Transcribed by Kanako Suwa
[ Introduction music plays ]
Welcome to the SENIA Happy Hour with your host, Lori Boll. We know you’re busy so we bring you 1 hour’s of content in under thirty minutes, leaving you with time for a true happy hour.
Lori: Hello everyone. Today I got to speak with Daniel Wickner and Daniel (he/him/his) is the founder of Identity Centered Learning. It is a framework for supporting students’ identity development in schools. This work builds on culturally relevant, responsive, and sustaining pedagogies and is informed by his own biracial, multicultural, and multilingual identity along with his 13 years in international education. He currently teaches third grade at Hong Kong International School and supports schools as a consultant in the areas of identity and DEIJ. In today’s conversation, we discussed his own background in schools and the impact that had on him as well as what he means by identity centered education. This was new learning for me and incredibly impactful. It really caused me to reflect on my past teaching practices and how I could have done better to honor all identities in my room. I hope you’ll take away as much as I did from today’s conversation.
There are just a few moments in the show where there are some sound issues due to our poor connection, but it’s really not a problem, so I just wanted to let you know about that in advance. And now, onto the show.
Hi Daniel and welcome to the podcast!
Daniel: Hi thanks for having me.
Lori: It’s great having you. So as I mentioned in your introduction, you are the founder of Identity Centered Learning and that’s identitycentered.com, correct?
Lori: And it’s a framework for supporting students’ identity development in schools. Why does this topic of identity matter to you?
Daniel: Well, I think it should matter to all of us but I know it matters to me because it’s been a struggle. I think that of all the things that have been challenging for us in life, in many ways, define us and define our journeys and where we are in our journeys, and for me, identity has been… my identity has been one that’s challenged me and I’ve grappled with and continue to struggle with throughout the years, both as a child and also as an adult and as an educator. And then also just sort of noticing how that identity changes throughout my life and noticing the identities of my students and how they change and what affects them. And how does this impact happen and whether they’re intentional or unintentional. Both from my perspective, having had certain things impact my identity and having control over certain aspects of my identity and sort of, trying to break that down, and look at my work as an educator through that lens, of… what am I doing as an educator inside the classroom in my relationships with students and in systems that I create, and how is that impacting who students become and when they become it.
Lori: Thanks. So I read an incredible article that you wrote for TIE Online, it was called “Focus on Identity” and in this article, you… part that really stood out to me, and we’ll be posting this in our show note, was when you said “Like other BIPOC individuals, I have needed to grapple with my racial and cultural identities for my whole life, starting from the day my kindergarten classmates laughed at my onigiri lunch. I have needed to explain my mix of races and cultures to thousands of people in four different languages, listening as they ask, “what are you” and “where are you really from?” but always hearing “explain how you’re not one of us”.” So, this is a really powerful piece, Daniel, and I think of that little kindergarten Daniel being laughed at because of his lunch and it’s truly heartbreaking. Can you just tell us a little bit more about what that experience was for you and how we can kind of put ourselves into the shoes of our students?
Daniel: Yeah, and I think that now reflecting on that sentence, that experience still continues to be powerful for me, not because it was just the lunches, just the little rice balls, you know, the Japanese rice balls, it’s not… I think it was a symbol, a lot more. That as a child, maybe I didn’t understand symbolism, but that symbolism impacted me. And it impacted me throughout, it continues to impact me. That symbolism and because that food represented more than just my lunch. It represented my family, it represented my culture, it represented my history. But in many ways, it also represented being made to feel inherently or intrinsically less than. I think that that’s sort of a common thread throughout a lot of marginalized… experiences of marginalization. Is this feeling of, because of who you are, you are less than. And I think the experience of growing up as an Asian American, I’m noticing that certain parts of me were laughed at and joked about and put down, whereas other parts of me weren’t. And so I think those experiences made me, sort of instinctively, as a sort of… protection to move myself towards the parts of me, the Americanness, the whiteness, the maleness, the aspects of me that were empowered within the systems that I habited, specifically within education and within society.
And centering those parts of myself and really highlighting those parts of myself and hiding the parts of myself that didn’t experience that kind of affirmation. And I think reflecting on that has made me think about, you know, what are the experiences that my students go through systematically – not just, you know, this day and that day but rather what messages are we sending through the educational systems that we provide for them? The environment, the practices… and what messages are those sending? What’s the symbolism behind those messages, kind of like the symbols that I sort of soaked in? And what actions are the children taking based on that? What are they doing when they internalize that message? Which, unfortunately, they do. But I guess on the flip side, thinking about, what are the outcomes if we shift systems, or what systems we do already have that are affirming students’ identities completely? And demarginalizing students – what messages are those systems sending and how are students taking action based on those? So my reflection has made me think about what are the systems we have, how are schools actually run, and what messages are those sending and what actions do students take in both a very positive and a very negative reaction.
