In this One Thing You Might Try… blog post, Christy Thompson, a literacy teacher and co-author of Hands Down, Speak Out, writes about identity interviews as a powerful strategy for getting to know students.
“I am fast and smart.” -3rd grader
“I am calm. But I love candy, and I can be annoying!” -5th grader
“I am a dragon.” -1st grader
“Personally, I think I’m hilarious.” -6th grader
At the end of last school year, the teachers at my school asked students to complete identity interviews by recording themselves using Flipgrid (now Flip). We told students that we were conducting the interviews so that their new teacher could get to know them, and they could share anything they wanted their teacher to know. The quotes above are just a few delightful snippets from the interviews which provided glimpses into our students’ vibrant and layered identities.
Now, as school is beginning, our staff has been viewing and reviewing these first-person accounts for a variety of purposes. We viewed them during the summer when we received our class lists and wondered who was in our new class. My administrative team and instructional coach featured the identity videos during our whole staff school improvement plan meeting. And we will continue to bring our students’ voices into the room as grade-level teams plan for the first days and weeks of school. Whether you use a platform like Flip, your cell phone, give students pencil and paper, or just have a quick chat, conducting identity interviews like these can provide powerful information for you as the teacher. In their book, Shane Safir and Jamila Dugan call this kind of authentic information that reveals the human side of our students, “street data.”
Why Identity Videos?
As teachers, we don’t get a lot of information about our students before we need to teach them! We are usually handed a class list with some demographic information, maybe we have access to last year’s standardized test scores, and we might get a brief chance to meet their families at Open House. With such limited information, we might unconsciously start forming narratives in our head about our students based on assumptions, biases, and partial knowledge. By asking students some simple questions, we open the door to a deeper understanding of our students and a more accurate narrative.
For example, when one of our students told us in his interview, “I’m just ok at math—we probably shouldn’t talk about that,” we learned useful information that was not revealed in any other form of assessment or official document. This student doesn’t currently identify as a “math person.” So we need to start thinking about how to plan tasks that will increase his feelings of success and belonging in math class. And we will want to check in with him about this sentiment in the future.
When another student said proudly, “Mi familia es muy trabajadora,” we learned that this child sees herself as coming from a hard-working family, and we should ask her if she is interested in taking on some more “hard-working” challenges in our classroom.
And when one of our students told us “I like to play soccer every day at school,” we knew that this child identifies as a soccer player, and she is going to be healthier and happier if we remember to always take the soccer balls out to recess! We just can’t get this type of valuable information from official school records alone.
How can I try out identity interviews in my classroom?
- Try a format that works for you. There are many ways you could collect identity interviews. We set up a moderated Flipgrid that older students accessed on their school laptops in the hallway one at a time, and that teachers or teaching assistants used to interview younger students. Another option one teacher chose was to just use her cell phone to record some quick chats with her kindergarteners while they played at a center. The interview could also take the form of a writing activity for students which would allow the whole class to work on the interview at the same time. Having a semi-permanent record of the interview is helpful so it can be referred to more than once.
- Consider the level of privacy for these interviews. Another important consideration is the level of privacy for your interviews. At my school we knew that we wanted these interviews to be private conversations between students and their teachers which is why we adjusted our Flipgrid settings to make sure only teachers (not other students) could view the students’ videos. We wanted to maximize students’ comfort in these conversations, especially for older students. Of course, there is also an important place for exploring our identities together as a class community. But these interviews were just a starting point for identity work in the classroom, and we wanted to make sure students knew we wouldn’t share anything with their peers without their permission.
- Provide scaffolded sentence starters to get students started. Many children haven’t had a lot of practice talking about their identities. Sentence starters are a way to help us get the interview going. For very young students, we asked them to complete the following sentences:
My name is…
For older students, we asked them to consider these questions with corresponding sentence starters:
● What do you want people to call you? My name is…
● How would you describe yourself? I am….
● What are you proud of? I can…
● What is something people can’t see or don’t know about you?
Depending on the age of the student, we asked some students to write or draw in response to these questions before making their video, so they had some time to think.
Identity Interviews as a Place to Begin
As Sara K. Ahmed said beautifully, “When we get proximate to the human story, we find our identity in the humanity of others.” We know that our students have complex identities composed of both layers that are visible and those that are hidden. When we conduct identity interviews, some of those more hidden layers begin to emerge, allowing us to build a community, a curriculum, and a connection that values each of our students’ vibrant individual humanities.
About the author
Christy Thompson is currently an ESOL and reading teacher at Timber Lane Elementary School in Fairfax County Public Schools, Virginia. She has spent over 20 years in elementary schools listening to and learning from elementary students. Christy is the co-author of Hands Down, Speak Out. You can connect with her on Twitter @TeacherThomp.
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