Identity in the Classroom

Alzar School | 24.02.21

Living away from the norms of their lives at home, Alzar School students have the opportunity, many for the first time, to distinguish and investigate the complexities of their identity. Stepping into a new environment, one that brings a wide variety of students and experiences together, prompts students at Alzar School to assess their identity and find their place in a new community. Although some of this community shaping happens organically, Alzar School staff coordinate designated activities and conversations to help students understand and appreciate each individual’s unique identity. 

Specifically in the classroom, Alzar School teachers regularly incorporate lessons around identity into their curriculum. The topic of identity is easily raised in English class, where students can dive into authors’ identities by deciphering literary works, and in the Capstone Leadership Course, where students examine leadership styles of known and unknown leaders in their lives. Alzar School teachers across all subjects are offering a creative curriculum that prompts students to dig deeper into materials and into their own thoughts and experiences. Here are a few examples:

In Gillian Wilcox’s math classes, students are asked to read an excerpt from Sara Hottinger’s Inventing the Mathematician: Gender, Race, and Our Cultural Understanding of Mathematics.  Next, they reflect upon who they imagine when they think of a ‘mathematician’, and compare that to their own experiences in math and how their personal identity has shaped their experience in math classes thus far. For an extension activity, Gillian has students identify a contemporary mathematician and their area of study, along with aspects of their history and identity. This semester, Gillian will also host multiple guest speakers to talk with the students about their journey in the mathematics field, their research and accomplishments, as well as their work to expand equity and inclusion in the mathematics field. Through these, Gillian aims to challenge stereotypes about math and encourage students to view themselves as mathematicians.

History teacher, Lee Neale.

In Lee Neale’s history classes he provides a historical narrative through textbooks, primary sources, short video clips, classroom activities, and lectures. These are all vetted and standards-aligned resources. Additionally, he regularly asks guiding questions like “which groups of people are not included in this dominant narrative?” and “how is this an incomplete view of history?”. With repetition, this allows students to develop awareness of implicit bias in storytelling, whether it’s from a high school history textbook, a documentary, or even their teacher. 

CEA, Rachel Lightner helping in classes.

In Rachel Ackerman’s science classes, she assigned a reflection prompt with two leading questions, “have you ever had an experience that made you question your beliefs?” and “have you disagreed with someone because the way in which you view the world is different from theirs?”. Rachel provided background information about the Theory of Knowledge, which some philosophers have laid forth as an understanding that there are several ways in which humans engage in the process of “knowing”, including:


Sense perception








Students were asked which of the above ‘ways of knowing’ best characterize the ways they interact with the world and to reflect on if these change based on context. Rachel then asked “does the way you engage in scientific learning parallel your typical worldview?” and “do you change your approach to ‘knowing’ when engaging with scientific topics?”

One of her students said, “The way I engage in scientific learning definitely parallels with my worldview, because I like to see things proven…but, when I am learning about scientific topics, or I am in a classroom, my ways of knowing change. I put more emphasis on proven facts and reason, wherein a social situation, I might rely more on my intuition and emotion.”

Across academic disciplines, Alzar School teachers are challenging students to develop a robust understanding of content. Beyond learning the facts, students at Alzar School are analyzing how identity affects the ways in which information is presented and acknowledging how their own identity influences the way they learn and grow.