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Explore a Unit: Identity (Grade 6)

A beloved young-adult novel and the streets of one of Chicago’s most storied neighborhoods played key roles in the Identity unit recently completed by our sixth-grade students.

The unit was an interdisciplinary one. Language & Literature teacher Melissa Cuculich and Individuals & Societies teacher Eric Hillebrand collaborated throughout so that questions about identity were threaded through the students’ literary and social studies inquiries.

“It went very well because our different expertise meshed perfectly,” Ms. Cuculich said.

On the Language & Lit side, sixth-graders read The Outsiders — S.E. Hinton’s classic novel about groups of teenagers divided by socioeconomic differences. As they read, students considered questions about identity in relation to the novel and their own lives: Where does identity come from? How is it expressed? How does it change?

As the summative project, students wrote their own memoirs. These writings usually focused on moments of change, such as the death of a parent or moving to a new school. And students paid attention to details that would reveal their personal identities.

“In their memoirs, they drew on our discussions about The Outsiders," Ms. Cuculich said. “You could see how students were thinking about ways that things like setting can be a signifier of identity, for instance. It could be something as simple as your room.”

On the Individuals & Societies side, students explored the South Side neighborhood of Bridgeport, which is the home or birthplace of five Chicago mayors, including Richard J. Daley and his son, Richard M. Daley.

Using digital maps, census data and other resources, students studied the neighborhood’s boundaries and history. They talked about the different ethnic groups that have called the area home. The centerpiece of this inquiry was a Field Study to the neighborhood. Students walked four blocks of two Bridgeport streets, recording signs of identity with their iPad cameras.

“Before we went, we developed some hypotheses about how the community might express its identity,” Mr. Hillebrand said. “Would we see ‘Black Lives Matter’ signs or ‘Blue Lives Matter’ signs? What kinds of flags would be waving — American flags, cultural flags, sports?

“Once there, students took pictures of everything they saw that might communicate identity in some way. It was interesting to see the connections students made on that trip, how they began to develop a sense of communal identity, in addition to individual identity.”

As a summative project, students recorded personal reflections about the memoirs they had written in their Language & Literature class. In many cases, students provided commentary on their work, explaining choices they’d made. They also talked about the way time, place and space help create identity, which was a key theme of their Individuals & Societies work.

“It was a good way to tie the two classes together,” Mr. Hillebrand said.

The Identity unit is part of the International Baccalaureate Middle Years Program at GEMS. The MYP, which serves students in grades 6 through 10, calls for at least one unit to be explored as an interdisciplinary inquiry.

“It was fascinating to see how the students pulled ideas from the two classes,” Ms. Cuculich said. “During our discussions of The Outsiders, they began to talk about differences in people, and how groups can be ignorant of each other’s experiences. I know they were carrying those kinds of questions over from their Individuals & Societies work.”

This the latest in our "Explore a Unit" content series. Earlier articles can be found here:

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