What would you say to me if I asked you these questions: What shelf do you belong on? in the grocery store? in a clothing store? on a toy aisle? If you had to place yourself upon a shelf anywhere, where would you belong?
I invite you to linger on these questions for a moment, a long thoughtful moment. Consider your answer or better yet, if you’re feeling it, tell me to go fuck off. Yep, you read that correctly. Read it again, if you’d like.
You may be wondering why I would invite you to tell me that, to go fuck off. Essentially, because. Really, because two things center for me in the discussion surrounding labels, words, language: (1) if someone asked me these questions, I would think (and maybe even be brave enough to actually tell them) to go fuck off, that labels are creating a world where our youth see suicide and self-harm as an option better than enduring their young realities of violence, discrimination, and invisibility, and (2) I’m going to explore the power of language with you in this piece, mainly because one ten-year-old and one eleven-year-old brought me to my knees recently in their profoundly wise assessment of the eternally complicated world within which we find ourselves living.
One thing you should know about me if you don’t already, is that I hold the belief that language has only the power of weight we impose upon it. So, I swear. A lot. And, I’m unapologetic about it. Swear words often precisely communicate what I want to say, actually. So naturally, why shouldn’t the language I use in my life make its way onto the page I write upon? Why shouldn’t I use the precise words and language, that evoke the ideas I want to communicate with you, in the way I want to authentically write them? Because it’s not academic, not scholarly, not appropriate if one wants to convey a serious point? Fuck that. And, just to be clear, one can say or write with swear words and still communicate ideas that hold weight, that are thoughtful, and poignant, and profound (not that I claim mine will be or have ever been, just that a swear word used to communicate an idea, used purposefully, does not negate the validity of one’s message). I’m here to add a data point to your world, and even though I intend to swear throughout this piece and if you still choose to read on knowing this fact, I will attempt to communicate something profound. Again, if you told me to go fuck off, I’d smile at you because I’d know our conversation was real.
And one more critical thing you should know about me: I hold the belief that equity work, of any kind, should never be monetized. Ever. The equity work I’ve been engaged in since 2016, has never enabled me to put food on the table for my two young boys and me. The work I do, and if you follow anything I’ve written for the past two years here on this site, has been centered because it’s the only thing I can do to actively work against a cissexist world that would render my firstborn invisible and non-existent in the world around him. I do the work I do, seeking pathways forward toward educational justice for all children, our youngest children, because doing nothing is not an option. Standing idly by is not an option. Participating in a culture of silence towards the trans youth of our nation is to actively choose to be an oppressive force toward children. To profess you stand for socially justice ideals and then to choose to be complacent, doing nothing to seek to live an anti-oppressive, ethically and morally just life, both personally and professionally, is to live a reality of hypocritical proportions. Fuck that, but I don’t need to tell you that truth; you already know it. So, I choose action. I choose never to monetize equity work on the shoulders of youth who’ve powerful voices that adults rarely hear. I choose to live life in constant introspection, growth, revision. I choose to live messily, unabashedly, without self-doubt, and in constant self-checking to outgrow my often inexperienced missteps because of my unknowing and painful growth.
The Journey Project has always been a place that centers on equity and inclusion, provides spaces for multiple kids and adults’ voices to be amplified, stories to be shared, and resources to be freely accessed for those who seek the support, knowledge, and community. In this vein, I will bury something important in this writing piece. Those of you that follow along with the journey, the activist educators that seek to create emancipatory spaces in your classrooms and schools, will find this important thing I’m about to share. I know you’ll read through it below, carefully and mindfully see your entry point into it or expand upon your already expansive work, and allow it to spark an idea in your world. I trust you to use the growing notions I’m sharing mindfully, with the utmost care for the children in front of you that we tirelessly advocate for on a daily basis. For everyone else, I choose to use the word bury because what I’m about to share with you, something that I’m terrified to have live and breathe in the world, scares me to no end because I don’t want it to do more harm than good. You agree that once something’s been inked and released into the universe, it grows a life of its own, to be used in any which way folks interpret it to be used. So, in that regard, I urge you not to do anything I write below. Not to try an ounce, even a drop, of what I write unless you find yourself living a reality of conditions that I’ve found make this work of inclusion possible. Folks have told me to monetize, to capitalize on the notions I’m going to communicate below, but I’ve said to them, and continue to say to them, fuck that. My important thing? My thoughts on pathways forward, thoughts that have been developing over nearly twenty months of inquiry, research, travel, and hearing the children of this nation cry out, speak up, and tell their truths. I may be right, I may be wrong, I may have missed something big and important and critical. But you know what, that’s why the work below will remain unfinished, ever-growing, revised in my mind on a weekly basis. Before we get to that which I seek to bury, first, I’ll provide some recent context centering the oppressive ideology surrounding labels, and then, some pathways forward.
