Assemblage: Raising Awareness of Student Identity Formation through Art

By Drouin, Steven D. | Multicultural Education, Spring/Summer 2015 | Go to article overview

Assemblage: Raising Awareness of Student Identity Formation through Art


Drouin, Steven D., Multicultural Education


Introduction

Much of the research on adolescent identity formation began with the work of psychologist Erik Erikson (1968), who emphasized cultural identity as central to the formation of adolescent identity. Erikson (1950 & 1968) was primarily interested in how individuals arrived at a unique interpretation of identity within the cultural context in which they found themselves.

Modern adolescent identity formation no longer takes place in "uncomplex and uniform" contexts (Mead 1928/1961, p. 11). Jensen (2003) reminds us technology and globalization has granted modern young persons exposure to many cultural communities from which they derive answers to identity related questions.

These questions range from the vast; what does it mean to be a human, to the more specific; what activities do I enjoy? For example, anthropologists connected a rise in traditionally frowned-upon public displays of affection amongst Inuit Native American teens, with exposure to the late 1970's American sitcom Happy Days (Condon, 1988). As complex as identify formation used to be, it appears to have become more complex and more individualized.

Recent research on adolescent identity formation typically falls into one of three categories of interest: group, context, and process. Much existing research focuses on student identity formation through the lens of a specific group of students, be it an ethnic (Baron, 2014; Nasir & Saxe, 2003; Stritikus & Nguyen, 2007), at-risk (Gardner, 2011) or class related group (Ariesa & Seiderb, 2010).

Researchers have also been interested in knowing how identities develop within particular contexts, such as whole school (Creese, Bhatt, Bhojani, & Martin, 2008), STEM situations (Brickhouse & Potter, 2011; Johnson, 2011; Malone & Barabino, 2009; Polman & Miller, 2010), or even music classrooms (Adderley, Kennedy, & Berz, 2003; Parker, 2013).

Other research has outlined more broad frames of identity in secondary education, such as the racial formation process (Flory, Edwards, & Christerson, 2010; Staiger, 2004) and gender formation (Brutsaert, 1999, 2006; Erarslan & Rankin, 2013).

It was through these lenses that I became interested in helping students understand for themselves how identities have and can be shaped by individuals and societies. Identity formation within the U.S. has a long and contested history (Vecoli, 1996) and I wanted students to become critical consumers of identity.

Asking students to physically construct manifestations of their identities is not necessarily a new technique (Dowling, 2011; Goodman, 2010), but I wanted students to experience the iterative and fluid nature of identity formation with the hopes of beginning a longer discussion of how other individuals, groups, and varying contexts shape our identities with and without our permission.

Method

For the assemblage activity, 24 ethnically diverse 11th grade students from predominantly middle class backgrounds sat at desks in groups of four, each group separated from one another. On each desk was a container filled with various artifacts. One week prior, students had been given the instructions:

For homework this week, you will construct an assemblage which reflects your cultural identity. An assemblage is a collection of artifacts. The artifacts should reflect your cultural identity and be stored in a container. Be prepared to share the significance and stories behind several of your artifacts.

Each student was given three minutes of class time to present her or his assemblage to their group. Group members were instructed to take detailed notes on the artifacts and stories shared. After the three minutes, I allowed one minute of questions and answers before directing the next student to present.

Once all four members had presented, students were instructed to write a firstperson narrative as if they themselves were the person to their left. …

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