Conformity, Identity and Rebellion: A Thematic Approach to SEL

What is conformity? Is it wrong to conform? How is our identity formed? Can you change the person you really are? Why would you? When is it OK to rebel? These are questions that will be at the center of a new approach I’m trying this year with my eighth-graders. As I learn more and more about SEL (social and emotional learning) and my own middle schooler, Zoey, the more I realize that the best I can do for my students is to help them ask the right questions and give them a structured and safe environment in which to pursue their own answers. Today, I’m sitting in a coffee shop framing out a year my students will remember—not for what I teach them, but for what they discover about themselves.

What is conformity? Is it wrong to conform?

After our initial get-to-know-you activities like Loving Your #Selfie, One Word Assignment, and the Tower Building contest, I’m going to begin with the novel Stargirl. It only has a Lexile level of 590, but that doesn’t matter to me because we are going to read and listen to it together. The point of this first novel in the Stargirl series isn’t to develop students’ reading skills, but rather to let them see that reading can provide fodder for excellent conversation, debate and self-discovery. This is a new unit for me, so I’m still planning all of the activities, but I will post them on my website, FlexibleClass.com as we go, so check back or subscribe. Please feel free to use the activities to broach tricky questions of conformity with your students!

How is our identity formed? Can you change who you really are? Why would you?

After we have scratched the surface of conformity, we are going to do a deep dive into identity through the novel The Outsiders. Specifically, we are going to talk about the socio-economic factors at play that influence who we are, how we are perceived, and who we become. Additionally, this year I’m layering in another conversation about the influence our external social world has on our internal development. Basically, “How does being born at this particular moment in time impact who you are?” We’ll be doing this through a mini-collaborative research project about the 1960s, the setting of The Outsiders. Students will write a collaborative essay, and then present an informative Google slideshow to the class. My co-teacher, Laura Klein, and I are going to mine their presentations for facts that we’ll then turn into clues for our culminating experience: an escape room. I’ve been really excited about escape rooms, and you can read about their benefits in this interview with Youth Radio. This will motivate students to listen carefully to each other, setting a purpose for their research, reading, writing and listening that will be memorable. This is a new activity too, so stay tuned! 

When is it OK to rebel?

The most written-about unit I do is on The Giver, but I’ll be updating my approach this year. I’ve generally taught the novel as a utopia/dystopia dialogue, and it is always a class favorite. This year though, I’m going to take a different angle, focusing on the book as resistance literature. It is easily teachable as a book about individual responsibility and rebellion, and I’m going to use “Civic Action and Change,” a great resource from the iCivics collection. I’m really fascinated to see how students living in this moment, right now, will see civic action, given that they’ve probably absorbed more of it than previous students I’ve taught. Additionally, I’m going to link the power of protest to current events, as seen in this lesson from the Anti-Defamation League on “The Muslim Ban.”

Why am I shifting to a thematic approach? As I scanned my student lists last week, I was curious about these people. Who are they? Does school work for them? What barriers do I need to remove for them to embrace the content I’m tasked with delivering? How can I take the content and skills I need to “cover” and create experiences for these yet-to-be-known kiddos? Of course, I came back to social and emotional learning. It’s only been a year since my book, The Flexible SEL Classroom, came out, and interestingly I had to remind myself that the most important job I’m really doing is guiding students to ask the right questions and experience self-actualization that will lead them to become happy, productive, civic-minded citizens.