Words. Language. Communication.
In essence, the words we use, the language we construct, the labels we create; they all mean nothing. Nothing. Nothing at all. The only weight a word possesses is the value we place on it, the meaning we give it, the power we allow it to have over us and toward those around us. However, in our cultural construct, essentially the arbitrary set of notions we’re all socialized to believe hold value, coupled with our human need to communicate our thoughts, feelings, needs, wants, desires, fears, and dreams, the words and language we use to communicate our ideas mean everything. Everything. Especially to our children and youth.
Language holds power. It has the power to include, to amplify, to divide, to render someone silent and powerless and invisible.
Language evokes ideology. It reflects, in a diversity of forms (verbal, written, signed, and so on) our mental model of the world, our belief system of values, and morals, and ethics.
Language shapes ideology. It communicates these constructs of our mental models of the world, our belief system of values, and morals, and ethics to those around us. And, if you’re honored enough to be adults who walk the path of life with children in any fashion, as parents, guardians, family members, educators, coaches, community members, the language we use shapes the ideological underpinnings of the youth around us.
In an attempt to understand how ideology and constructs of language are formed, I’ve been hearing kids and their teachers for nearly twenty months, in public schools across this nation, as they seek to expand the minds and hearts of their students. I’ve journeyed alongside one particular educator, Ms. J, because she epitomizes everything an activist, socially just educator should: she’s a transparent learner herself, making visible her process of understanding the world so her students can see a model of how one might live a life in constant pursuit of growth. She’s humble and honest, taking ownership over her missteps or unknowing or own growth as a learner, communicating to her students when she doesn’t know something or gets something wrong. She believes in the power of a dialectic space, where students negotiate the co-construction of knowledge through dialogue, respectful conversations of dissent, and hear one another’s points of view, debating ideas and not people’s personhood. She trusts her students, centering the reality that they come to her classroom with immense knowledge, understandings, and experiences. She centers these in her curriculum and classroom culture, knowing that making learning relevant to the learners in front of her is foundational. She knows her content, her methodology, and her kids inside and out. And, above all, she co-creates a classroom space that is safe, inclusive, and privileges student voice, agency, and choice. She is who I seek to be when I grow up. I hope you see yourself in her, as I hope to one day myself. She creates a living and breathing reality within which the conditions are ripe to explore and privilege this work of inclusion in the classroom, and she does it so very well. This is why, on a weekly basis for months and months and months, we have inquired together. And why, for months now, we’ve begun to share some of our emerging thinking with educators at schools and conferences, both locally and nationally.
I Am NOT Black, You are NOT White
So, when Ms. J recently sent me this video link, by Prince Ea, and I watched it, I knew this would layer poignantly into our study with her fifth graders. We’ve been using a lens of critical literacy to leverage the methodology of interactive read aloud and shared reading, by strategically incorporating images, lyrical poetry, and songs, and digital and good-old-fashioned paperbound texts, to center an exploration of identity, bias, privilege, power, and oppression, with her ten, eleven, and twelve-year-old students across two academic years. An archive of some of that work, student work, and our reflections can be found on this blog, including here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here. (Trust me when I say to you that I dislike hyperlinks within articles I read so very much, so I can only imagine your disdain right now, but fuck it, if you want to see our evolution of thought, here’s an insight into that through some of our older posts). Please take a moment to watch this video, and perhaps some time to scan some of the other posts I highlighted above, before reading on, if you’ve time; it’ll lay the foundation for the construct I’ll illuminate below. Honestly, a construct that I’ve been writing and rewriting and writing again for nearly four months and is one major reason why my blog hasn’t had new content; it’s been held captive in my heart and mind these past months until I finally decided today to say, fuck it, I trust the breathtaking educators and advocates of this nation to take what I’ve to say with a critical and mindful lens and go forth in their already stellar work, perhaps with a new spark or two from what I’ve to share.
Portrait of a Dialectic Space
Now that you’ve watched this video, here’s how today played out. We shared these four questions for Ms. J’s students to grind on in their Identity Notebooks before sharing the video:
What are your multiple identities?
Do you reveal them to everyone, always? Why or why not?
Is it fair for people to label others? Why or why not?
Who has the right to name your identities?
Before pushing play on the video, I gave a purposefully short introduction, with this one thought, for Ms. J’s students to consider: Think about the idea of identity we’ve been exploring all year long through our inquiry work together. This video is going to explore the notion of labels. How might these two ideas relate? Consider your reactions, thoughts, and wonderings.
