Skip to content

The Impact of Focusing on Student Identity

by Jacobē Bell, Monna Istranyi

All around the country, as middle school students returned to in-person learning in the middle of a nation-wide pandemic during the past school year, they had questions such as “Do I remember how to do this?”, “Will I make friends?”, “Everyone has masks on… is mine straight?”, “How is this going to work, how am I going to fit in?” running through their minds. Pre-pandemic, student feelings towards classroom belonging, relationships and trust in middle school were hard enough topics to address; now they are critical as our students rebuild their social muscles and re-engage with teachers and classrooms. 

This has been the focus of the schools in the Teaching Matters Network for School Improvement (NSI)*, in the form of a change idea we call “Identity Questions.” The concept is simple: Middle school ELA teachers will purposefully adapt and adopt a practice of including questions that connect identity and content at key junctures in their lessons. Over the course of 6-8 weeks, teachers work together to tweak this practice. Through an improvement science process (PDSA cycle), the timing, the phrasing, the measuring is all adapted to see what works best in their context – as teachers know, the devil is in the details.

Here are the top 3 takeaways we’ve concluded through this change idea:

  1. There appears to be positive relationship between the “Identity Questions” change idea and student perceptions of a more inclusive classrooms
  2. There is a positive relationship between student perception and meeting ELA growth goals
  3. The positive relationship between student change in perception of inclusive classrooms and students meeting their ELA growth goal is strongest in classrooms where teachers are implementing “Identity Questions” with high integrity

Let’s take a closer look at the data:

From the data analysis, we can clearly see the positive relationship between student change in perception and student meeting growth goal is strongest in classrooms where teachers are implementing the change idea with high integrity. There is a correlation between a high integrity implementation of “Identity Questions,” a positive change in student perception of inclusivity and positive growth in % of students meeting growth goals (p=.04825). 

While these results are preliminary, we are seeing positive signals that this replicable and subtle change to lesson planning and teacher practice, when implemented with integrity, connects to students feeling of inclusivity and connects to greater ELA gains (+4%) compared to students not participating in, or participating in a low-integrity classroom. 

We’d like to share a list of action items educators can take to focus on student identity:

Low level lift ideas for teachers:

  • In the “do now” of the lesson, integrate a question that connects to students identity and/or lives.
    • Example 1: In The Lightning Thief, Grover is being picked on and Percy, being a good friend is willing to risk detention to protect/stand up for his friend. How far are you willing to go or what are you willing to risk to help out a friend.
    • Example 2: The idea of noise pollution is brought up in the novel, what contributes to noise pollution in your community? Does noise pollution bother you? Why or why not?

Sentence stems for teachers than want to try this out:

Do Now:

  • Describe a time in your life when…
  • How do you feel about this…
  • Think about the idea of … what connections can you make between … and your own life?

After Reading:

  • In the text the author explains…what is your opinion on this topic?
  • What connections can you make between…(character, theme, topic, etc.) and yourself?
  • How do you feel about X’s decision to do Y? How would you have responded if this were you?

*NSI is a community of 16 NYC middle schools (spread across 11 of NYC’s districts) working together to ensure all students are prepared for high school and beyond through the integration of culturally responsive-sustaining practices and continuous improvement methods.