Fulfilling the American Promise: Classroom Identities

Professional Development Topic
  • Facilitate reflection or discussion about how identity – of teachers and students – directly impacts classroom instruction, using clips from the film, American Promise.
  • Recognize how assumptions and stereotypes about students can help or hinder the classroom learning process.
Essential Questions
  • How do perceptions about black masculinity, particularly the ways in which race intersects with gender and class, shape how African-American male students are taught? 
  • What role does the idea of belonging or not belonging play in determining the opportunities available to different groups? 

    You need:

    • ability to access audio and video on your device;
    • pen and paper;
    • and about one hour.

    In his 1903 classic, The Souls of Black Folk, W.E.B. Du Bois wrote:

    The history of the American Negro is the history of this strife—this longing to attain self-conscious manhood, to merge his double self into a better and truer self.  In this merging he wishes neither of the older selves to be lost,…He simply wishes to make it possible for a man to be both a Negro and an American, without being cursed and spit on by his fellows, without having the doors of Opportunity closed roughly in his face. 

    Take a moment to reread the passage.

    How do you think self-identity and diversity in your classroom affect student performance?

    We hope this presentation builds a collective consciousness among school faculty about how race, gender and class assumptions influence the educational experiences of all students, particularly African-American males. 

    First Reflection:  

    How can my assumptions and prejudices about race and gender influence pedagogy, classroom instruction and student learning?

    How can Idris and Seun’s experiences help me develop a classroom culture where all students are treated fairly and given equal opportunities to succeed?

    How was Idris and Seun’s individual development shaped by historical stereotypes about African Americans?    

    If you are working with a cohort, share your ideas as a whole group.


    Take a few minutes for this task

    Step 1— Create two columns on a sheet of paper or computer. Label them “My Identity” and “My Students’ Identity.”

    Step 2—Generate a list of the different parts of your identity in the first column. Be sure to include your race, gender, class, and any other identity markers, such as ethnicity and sexual orientation, that are important to how you self-identify.

    Step 3—Do the same in the column you created for your students.

    Positive and Negative Identities, Step #1

    Put a  plus (+) or a minus (-) next to each identity trait you listed:

    + for those you feel are viewed positively by society.

    -  for those  that you feel are seen as negative.

    Good to know: There are no right or wrong answers.

    Positive and Negative Identities, Step #2

    Take five minutes to reflect on your lists. 

    Think about your reasons for each rating. 

    Identify gaps or areas that might affect how you engage with the multiple identities present in your classroom.

    The Dalton Decision

    View this selection from American Promise.

    Second Reflection

    Analyze your list and reflections.

    • Do your lists contain more positives or negatives?
    • Do you see items on the lists that may help you improve classroom instruction and student/teacher interactions? 
    • Do your lists include challenges that might impede your ability to connect with students?
    • Select one area of strength and one challenge.
    • Think about how the areas you selected may be shaped by the multiple identities present in your classroom. In other words, before this activity, how much thought did you give to how the various identities in your classroom influence how information is communicated and received?

    Partner or group: Compare your lists and work through the questions together.


    The Link Between Language and Racial Discourse

    Historian George Fredrickson suggests:

    Perhaps closer attention to language…will prove helpful in understanding how Americans, both white and black, established modes of discourse based on racial assumptions that then had an enduring effect on the world because of the extent to which they predetermined the very categories or forms that we use to think about the world.

    -The Black Image in the White Mind: Debate on Afro-American
    Character and Destiny 1817-1914

    The Power of Language

    Our identities are shaped by self-perceptions, how we are perceived by others and how others treat us. The language we use to refer to ourselves and others also shape identity. 

    Think about the ways identity and the selection of the words we use to refer to ourselves and others shape classroom conversations and teacher-student interactions.


    1. How does the language we use to refer to ourselves and others shape the identity of each participant in an interpersonal exchange?
    2. How does the language others use to refer to them influence Idris and Seun’s self-perceptions, behavior, personal development and academic performance? 

    Black Boys in a White School

    Now, you’ll see some clips from American Promise. As you watch, record the language used by others to refer to Idris and Seun. 

    Third Reflection

    Spend five minutes reviewing what you recorded. 

    How did being seen as a “black male” appear to affect Idris and Seun’s Dalton experience? 

    How did the language used to refer to each student influence his sense of place at Dalton and, importantly, his ability to learn? 

    In a group? Do this with a partner.


    Forging Connections

    Think about students you have taught and compare them to Idris and Seun.

    Were you able to develop a strong relationship with these students? Why or why not? 

    Do you think your assumptions or perceptions about race, gender, class, sexuality and other identity markers affect your instructional approaches and student outcomes?    


    What challenges did Idris and Seun face inside and outside of Dalton?

    How did their developing identity as black males shape these challenges?                                     

    Fourth Reflection

    Thinking about the students you teach currently, select one who seems similar to Idris and Seun, and another who is different. 

    Think of specific examples of how you engage with each of these students as you consider these questions:   

    1. Do I feel a connection or a disconnect?

    2. Is there a difference between how the student relates to me and his peers? 

    3. What changes—academic, social and behavioral, positive or negative, — have I seen over the course of the school year?

    Identity, Culture, and Improving Instructional Practice

    In this final activity you’ll write a plan of action to address the issues you have identified as areas of improvement.

    You’ll develop goals that you can achieve within a realistic timeframe and identify benchmarks to hold yourself accountable. 

    You may want to share your goals with a peer or school leader who will support you.

    Groups: Plan to share progress and challenges during future professional developments and staff meetings.

    What’s Next    

    • Generate a list of realistic, measurable changes you can make to classroom instruction and teacher/student relationships in the short term. Make a separate list of long-term goals that you will strive to implement. 
    • Identify ways to address the issues of language and student engagement, and explain how your goals will help ensure equal learning opportunities for all of your students. 

    Final Reflection

    The last video, "The Culture of Students," is from Teaching Tolerance. Reflect on these questions:

    • How can the experience of challenging my own misperceptions and stereotypes about others improve my pedagogy and enhance student learning?
    • What can I learn from Idris and Seun’s experiences that will help me develop an anti-racist classroom culture where all students are treated fairly and given equal opportunities to succeed?


    Next, we'll examine how classrooms shaped by white and middle-class cultural norms attempt to assimilate different identities into American society.

    We hope you’ll join us for part two of "Fulfilling the American Promise: Assimilation."

    John Adams is a freelance writer and PhD candidate at Rutgers University-New Brunswick.