Ms. J’s fifth graders watched the video, shared ideas with a partner, engaged in a larger whole-class grand conversation, and then jotted their lingering thoughts in their Identity Notebooks. Kid words are more poignant than mine could ever be. In an effort to always communicate their thinking from their own words, as we know words are powerful in kid’s minds, here they are.
Partnerships and Whole-Class Grand Conversation: Some Student Thinking
- “I don’t understand why we have labels, it’s not fair.”
- “You don’t have the right to give labels.”
- “I can relate to that judgment: they don’t know who you are on the inside. It’s not fair to label, they don’t know your true identity.”
- “Wars are started by labeling, it’s always started by -ism like racism.”
- “It’s like my two little sisters always fighting and saying stuff to each other.”
- “If we didn’t have labels, then we wouldn’t know who we are, but it’s cause and effect with labels, mostly negative labels.”
- “Maybe you’re given a label and you build upon it to create your identity.”
- “Every time a label goes down, an identity comes up. We change the label when we grow on the label to becomes an identity.”
- “How can labels cause wars?”
- “There’s a good half of labels – you wouldn’t know yourself, like animals and humans as labels. But there’s a bad half of labels – some others don’t know you and label you.”
- “It’s not okay to put labels on someone.’
An Idea Grown From the Dialectic Space:
We realized the notions of identity and labels were interconnected, but might be able to be untangled with careful examination. An emerging thought graced my mind, that which I shared with Ms. J’s students. I told them it was just formulating in my mind and that their reflections were more bright and thoughtful than most adult’s fixed notions of language, so they really were helping to expand the mind of adults ever so expansively. The notion is below. I’m not sure where it’s going, perhaps you’ve thoughts. Here’s what a room full of fifth-graders and two every-in-awe-of-kid-thinking educators (that would be Ms. J and me!) began to deconstruct:
Reflective Quick Write:
At the end of the grand whole-class conversation, Ms. J and I asked her students to write a reflective quick write in their Identity Notebook, exploring what was lingering on their minds. We also centered the line from the video: Who would you be if the world never gave you a label? Wow, I seek to read through each notebook entry once I’m back with her class in two day’s time, but for now, one notebook entry that jumped out at Ms. J and I is below. These eleven-year-olds poignant thoughts, words that brought me to my knees today:
- My reaction is tears because this is so true and it really touch my heart. I’m now knowing who I really am “Im not black, I mean I’m not a label” all I have to say is I know who I am “I not a label & Im a car from the dealership that I have to live with for the rest of my life.
The notion that a label, one that someone else attaches to us, to others around them, is not our responsibility to take ownership over, is freeing. It’s hard as hell to push back against when those labels come from influential, trusted ones in our lives, such as our family and close friends, and teachers (yep, literacy friends, we’ve been engaged in debates on the devastating effects of kids labeling themselves as non-readers or non-writers because of the invisible, and dare I say sometimes, active, things we do to categorize readers into fixed notions of self, i.e. reading levels, fixed reading groups, intervention groups, etc. You’re familiar with these conversations and the push to help kids get away from labeling themselves as particular reading identities that hinder their self-perception I imagine. Well, it’s the same thing: there are devastating effects on our children when they are labeled, actively or passively by those around them, especially as educators, as particular kinds of learners based on other parts of their multi-faceted identities, those based on race, ethnicity, class, ability, gender identity, sexuality, religion, socioeconomic status, free and reduced lunch status, head of the household status, family structure, and on and on the list grows. And, as an aside, as an educator for eighteen years, I’ve heard these conversations before; I know you have, too. They come in the form of, “Oh, those groups of kids can’t learn” or “Yeah, but they couldn’t handle that, you know, because they come from…” All these biases and harmful rhetoric shape our ideology and dangerously often leads us to action that is inequitable and unjust. Just as an aside…).
As Ms. J’s students went along to PE and she and I had a bit of time to debrief on the morning spent immersed in their wisdom and insight, we both began to realize the power in children constructing knowledge alongside one another in a safe, expansive environment such as her classroom, the power in creating experiences for them to make visible these invisible processes of socialization into a particular mindset within a particular culture, time and space (in this instance, gender diversity within a larger conversation about identity, privilege, power, and oppression), and the power in children coming to the realization that they see the world around them as unjust in many ways, ways they’d like to actively step away from, shake up, and rebuild to something they see as more fair and equitable and just.
Enter, a window into my mind (oh, I’m sorry if it’s a bit messy and jumbled in here; I’ve got lots rolling around in my brain these days…).
