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Student Identity and UDL

Pamela Chu-Sheriff
Pamela Chu-Sheriff
January 22, 2024

Who Am I?

In a 2011 interview, Maya Angelou, African American literary icon, stated, “If you don't know where you've come from, you don't know where you're going.” Knowing who we are not only gives us a foundation to stand on but also helps provide us with a sense of direction in life. 

Renowned psychoanalyst Carl Jung’s take on identity goes a step further and posits, “The world will ask you who you are, and if you don't know, the world will tell you.” Essentially, if we don’t know who we are, an identity will be put upon us, regardless of whether or not it actually fits.

That age-old question of Who am I? is one that students and even adults grapple with as they seek to make sense of themselves and the world around them. When we do not honor or do not actively help students discover or celebrate who they are, they may be left rudderless in an already confusing world. Once directionless, as Angelou’s quote warns, it is difficult to decide how to move forward in life. And without an anchor, our young people may have identities and narratives thrust upon them that are limiting at best or completely false at worst.

Why Focus on Student Identity?

As educators, it is our responsibility to help guide our young people as they navigate these journeys of self. Long gone (and with good riddance!) are the days in which teachers were heralded as sages on the stage and students were simply repositories of information. As Universal Design for Learning (UDL) teaches us, we need to uplift student voices and involve students as co-creators in their educational journeys. 

While focusing on student identity is important in and of itself, it is also a crucial conduit through which students can more deeply engage in authentic learning. Viewed through a UDL lens, we can see how the principle of Engagement, or the “why” of learning, aligns with how students can come into their own via various means of piquing student interest and having opportunities to self-reflect (Learn more about the UDL guidelines). The following UDL checkpoints in particular underscore how harnessing student voice, relevance, and backgrounds is directly tied to student engagement:

  • Optimize individual choice and autonomy 
  • Optimize relevance, value, and authenticity
  • Promote expectations and beliefs that optimize motivation

In short, when we uplift who our students are, what they have to say, and what they bring to the table, we not only send the message that we value their identities, but we also foster conditions that create improved learning environments in the process.

Culturally Responsive Teaching 

An important framework through which we can honor student identity in our teaching is through culturally responsive practices. According to Ladson-Billings (1994), culturally responsive teaching is a pedagogy that recognizes the importance of including students' cultural references in all aspects of learning. While not exhaustive, the Education Alliance at Brown University (2006) lists these seven characteristics of culturally responsive teaching, a few of which will be explored below:

  1. 1. Positive perspectives of parents and families
  2. 2. Communication of high expectations
  3. 3. Learning within the context of culture
  4. 4. Student-centered instruction
  5. 5. Culturally mediated instruction
  6. 6. Reshaping the curriculum
  7. 7. Teacher as facilitator

If we examine the characteristics of student-centered instruction, this phrase could be taken straight out of the UDL playbook, so to speak. We need to move away from teacher-centered models of instruction (e.g., lectures and too much teacher talk) to truly allow our students to have opportunities to make choices, collaborate, and become self-directed learners. We need to ask:

  • What are ways that we can foster community in our classrooms? 
  • How do we promote engagement and inquiry-based learning in our school settings?

Culturally mediated instruction values diverse ways of knowing and multicultural viewpoints. One way to incorporate this into the classroom is by drawing upon students’ funds of knowledge. According to González and Moll (2002), funds of knowledge describe the cultural practices, routines, and knowledge base embedded within families. This concept, according to the authors, is “based on a simple premise: people are competent and have knowledge, and their life experiences have given them that knowledge” (p. 625). 

For instance, to get to know our students, have we ever simply asked them to share about any skills, talents, or hobbies they and their families might have? Counter to a deficit-based approach, this simple exercise may remind us that our students’ families provide them with a knowledge base that may be untapped and under-appreciated.

Lastly, in terms of reshaping the curriculum, we need to make a concerted effort to ensure that classroom content reflects the many backgrounds and cultures of our students. The concept of windows and mirrors, first coined by Emily Styles in 1988, is a fitting analogy when we think about our curriculum. When we look out of a window, we get a view of the outside world. When we look in the mirror, we see a reflection of ourselves. Similarly, students should feel that curricular choices, from texts and articles to videos and music, should reflect their own experiences as well as the experiences of others. Representation matters not just in terms of seeing oneself but also by being exposed to the experiences of others.

Tips & Resources for Celebrating Student Identity

  1. 1. Student-centered instruction

  2. To encourage a variety of cooperative learning strategies, check out these amazing protocols:
  1. 2. Culturally mediated instruction

  2. To foster an environment in which students can celebrate and share their own and others’ cultures, consider:
    • Learn about holidays and traditions from around the world. Need an example? Here’s a sample lesson plan from PBS about teaching about Ramadan.
    • Have students learn and share about music, language, and food from their own and others’ backgrounds. Invite your students’ family members in as guest speakers!
    • For more ideas, explore these lesson plans from Learning for Justice (you can filter by topics such as Identity, Race & Ethnicity, and Gender & Sexual Identity, and more).
  1. 3. Reshaping the curriculum

  2. To incorporate materials that are reflective of a diverse range of student backgrounds, try these resources:
    • Social Justice Books offers more than 100 multicultural and social justice book lists broken down by category and grade band.
    • Check out these lesson plans from The Underrepresentation Curriculum Project, which encourages students to explore issues of social justice in STEM.

I’m Here

Helping students foster and celebrate their sense of self and where they come from should be inseparable from their overall educational experiences. This approach to honoring student identity is an end with value in itself, but as research in UDL illustrates, it is also a means by which we can increase learning outcomes.

In that  2011 interview when Maya Angelou first uttered, “If you don't know where you've come from, you don't know where you're going,” she followed up this statement with two powerful words: “I’m here.” May we all do our part by encouraging our students to “show up” and to bring their authentic selves with them every day.


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