Lori: Yeah, absolutely. And as you were speaking, I was reflecting on TV shows that we watch and movies where there are bullying due to race or disability or gender, sexuality, and so often in my head, I think “does that really happen? Is that really true?” and I think that many of us teachers feel that because we are not thinking that way, that our students are not thinking that way. Does that make sense?
Daniel: Absolutely. Yeah.
Lori: So thank you for kind of bringing this to light. In your article, you encouraged teachers to be identity experts. You say, “this constant exercise of identity, self-reflection, and growth can help us all become finer teachers – identity experts for our students as they go through their own identity journeys. Recognising, understanding, and confronting our privilege, biases, blind spots, and complicity and where they exist. It allows us and our students to truly see systemic inequity and injustice wherever they exist”. So… that’s a lot. Can you share more about this, about how identity connects to education?
Daniel: Yeah, I’m sorry, that was probably a run-on sentence when I look at that…
Lori: No, no, again, it’s very powerful! I encourage everyone to read this.
Daniel: Yeah, well, one of the biggest lessons I feel like I learned as an educator, from the teacher mentors that I was very fortunate to have, was the idea of modeling, and realizing that growing up, that wasn’t something I had noticed in the teachers I had. Maybe because, I don’t know why, it didn’t seem like the teachers were really acting like they wanted me to act. They weren’t putting themselves out there and saying “hey I’m going to set myself up as a role model for you”. And maybe it was because I didn’t see my teachers as role models, but that idea of modeling is really powerful and I’v noticed throughout my teaching career that the actions, the attitudes, the behaviors, the language, the words that I use, it impacts students more than what I just tell them. And I think that, to every veteran teacher, that’s pretty standard, like you just notice that, right?
Daniel: And so applying that to identity centered learning and the idea of, well, we are as human beings, especially as adult human beings, we have experiences in our lives going through our identity journeys. But a lot of us, hopefully all of us have reflected on our identities and had identity crises and challenges and identity complexity, which I think that we all have if we take a moment to look at it. None of us is simple. And so thinking about well, students are going through this, students of all ages are putting together pieces of who they are and sort of rearranging pieces and swapping and discovering new pieces and tracing parts of themselves… they’re going through this just like we had. And so thinking about my role as a teacher of children, not just as a transmitter of content and skill but rather somebody who can model the practices around identity development – so not necessarily telling students “you need to be this, you need to be that,” but rather “this is how I chose to become this, maybe you can give it a try, or you can find a different way, and this is a challenge that I had and this is how I confronted that challenge, here are things that I grappled with, here are things that confused me, here are things that still confuse me about myself. Here’s a time when I was made to feel xy or z, because of who I am, and here’s how I responded to it. Maybe I should’ve responded this way, or maybe not”. And really positioning myself as that model and noticing that when I would share those experiences with the students, when I would put myself out there as that model, then that’s when, like popcorn, all this sharing would come out. And all of this connection would come out. Really genuine stuff where students would bring forth stuff that they wouldn’t do if I had just said, “tell me about a time when…”
Lori: Right. Sharing those personal stories that really brought it out of them. Wow.
Lori: So, how do you define identity centered learning?
Daniel: yea, well, I think it’s in the name. It’s centering identity. I feel like, it’s kind of a play on student centered learning. To be honest, student centered learning gets thrown around too much, I think anything that involves students suddenly becomes student centered learning. And I think that that’s… I think it’s incomplete, student centered learning, the discourse around it. And so I wanted to get deeper into that and say, yes, we are talking about students but we’re talking about centering how students develop understandings, deep understandings about who they are and who they will become. And putting that at the center of the education process. And I would claim that it’s already at the center of the education process, we just don’t recognise it that way because we’re so occupied with standards, skills, proficiency, grades, etc. But the biggest thing you emerge with at the end of the educational process is a greater understanding of who you are, hopefully. But I think that we also often emerge from our school experience with really toxic messages about who we are, and those messages which we also apply to others’ identities. And so, if we look at education as a process of identity development, which is how I would define it, then that really, to me, was a big paradigm shift where we look at what I was doing inside the classroom and thinking about what are my priorities? If I’m placing my students’ identity development at the center, then how am I… is this thing that I do, is this empowering them? To realize, to become who they are? Is this empowering them in terms of becoming? Or is this mandating or denying or dismissing parts of who they are? And it’s made me shift a lot of my practices which I realized were problematic. And I continue to notice things and I go back and so that’s been sort of the core, that students’ identity development is at the center and it’s empowerment. It’s putting them in the drivers’ seat of their own development. So it’s not talking about identity every day, it’s not talking about who we are every single day, but it’s always having that in mind. Always having our identity in the room while we’re doing our schooling. And then noticing when is that identity being empowered and uplifted and when is it not.
