Identity and Classroom Community

For the first few years as an English teacher, I thought I knew exactly what I was supposed to do on the first day of class – build community. Every teacher education textbook I’d ever read and every back to school teacher in-service day stressed the importance of building classroom community with students. So, that’s what I attempted to do.

I ditched my classroom expectations and procedures PowerPoint and strolled into class with stacks of unsharpened pencils and bags of plastic cups. It was perfectly planned. Students would be placed into groups of four and each team member would have one minute to bounce as many pencils as possible into the red solo cup. The team with the most pencils in the cup at the end of four minutes was declared the winner. A simple game with a powerful message. I had hoped students would be able to see that by working together in a collaborative group the entire group would be able to achieve more. Somewhere between a principal walk through visit and a dozen flying pencils that idea got lost.

As I searched for meaningful ways to build classroom community using content related skills, I realized I had somehow managed to forget the most important aspect of an authentic classroom community, and that is students’ voices. During a summer institute with the Central Arizona Writing Project, I created a learning opportunity I titled, “I am Not a Taco”. The activity is modeled after Santino Rivera’s poem, “I am Not a Taco” in which Rivera identifies himself as Xicano (Mexican-American). His poem is found the BSN Anthology of Chicano Literature, an important text that was born out of HB 2281 and the Mexican American studies ban is Tucson, Arizona.

During this lesson, students are invited to map out their various identities that make up who they are as a person. They then have an opportunity to speak against some of the negative stereotypes that are associated with the identity they are writing about. This lesson has proven to be a powerful way to not only create authentic community in an ELA classroom but also to empower students to speak their identities in a room full of strangers. I’ve used this activity during the first week of school for last 5 years, and this year was no different. My favorite lines from one of students this year is captured below:

“I am not dumb. I am not slow. I am not a bully. I am not a person with no future. I am not a nerd. I am not teacher’s pet. I am none of these things, I simply am a college bound freshmen”

Building authentic classroom community is risk, especially when you ask a group of high school teens to write about their own identity. It’s personal and vulnerable for students and teachers. However, in doing we are choosing to creating a learning environment that respects and honors all students.


Steve Arenas

My name is Steven Arenas, and I’m a proud product of Arizona public schools. I’m currently in my 8th year as a high school English educator. I spent the first four years of my career in the Tolleson Union High School District; however, I currently teach Freshmen English in the Phoenix Union High School District. This year is also unique in that it is my first year as the head football coach at my high school. I earned both my BA in secondary education and a master’s degree from Arizona State University. I also serve as a teacher consultant for the Central Arizona Writing Project and am an active member of the National Council of Teachers of English. In 2016 I was a recipient of the NCTE Early Career Educator of Color in Leadership award. This opportunity proved to be a transformative moment in my teaching career as I was able to engage with likeminded teachers, scholars, and authors from across the country. In the future, I aspire to become National Board Certified and earn my doctorate degree.
My passion for literacy was cultivated by the contemporary voices of the Chicano/a Renaissance of the 1960s. With this in mind, I work to develop an inclusive multicultural literacy curriculum. I am a committed advocate of young adult literature and slam poetry in the secondary ELA classroom. A social justice educator and an advocate for ethnic studies, I’ve created a literacy pedagogy that honors and sustains students’ home culture, language, and experiences. By incorporating a multicultural frame, I encourage my students to use their understanding of literacy as a tool to matriculate through colleges and universities. When not teaching, I enjoy spending time with his wife, Lizeth, son, Gabriel, and daughter, Eiva.

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