Cultural Identity Cubed

By Berquist, B. J. | School Arts, January 2006 | Go to article overview

Cultural Identity Cubed


Berquist, B. J., School Arts


"What lies behind us and what lies before us are small matters compared to what lies within us."

--Ralph Waldo Emerson

The ability to communicate feelings, thoughts, ideas, viewpoints, and opinions empowers an individual to educate others about who they are. Because communication is a two-way action, when students learn to communicate effectively they also learn to look and listen to what others are communicating. Empowerment through communication skills integrates teaching tolerance for others into the curriculum. My students needed a vehicle through which they could not only focus on the communication of their current identity, but also think about how their identity would define them as they moved into the adult world.

Choosing a Format

Empty boxes (cubes) provided the seed of an idea for using visual art to teach the communication skills necessary to explore student identity ... all I needed was inspiration to make the project meaningful and relevant to my students. My interest with boxes was sparked several years ago when I read Birthday Surprises: 10 Great Stories to Unwrap by Johanna Hurwitz. I also had the good fortune to meet Adrienne Fritz, creator of Empty and Meaningless: The Box Project and collaborate with her on several art discussions on Tapped In, an online community of practice for educators. The spark that made the final idea take shape for me was found in a quote by Ralph Waldo Emerson, "What lies behind us and what lies before us are small matters compared to what lies within us."

Once the vision was created, the next step was to get students actively engaged in the project. After discussing the meaning of the Emerson quotation, students determined that what lies behind us is our past, what lies before us is our future, and what lies within us is each person's identity--that person's potential to become a productive citizen in the community. Each class brainstormed a definition for identity that included country of origin or ancestry (cultural heritage), important or influential people in that person's life, involvement in neighborhood and school activities, how special events are celebrated or observed, religious affiliation, and values. Students entered four or more personal identifiers in their journals to use on their boxes.

Designing the Box

Students researched the use of symbols as a way to turn their box into a graphic, three-dimensional representation of their cultural identity. Students discussed examples of different symbols such as signs for peace, love, and family. …

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