The Foundation for a Meaningful Life Kindergarten - Grade 9 in Southborough, MA
Fay Magazine: Fall-Winter 2019
This Is Me
by Daintry Duffy Zaterka '88
Who am I, and what role do I play in my community? Students explored these central questions of identity as we launched this year’s schoolwide theme, Being Our Best Selves.
The Wampanoag names that Fay second graders chose this fall showed just how well these seven-year-olds understand themselves already. One student selected Pink Water—a perfect name for her, says second grade teacher Katie Farrar, because “she goes with the flow, has a calm, soothing voice, and will play with anyone.” Another student chose Brave Lion, an equally apt name that fits his more boisterous and forceful personality. That self-awareness will serve these students well at Fay and beyond, says Head of Primary School Katie Knuppel. “As they grow, it will enable them to think about who they are as learners and who they want to be in the context of the wider community.”
While identity is a recurring theme across the curriculum, it was an intentional area of focus for Fay students this fall as it provided a concrete entry point to the schoolwide theme of Being Our Best Selves. “It’s a concept that every child can access,” says Head of Lower School Lainie Schuster. “Being your best self means knowing who you are and what makes you, you.” It also enables a greater understanding of others. “In an effort to be our best selves, we want to be sure we are truly ‘seeing’ each other,” says Director of the Educational Program Julie Porrazzo, “our similarities as well as our differences.”
Telling my story
Expressions of personal identity took a wide variety of forms, from narratives, speeches, and oral essays, to collages, self-portraits, and digital representations. Inspired by NPR’s This I Believe feature, students in Sarah Ripton’s and Paul Abeln’s Upper School English classes crafted personal essays that they recorded as if for the radio. Each student told a personal story highlighting a core belief, with topics ranging from the effect of music on one’s mood to how a parent’s insistence on trying new things has sparked new interests.
Fifth grade speeches focused on identity as students used the prompt “I am...” to reflect on a defining moment in their lives. Inspired by the graphic novel El Deafo by Cece Bell, fifth grade teacher Christine Fearey had her students take a mid-speech-writing break and illustrate a moment from their speech as a graphic novel. “Students were able to zero in on the big moment in their speech and unwrap it,” Christine says.
In the sixth grade, Lara Gleason’s personal narrative writing process also had a visual component. Lara asked students to reflect on their journals—which were decorated with words and images depicting their personal interests and values—and select one aspect of their identity to explore further. For some students, this concept was difficult to grasp but rewarding to explore. For example, sixth grader Rachel Ding began thinking about how important dance is to her, but as she reflected further, she came up with this final theme for her piece: “I am a person/dancer who works hard to achieve my goals.” In her final conclusion she states, “[My experiences] have helped me not only embrace the beauty and elegance of dance but also are shaping me into a better person. Now I am more patient to learn, daring to try, confident to overcome difficulties, and grateful for all the people around me. That is the beauty of dance.”
The hallways and classroom walls were covered with expressions of identity this fall. Upper Schoolers participated in an identity mapping activity where they considered sixteen dimensions of self (such as age, race, geographic location, language, and ethnicity) and then selected the four most dominant dimensions in their own lives. Using corresponding colors of construction paper, each student created a collage. The project led to rich discussions. “In middle school, students spend so much time focusing on who they are in relation to their peers,” says Head of Upper School Sarah Remsberg. “Allowing kids to have a real conversation about these concepts outside of the classroom is important.”
In Lower School, the community focused on names as a facet of identity. At Lower School Morning Meeting, Julie Porrazzo shared the book My Name is Sangoel by Karen Williams and Khadra Mohammed. It’s the story of a boy who quietly puts up with the fact that nobody pronounces his name correctly until he thinks of a clever solution to the problem. Like Sangoel, each Lower School student created a rebus of their name—a puzzle of pictures and letters representing the correct phonetic pronunciation of a word. Students worked with Digital Literacy teacher Lisa Sanderson to create the rebuses that now hang above each cubby in the Lower School hallway. “It’s empowering for students to say, ‘this is my name, and I’ll teach you how to say it,’” says Lisa.
We are different but connected
Identity is a lens through which children can celebrate their similarities and differences. At the first Lower School Meeting of the year, Lainie asked students to consider the different groups that they belong to within the Lower School community as well as the characteristics that make each student unique. Working with their Lower School tribe (mixed groups of third through sixth graders), each student decorated a crayon glyph. Decorations were based on a key that highlighted differences and similarities, from the number of children in their family, to how many pets they have, and even how they feel about taco day at lunch!
Identity conversations start early in Primary School, where first graders play “A Big Moose Calls for Me” in their morning meeting. Students take turns getting up and finishing the phrase, “A big moose calls for me and anyone else who...” with details about themselves like their favorite color or that they love dogs. Every student for whom that is also true stands up. In Kindergarten, when students bring in their “All About Me” bags to share, students with similar interests stand up to show their shared love for LEGOs or having a sibling. “It highlights our connections as well as the ways we are all unique,” says Kindergarten teacher Kelly Porter.
Identity deepens understanding
Identity also provides a rich framework through which students gain a deeper understanding of their studies. In seventh grade World Cultures, students explore regions around the world and learn how geography, economics, religion, and history have influenced each area’s unique cultural identity. Upper School history teacher Emily McCauley starts the year by having each student produce a brochure or 3D project that shares aspects of their own identity with the class. As they study the history of the Middle East or the Rohingya refugee crisis in Myanmar, identity will be a recurring flashpoint. “I try to emphasize that all issues are human issues created through categorizing people in an “Us vs. Them” manner and relying on stereotypes,” says Emily. “All of the work starts with identity.”
History teacher Joel Rubin used identity to help his American History students in the ELP program understand the immigrant experience and how that diversity has shaped America. Each student interviewed an adult or student on campus that they didn’t know. “It helped them realize that while we’re all from different places, we’re similar in many ways. It is also a direct parallel to how people in the United States are diverse but have historically come together and used those differences to make the country stronger.”
In some cases, students had the opportunity to incorporate their identity into their assignments. English teacher Dan Roy asked his seventh graders to respond to the novel Iqbal by Franceso D'Adamo in a completely individualized way. Some students painted portraits of a moment in the book, while others built Minecraft or LEGO scenes. “Students are connecting their experience to the experience of the book,” says English Department Chair Paul Abeln, “and everyone’s connection is different. When a musician can respond in music, and an artist can respond through art, it encourages students to bring their own self-identified expertise or perspective to the text.”
Looking ahead and reflecting
A strong sense of personal identity helps students assess progress so far and set goals for the future. Every month, first graders create a new self-portrait with a new area of focus, whether it is the shape of their eyes or adding shoulders to their portrait. The teachers intentionally hang new ones over the old so students can flip back through the year and see how much they have grown as artists. “They love to look back at the old ones and notice that they didn’t have a nose in September or that they no longer have a floating head,” says first grade teacher Jill Gibbons.
In Upper School, the public speaking contest will have a distinctly forward-looking feel this year. Instead of looking back on an experience, students will be asked to consider their best selves and project that into the future. “Students will have to imagine a future in which a personal characteristic could help to change something in the world or enrich others,” says Paul.
This fall’s focus on identity created connections across the divisions as students recognized that similar conversations were taking place throughout the school. Lara Gleason brought her sixth graders downstairs to look at the dimensions-of-self collages that Upper School students created. Even though the art was anonymous, Lara could see her students connecting to it: “Our students are having meaningful conversations about who we are as individuals and who we are as a community... and that’s what it’s all about.”