Inquiry into Identity: Teaching Critical Thinking through a Study of Race, Class, and Gender

By Caldwell, Martha | Middle School Journal, March 2012 | Go to article overview

Inquiry into Identity: Teaching Critical Thinking through a Study of Race, Class, and Gender


Caldwell, Martha, Middle School Journal


Students learn important lessons about themselves through the critical exploration of race, class, and gender.

A group of African American boys sits in a circle surrounded by their white classmates. Akhil, an A student and star soccer player, describes being followed through the mall by a security guard. The other boys in the circle nod in recognition. They echo similar stories of clerks watching them in department stores and white women clutching their purses when they pass them on the street. They begin to share the routine dismissals of their integrity and intelligence woven through the fabric of their daily lives. They know they can expect to encounter racism. They all have been schooled at home in how to handle it. Trish, however, sitting quietly on the outside of the circle with her white friends, listening intently, is stunned. She had no idea. She thought racism went out in the sixties with the Civil Rights Movement. Later, the African American boys move to the outside circle, and the white girls move into the center. Now it's Trish's turn to talk about her experience. She's about to find out that she's not alone.

In Inquiry into Identity: Race, Class, and Gender (RCG), an eighth grade social studies class, the students' stories serve as springboards for higher-order learning. Through sharing personal experiences and listening to one another respectfully, students form a learning community in which deep, critical thinking naturally emerges. They gain important insights about their own identities while learning about the lives of their classmates. They make important interpersonal connections that allow them to form alliances across divisions and think creatively, rather than stereotypically, about differences. When the students' experiences are the subject of shared reflection, learning becomes relevant, and engagement in school increases (Friere, 2000; Shor, 1992; Wink, 2005; Magolda, 1999).

For my co-teacher, Oman Frame, and me, the course itself was a discovery. We originally set out to teach a course about climate change with a two-week introduction on race, class, and gender. However, our students were inspired by the unit and excited to have a forum for sharing their experiences. They asked us to expand the unit because they wanted to know more, and it became a semester-long and, eventually, a yearlong study. Other teachers began to adopt aspects of the course for their classes because our students talked so much about RCG. We realized, after the fact, that young adolescents live and breathe the politics of social justice every day-in the hallways at school; in their cyber networks; through exposure to media; in their families; in churches, mosques, and synagogues; and sometimes in their classrooms. We had inadvertently tapped into a wellspring of intellectual energy.

RCG combines a variety of interpersonal learning activities (e.g., dialogues, Socratic seminars, fish bowls, social inventories, reflective writing and sharing) with inquiry-based learning (e.g., cycles of authentic questioning, research, group collaboration, project-based learning and presentations) (National School Reform Faculty, 2010; University of Illinois Inquiry Group, 2010). The interpersonal curriculum is complemented by academic inquiries into histories, politics, and cultures. Through a series of projects, supplemented by readings and films, students make connections between what they already know and the ways in which power and privilege operate in institutions like schools, religions, governments, and businesses. Throughout the course, they build important academic and communication skills.

The course is divided into three main units: race, gender, and class. Each unit serves as a generative theme and follows a similar template. We introduce the course with a brainstorming session to uncover the questions that will guide our inquiries, asking What do you already know? and What do you want to know now? Then we move into a series of experiential learning activities, through which our students explore and share their social identities and family histories. …

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