Here is a diagram that has been formulating in my mind, and in my eight notebooks worth of scratches of ideas I’ve jotted in my two-years worth of reflections and travels and studies and noticings. It represents a visual representation of what I’ve realized I’ve been trying to think through for some time now. Here it is below, in its current state of formulation:
Here’s the portion of the evening where you’re going to begin to loathe me; sorry, I had to name that before I type what I’m about to type. You’re going to say to me, “But yeah, I see that diagram and I’m wondering, what does that LOOK like in the space of a classroom, of my classroom?” And yes, you have every right to ask those questions. So, here’s my unsatisfying answer (*braces for the eye glare and shaking of the head; I get it*).
It depends. It’s all contextual. Ms. J and I, and the other incredible educators I study alongside and apprentice myself to, don’t exactly know how it’s going to go day by day, week by week, year by year, experience by experience, text by text. And here’s why: all kids are different; every class is different. Yep, you know this. And, this is why it’s been different every year with Ms. J, every classroom I’ve been in. Age, teacher, community, class culture, school culture, region, and state all make a HUGE difference in how this work lives and breathes in a classroom setting. That’s the beauty, and yes, the organic nature, of this work. It’s all contextual, fully built upon what the kids in front of us are saying, thinking, questioning, grappling with, trying to make sense of, building conceptions around, clearing up misconceptions of, having a dialogue or debate around, or generally trying to grow in awareness of. This work is multi-faceted, organic, student-centered, unpredictable, flexible, ever-shifting, ever-evolving. It’s messy, raw, responsive, and real. And you know what? That reflects life: messy, raw, real.
I’m okay with that for now. I hope that you are, too.
I can send you a book list, a list of inclusive texts to use for each piece of this ever-expanding pathway I’m seeing live in emancipatory classrooms. I can send you links to digital texts, video clips, and images that teachers and I have been studying with students to support their co-construction of the socialized notions of gender that are invisible in our culture. But they might be different when you try them out in your inclusive classroom. Lists of books and images and digital texts that have helped children grow expansively with their notions of visible construct and begin to say, “Hey, that’s not fair, I don’t agree with that.” Those beautiful comments show kids are beginning to divest from systems they deem oppressive, unfair, and unjust. Lists of books and images and digital texts that enable kids to understand characters and people that divest from these oppressive systems, center gender equity, that gender diversity are the reality of our species, that binary notions of gender are a myth, that our constructs of gender are contextual, situational, ever-evolving, and completely arbitrary. Lists of books and images and digit texts that expand our notion of gender as a fluid concept, gender identity as something defined by the individual, and the concept that our gender may not be aligned to the sex we were arbitrarily assigned at birth. Books and images and digital texts that explore notions of gender identity, transgender and gender non-conforming identities, written by authors within the trans community especially. All of these resources and ideas and pathways forward are possible.
Disruption & Dismantling
Children’s Vision Forward
Understanding Gender Diversity with Young Children
So, why do I choose not to write them explicitly in this piece? Because. This work is too damn important to be lost in translation or my inability to communicate the nuances to you in written form. If you’re ready to begin this work or to expand upon the years-long inclusion work you’ve been engaged in already, and I know you’ve been, connect with me. Reach out and we can talk. I’ve connected with educators across this nation, personally and via phone, to talk into this work, from states that mirror my own progressive state and those that do not. In places thousands of miles away to places in my backyard. Please, reach out. I’m here to be a thought partner with you. I may not be able to offer the exact ideas you’re seeking, but I can offer this: I’ll think openly, honestly, and expansively with you. I will be that person with you, an accomplice in the work toward educational justice for all our children. It just takes reaching out. I’m here.
Yeah, fuck judgmental, prejudicial, and artificial labels, as Prince Ea would center. When we know our identities, our multiple ever-expanding and deepening and growing identities, and we can grow in community, as a nation, in the safety to be able to express these identities in ways that do not bring harm, judgment, and isolation from others, that’ll be the day I know this world is ready for my child. And, yes, the profoundly wise words the ten-year-old spoke to me that brought me to my knees. His words, and then, my last lingering thought for you.
“I want people to know I’m a transgender boy, I just don’t want them to judge me for it and think I’m different and sensitive. I don’t know why, but sometimes I like to hide this part of me. I don’t want it to control my life.”
Fuck labels and the assumptions people make upon these labels. What if we envisioned a world where kids could just be kids, multi-faceted, multi-layered, and multi-dimensional, where all their identities were defined by them, revealed in their own time, and honored, privileged, and valued by those around them? What then? Friends, we have a part to play in this vision. Namely, it’s to co-construct a world with the youth around us where this expansive thinking, feeling, and envisioning is possible so kids, and only kids, can recreate a world where equity, justice, and love are enacted.
I’ll leave you with the quite poignant question, borrowed from the digital text we explored with a group of wise, expansive fifth graders today.
Who would you be if the world never gave you a label?
Published with permission from an educator and parent in our advocacy network