Lori: Yeah, well, I think about our own backgrounds and where we’re all coming from so this may be a convoluted question so I’m going to talk it through. So I think about myself, I’m a cisgender, white female. But I do have a background because my son has a disability. So I look at a lot of things through that lens, the disability lens. So I’m wondering how, as teachers, if we don’t have the background of particular identities, how we can support our students without having that background.
Daniel: That’s a massive question. Um. And I can… thinking about it from the perspective of special education and different abilities as well, it helps me, it really helps me to reflect on not only my privilege as being abled body but also on the systems that have benefitted me. And I think that it’s, you’re absolutely right. When we have a blind spot which comes from our privilege, which comes from something that’s an advantage to us, it’s very easy to overlook something that’s incredibly damaging and incredibly toxic.
I’m reminded of, you know, when I was in second grade and I was, for whatever reason, I was very very good at second grade math. And second grade math, as defined by the curriculum and the teacher at the time, which really back then was a memorisation of the times tables and so I remember just playing a game called “Around the World” where…
Lori: Oh my god. Yes!
Daniel: I don’t know how many times this has come up but you know. I, because I had started on practicing my multiplication facts, that game, which was very often played inside the classroom which was just, you know, like, can you remember this quicker, do you have quicker recall than the person next to you, and I was made to feel incredibly intelligent at the expense of everyone else inside the classroom. And being privileged in that way, and feeling “wow!”, that was an identity message for me. It was a toxic identity message for me because it gave me a very very incomplete view of what intelligences are and the essence of learning. It gave me so many toxic messages but it still impacted my identity. And I wouldn’t say it was in a positive way and it also affected the identities of everyone else in the classroom with some very powerful signals of who they are, who I am… so reflecting on that experience, which I remember thinking about so fondly, because of how great it made me feel, and then realizing that oh my gosh, this benefitted me in such.. This rearrangement of resources of power, that system was inequitable and I benefitted from that. And so thinking back on that and many others that benefitted me, has made me incredibly passionate about the idea of how, sort of, the centering of ability within classrooms. I mean, let’s admit it, school as we see it is centered around the idea of ability. And I think that that makes it really challenging for those with differing abilities, people who are neurodivergent, people who don’t fit this very narrow idea of which abilities are “developmental” or “developmentally appropriate” for a particular number of years on the planet.
And you know, thinking about standards as well, and thinking about what is considered standard, what is considered excellence and proficiency, let’s really question that. And realizing that just because somebody is proficient in those particular things, to question the system as opposed to questioning the child when they don’t match the pretty arbitrary set of very narrow band of abilities that are valued. And I think that, it comes back to valuing.
I was reading the transcript from your previous podcast in talking about value and how we associate ability with value. I mean, this is, I don’t wanna get too much into the capitalist underpinnings of education but…
Lori: *laughs* yeah…
Daniel: but we do, it’s connected to this valuing of ability and so questioning that and really pulling that back and thinking about, what are the messages that the systems are sending to students of all abilities, even those who are “excellent students”. It’s sending them toxic messages as well.
Lori: Yeah. You’re absolutely right and it’s… as basic as this is, it reminds me of these memes that keep coming out on Facebook right now as students are going through graduation, they’re saying yes, there’s all these kids that are being celebrated for their intelligence or their music abilities or whatever but make sure you also celebrate the student who were the quiet ones that, you know, slipped through under the radar or that just don’t have any accolades to their names in this completely arbitrary system that’s been created for them. And yes they’ve made it and they’d accomplished just as much as everyone else that’s going through it. So yeah, and your whole story about Around the World, I taught third grade for… I don’t know how many years and yeah, I have a lot of reflections to do because I don’t know how many times we’ve played that game, and of course the same student always won. Right, always! And it just… it’s made me think. But that’s what we do as teachers, right? We reflect. So thank you.
So, tell me more about how identity centered learning can have an impact on learners.
Daniel: Well, my hope is that.. I mean, I think that there’s plenty of anecdotal evidence that goes to show that education has an impact on identity. Education impacts… I mean, we talk about “education is for the future!” and like, yeah. Exactly. Education impacts who we are and how we carry ourselves through life. I mean, of course family and society do as well but education, we spend 7 hours a day in a school. And so thinking about, really super duper long-term, in terms of, as opposed to really short term… because I think a lot of aspects of what we do traditionally and unfortunately still is very very short term, very much in-the-door, out-the-door, you know. We have to, this checkbox, that checkbox… and so thinking about you know, for me as an educator, when I look at students in my class, I actually focus a lot on math. Partly because I feel like math is a subject that has a, gets a very strong reactions out of people. And there’s very strong identity messages that students develop and you hear adults saying it – “oh I’m not a math person” or “they’re a math whiz” or “I’m not a numbers guy”. There are a number of.. Sort of, identity messages and questioning how do these… You know, nobody really says like, “oh you know, I’m not…” and I feel like math really gets that out of people. And it’s one of those subjects that are highly and heavily steeped in the centering of ability and so thinking back about… at what point in a person’s life is this messaging ingrained in their head that I’m not a math guy or I am a math guy and I’m a math nerd and… I would claim that it has to do with connection.
