Heart Maps: A strategy for celebrating our students’ unique identities

by | 02.13.19

Marwa Elkelani is a teacher in Ontario. Follow her on Twitter @ElkelaniMar.

I grew up in a really small, rural community in Saskatchewan. I was the only Muslim girl in my city and classroom, and my experiences and identity weren’t always reflected back to me at school.

Now that I have my own classroom, one of my biggest goals is to make sure my students are recognized for their diverse identities. My students come from at least 10 different countries, so getting to know them and making sure they feel validated is a big priority for me.

I often tell my students, “This is our class, not just my class.” One day, I pointed out that my name was on the classroom door – but we needed all our names up there. I told them I wanted to learn more about their names, and I introduced an activity that I modified after learning about it from another teacher: Name Heart Maps!

I made graphic organizers that look like big hearts, and I invited students to put their names in the middle, along with any nicknames or other names that are important to them. I started by sharing the story of my own name and how it changed when I was a baby, after one of my parents had a dream that convinced them my name was supposed to be Marwa, not Nada. My students found my story surprising, and it helped break the ice.

Afterward, students researched the stories of their own names. They had a blast! Some of them learned stories from their families, and others focused on nicknames, saying things like, “They call me this at soccer.”

It was a great eye-opener and community-builder for us. I learned more about the kids’ identities – and now, I can work to reflect those identities in the materials I bring into the classroom. Kids also made connections with each other through sharing their stories. They’d say, “Oh, you’re from the same country as me,” and even, “Oh, you’re from the same village!” The door now has all our names on it, not just mine, and it celebrates the identities of everyone who comes together each day in that classroom.

It’s so important for students to see their identities recognized and honored. Since I have the same cultural background as some of my students, they’ll bring this up with me. They’ll say, “You’re the first teacher I’ve had that’s Muslim and speaks Arabic.” They’ll take note when I make certain treats or snacks available that fit within their cultural dietary restrictions, and they’ll thank me. It matters to them.

Of course, the work of recognizing students’ identities doesn’t end with the heart maps – nor with my own identity or the snacks I give out. We’ll continue to deepen our community together all year long. I often pose questions to the students like, “What do you want your classroom to look like?” or “What does a productive classroom look like?” I want them to own the classroom – and I want them to recognize that we all have different strengths, and we all have different needs.

We talk about how not everyone gets the same thing in our classroom, but everyone gets what they need. Because the students see each other as unique individuals, they accept that “fair” looks different for everyone. And our differences are part of what makes our community so special.

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