Reflection from Sydney Van Sickle, Grade 8 ELA Teacher
Representation Matters: The Grade 8 ELA Identity Project
Eighth grade is such a golden year. I have always considered it so, from my own time as an eighth-grade student, attending a teeny Christian school in Topeka to my last seven years as an eighth-grade teacher in Chicago. Eighth grade is a time of lingering innocence and budding maturity: of makeshift games, like shooting a plastic pen through the narrow gap in one’s plexiglass shield, and of honest conversations with friends who pull too much or too little weight in a group project. Further, eighth grade is a time of challenge and opportunity: of solving systems of linear inequalities, of persevering through the high school application process, of reading stories to younger students over Zoom, and of playing capture the flag on Field Day. Eighth grade is a time both of building community and of defining oneself: of engaging FXW’s Grade 8 Identity Project.
FXW eighth graders embark on the Identity Project at the start of their final A.P. Discussion, reflection, creation, and presentation beat at the heart of this two-week-long English Language Arts assignment. First, students brainstorm and discuss the many factors that make up a person’s identity. Under the broad categories of family, heritage, and community, students consider how more specific factors shape a person’s perspective and experience. Each student then, chooses a specific aspect of their own identity on which to reflect. Connor Egan, for example, examined the relationship between his faith and school community: being Lutheran but attending a school with a Catholic emphasis. Sasha Goodman and Nick Lopez, respectively, chose to think about their roles as oldest siblings. Andrew Williams chose to reflect on his experience as a Black student with many white friends. Students were challenged to think about their feelings regarding their self-chosen identity factor, the ways that this factor shapes their life, and what they wish others would know.
From here, each student crafts a short script capturing these reflections in their distinct writer’s voice, making deliberate use of tone. They then plan and produce a 1–2-minute film that presents their reflections using relevant audio and visual effects. Most students narrate their videos, some incorporate music. Some use digital sketches, while others use stock images, personal photos, or film clips. The content of the script and the production choices of the film are beautifully unique to each student.
Sofia Sandoval centered her project around her Mexican heritage. In the beginning of her film, she broadens simplistic perceptions of the Mexican American experience. She lightheartedly concedes to her audience that tacos and burritos are “good,” then glibly asks, “But you know we have other things, right?” She goes on to proudly highlight the size and vibrancy of ancient Mexican civilizations, the beauty of the Spanish language, and the variety of authentic and delicious Mexican dishes. In the second part of her video, Sofia reflects on cultural norms that stem from her Mexican heritage. She explains how her culture positions her to faithfully follow rules and to listen before she speaks. She encourages others to “Notice [their] own tendencies about the way [they] communicate” and “learn how to interact” with others while still respecting each person’s cultural identity.
Alex Wright focused his project on stature and personality type. Throughout his film, using emojis, memes, digital sketches, personal photos, and sound effects, he candidly and comedically challenges perceptions of what makes a person strong. “For some reason,” he questions, “some people have the thought process that short equals weak.” He goes on to explain that, while he now recognizes the benefits of being sensitive, some perceive him as weak for possessing this quality. At the video’s finale, Alex triumphantly posts photos of his black belts, emphasizing each achievement with a “Boom!” The moral of the story, Alex concludes, is not to “assume what people can do based on their height or personality.”
Rimona Ghosh’s video explores being part of the first generation in her family to be born in the United States, and her embrace of both Indian and Unites States’ culture. In the beginning, she describes her figurative and literal journey of “connecting with her roots,” visiting India for several months, spending time with family members, and becoming bilingual by learning to speak Bengali. In addition to language, Rimona lists other aspects of Indian and United States’ culture she proudly participates in and enjoys like traditions, holidays, and cuisine, “from butter chicken to pancakes.” In the end, she concludes that “Being bilingual and Indian American has shaped [her] by making [her] more aware of all cultures as well as open-minded, which is important.” Her video uses animated maps, Storyboard That comics, stock video, and music.
After the creation of these short but powerful videos, FXW eighth graders present in a film festival-like celebration with their class. It takes courage for thirteen- and fourteen-year-olds to share something so personal, but the group rallies around every film and student. In this way, the project facilitates both self-definition and community building. If a student’s film takes a humorous tone, classmates share in the laughter. If another student’s project communicates frustration, classmates acknowledge and affirm their feeling.
The Identity Project animates FXW’s mission by centering on students. The project is not just designed for them; it is designed around them. Students choose what parts of themselves they wish to explore and choose what and how they will present. With greater understanding of themselves as individuals, FXW students are better prepared to engage with and build “the world they will inherit”.
Of course, in addition to being a time of innocence, maturity, challenge, and opportunity, eighth grade eight is also a time of celebration. On Sunday, FXW grade eight will stand, all dawning forest caps and gowns. Beneath these, however, will stand eighty-six individual graduates who, through experiences like the Identity Project, have built community and begun to define themselves.
--Sydney Van Sickle, Grade 8 ELA Teacher