So this idea of connection to particular type of thinking or particular topic and just the simple idea that someone’s ability at a particular area should dictate their connection to it, I think is a fallacy. And I think it’s wrong! And I know this from both sides. I know this from the side of feeling a strong connection to something because I was good at it but realizing that I didn’t have a really deep intrinsic connection to it, and also the other side of not being… not being confident enough or feeling like I didn’t have any business building a connection with that. And this all comes back to identity, right? There’s a reason why we feel out of place when we’re doing something – it’s because we don’t fit. Something about us doesn’t fit there. And so how can we create environments that have a very very low entry to get into the arena and to actually try things out? Or are we putting up a barrier at the very beginning?
I’m reminded of the pre-assessment, the pre-test, which to me, just symbolizes everything that’s so identity damaging. We haven’t even started this unit, nobody taught you anything, and I’m testing you on it.
Lori: Mmhmm. Yeah. Yep.
Daniel: And so it’s the gateway – you know, the.. The drawbridge is already pulled up and you don’t even have the chance to get inside the castle and you don’t… and so I think that so much of education is summed up that way, not to make a math pun… and so I think that any focus on inclusion, i think that speaks to the simple things we do without thinking. And how can we create an environment in which yes, we’re all learning, we’re all growing, we’re all growing our skills, we’re not going to act like school is not about growing our skills. But if our focus is growth, why do we need to have a gateway to that growth? The gateway should be open so that growth can happen and how can we create an environment where… where we are in our particular journeys isn’t… that’s not the center of what we do. Yes, of course, we’re going to be at different places but is that the defining aspect of who we are as learners? Or can we design learning environments and promote attitudes and practices and relationships at the foundation of things that that don’t center that ability so that students don’t see that as the defining aspect of their connection to that particular content? And it takes a lot of creativity, it continues to take creativity from me because I notice it every single day where I’m like… “oop, no, that sent the wrong message, nope, not doing that again”. And I think just like you mentioned with your reflections, we have to think. We have to do better.
Lori: We have to do better. And I think what I heard you say loud and clear is we need to question the system more so, or we need to question the system, not the child and that’s everything right there.
Daniel: I would add on that questioning the system rather than questioning the child or necessarily questioning only ourselves… I think we as educators have the tendency to, of course, we want to reflect on our own practice but we also have to recognise that… we exist and operate within systems of oppression and that I notice it every single day and the limits of the power. I could say one thing in my class but when the child move to the next grade, or goes home or goes to another school, is that message, even if it’s a great message, if that message is muddied by something else. So recognising what power do we have and what responsibility our leaders have.
Lori: Agreed. And I do encourage teachers when they’re looking into moving schools, when they’re moving schools to really take a look and study the school or the system they’re moving into and what are their core values and what are the messages that they are sending to the world through their website, to, through their actions, just through everything and ensure that you’re going to be a good fit for that system. That your beliefs and values match. So. Yeah.
Well, yeah, Daniel, thank you so much for your time today and for teaching me something new. It’s just great to hear from experts such as yourself and if you could just, before we leave, share a little bit more about your identity centered learning website and what people can get from your website.
Daniel: Sure, yeah. Thanks for highlighting that. So the website, it’s, I would say that it has some articles I’ve written and it has some podcasts that I’ve been on like this one, but I feel like the page that probably gets, that might be the most useful is the resources page. And it has a ton of infographics that I admit are very cluttered, I tend to have a lot that I want to say and I can’t stop myself from saying it as you might’ve noticed from this podcast, but I feel like the infographics, they kind of break down the key concepts that I’ve kind of fixated on and help to… my hope is that they kind of demystify and complexify identity so you know, there’s nothing there that says “here are 3 easy steps for…” no. None of this. As I mentioned to you before, we’re juggling all these things at once. And so I feel like those infographics, they tend to hopefully broaden our perspective and our set of practices, kind of to grow our toolkit, our toolkit of strategies for approaching identity in a way that is really empowering.
Lori: Perfect. Well, we will also have your website on our show notes as well as the articles you’ve written. So again, thank you for you time today, Daniel!
Daniel: Thank you so much for having me – it’s been a pleasure.
Thank you for joining us for today’s show. For more information including how to subscribe and show notes, please head to our website. That’s SENIAinternational.org/podcast. Until next time, cheers.