t supposed to “talk about these things.” She and I eyed one another and that’s when she said to me, “I’m gonna try something.”

Ms. J gathered her student’s attention back and made this statement to her class, one in which she decentralized her power as an adult and handed over collective power to her entire class, essentially democratizing the classroom in one statement that changed forever the space and created what I’d consider an empancipatory space. The shift was palpable.

“I’m gonna challenge you to say things you think you’re not supposed to say. Say what you want to say, say what you think you might not think you are allowed to talk about or what you might think is wrong,” Ms. J stated to a room full of wide-eyed 5th graders. As I scanned the meeting area to notice her student’s reactions, smiles spread across the faces of many, side glances to classmates occurred, and one student even said, “Like certain words?” to which Ms. J responded, “Naw, not like foul language.” A little giggle from some students. To both process what she had just said to the class and to have a chance to think about additional ideas, we had her students check in with their thinking partner again.

That was the critical moment that rendered her classroom a truly inclusive and democratic space that honored all voices: her students began naming all the identities they’d been too hesitant to name just moments before. Almost immediately, one student yelled out, “Genitalia,” to which Ms. J clarified, “Gender?” and the student said, “Yeah, that.” One student said, “What’s gender?” Students clarified, “Like female and male.” Immediately, three students said at the same time, “Transgender!” And that was the moment: the class was off and running with all their depth of beautiful cultural capital that they were now centering in the classroom as Ms. J and I facilitated and admired the liberation of their profound knowledge. Here are some of their responses and some of the thinking that was expanded upon with each identity as we asked if they knew more about each:

  • genitalia (Ms. J clarified, “Do you mean gender?” Yep, the student answered)
  • gender, female, male, transgender, non-binary, agender
  • heterosexual, homosexual, gay, lesbian, straight, bi
  • skin color, race
  • wealth, class
  • beliefs, ideologies
  • religion
  • size
  • aspirations
  • illness
  • homeless
  • age
  • traits

Below is an image of the messy thinking from our discussion that day (isn’t thinking always messy!) and an image of the chart that will anchor future discussions. We intend it to be used as a living, breathing space designed to grow as their knowledge grows.


Our next steps with her class tomorrow are to delve deeper into personal identities: how do we self-identify, how does the world perhaps identify us, and who has the right to identify us? We are hoping this co-constructed learning creates the foundation for us to grow thinking across the year, anchoring all our study around identity, privilege, power, and oppression through critical literacy practices, shared reading, read aloud, and writing.

Our Collective Humanity.

I will revisit with you what I seek and how your action in this narrative is essential.

Again, what I seek:

I seek to see my child survive to adulthood.

And I seek to see my child thrive along the way.

I seek to see my child’s peers survive to adulthood, too.

And I seek to see my child’s peers thrive along the way. All of them.

I also seek for your children to thrive into their adulthood, too.

I hold the steadfast belief that if we can all collectively commit to talking about things with one another, all things that truly matter, that children and adults alike will be able to find the humanity in one another in all the spaces that our shared realities reveal. It is my hope that as children are able to explore the notions of identities more in inclusive spaces, those empancipatory spaces that privilege their ideas and amplify their voices, that perhaps it will have an effect on reducing, and even eradicating, the school-based bullying and harassment that so many of our youth, especially our transgender youth, feel in spaces they share with other youth and adults. Perhaps if children grow up with notions of how identity is woven into the larger narrative of privilege, power, and oppression and they come to realize they have the opportunity to challenge, dismantle, and shift this oppressive system in big ways, that one day they will be successful in creating a society within which everyone feels belonging to one another and they are seen, heard, and honored for who they authentically and gloriously are.

For you to really know me, you must know yourself, first. It’s critical we re-examine our role in this narrative, create pathways in the spaces we share with children and youth to do this critically important work, and take giant steps toward living out our humanity toward one another in compassionate, just, and liberating ways. Our youth are counting on you. My child and I are, too.


Published with permission from two educators in our advocacy network. -C