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Resource/Pedagogical Practice: Critical Autobiography

Currently, I teach courses at two of the local universities in my area, both covering the cultural, social, and curricular foundations of education and practices to prepare teachers to work with students from diverse backgrounds-0098234321 . Throughout the semester, I guide the students through a critical analysis of the construction and evolution of the American public school system, focusing on various cultural, social, economic and political factors shaping and shaped by shifting educational paradigms and theories.

Since the majority of the students in each course are pre- and in-service teachers, a primary objective is for them to develop their initial philosophies of teaching and learning, and begin to construct their vision for themselves as educators. As you can imagine this requires a ton of critical self-reflection and we begin this process pretty much from day 1, as the first major assignment is the critical autobiography.

So what exactly is a critical autobiography?

While it is difficult to find the specific origins of the critical autobiography, the form that I am referencing here has history in Sociology, particularly in studying/teaching the Sociology of Education. The critical autobiography looks to the power of storytelling, asking the author to recount key experiences and interactions that have shaped who they are while applying various lenses to excavate the messages they've internalized about race, gender, culture, class, sexuality, ability, etc.

The critical autobiography is an exploration of self that reveals the ways in which our various identity markers have shaped and been shaped by the various experiences and interactions that rise to the top of our minds when we look back on the pivotal moments of our lives. Most importantly, writing and analyzing the critical autobiography forces us to come face-to-face with the ways in which we may have been a part of our own oppression and/or the oppression of others and the damaging narratives, assumptions and biases we may be carrying into our daily interactions and, left unchecked, our future work.

Writing the Critical Autobiography

There is no single way to approach the critical autobiography.Since the aim is for the authors to dig deeply into their identities, there should definitely be some freedom of choice in how they choose to construct and present it, after all this will give major insight into who they are and how they interpret their past experiences. Some common formats include:

  • Traditional narrative essays

  • Journal Entries; Video Diary

  • PowerPoint or Prezi

  • Collages, Paintings or other visual representations of the key themes and ideas unearthed in the exploration of self

  • Songs, Poetry, Dance or other physical interpretations of the key themes and ideas

Regardless of how participants/students decide to present their autobiographies, they should be encouraged to focus on 2-3 key themes that enable them to deeply explore underlying messages of power and privilege that have informed and shaped their perceptions of self and others. In some cases, instructors/facilitators will narrow the scope of the assignment down to really drill into a particular aspect of identity development. For example, in one of my Foundation of Education courses, I assign a Critical Educational Autobiography, in which students primarily focus on key experiences and interactions that impacted their development of their academic identity and philosophy of teaching and learning.

Additionally, since there is no set format for presenting the critical autobiography, there is also no set format for how to approach it, but here are some common questions to pose to students/participants to help guide them through the process:

  • Family History: What is your ethnic background? What is/are your family's country/countries of origin? What would you consider your home base? Discuss any patterns or key experiences in your family's educational and work histories. Describe your childhood neighborhood(s) and home. Did you move around a lot?

  • Identity: How do you identify in regards to race, ethnicity, gender sexual orientation, social class, language and/or ability? What dominant messages did you receive about these various identity markers and in what aspect of your life (family, school, social life) did they get reinforced or challenged? Discuss any privileges and struggles you've experienced in relation to these identities.

  • Individual Educational History: What are some experiences and interactions that stick out to you in your K-12 education (could be positive or negative0 and how did they shape your academic and/or social engagement moving forward? Describe the schools you attended. Were they in your neighborhood or did you have to travel to another neighborhood? These experiences could also have been outside of school as long as they relate to or clearly impacted your perceptions of your identity within schools or your ability/desire to engage within school spaces. What teachers or classes stick out for you (again positively or negatively) and why? How was intelligence defined and measured in your schools? How did that shape your perceptions of your own intellectual capabilities and overall academic identity?

For educators or those seeking to become educators:

  • What led you to become a teacher or have interest in entering the field of Education? Be specific and identify particular events, interactions and individuals who motivated and/or inspired you.

  • What is your philosophy of teaching and learning?

  • In your perspective what should be the purpose of schools? Based on your philosophy what would be the role(s) of the teacher? How is this similar to/different from what you experience/perceive to be the current purpose of schools and educators' role(s)? It may help to describe your own school, curriculum and teachers and then compare it to what you have written for your purpose and roles.

Again, these are just some sample questions to aid students/participants in the process of thinking about how they position themselves and have been positioned in society and begin to think about the messages they received about race, ethnicity, gender, ability, intellectual ability etc. Questions may be added, removed or changed as necessary, but the goal is not to lead students/participants to particular understandings, but rather explore what naturally surfaces to serve as a foundation for their understandings throughout the course/sessions.

Utilizing the Critical Reflection towards the Development of a Critical Consciousness

For educators aiming to teach for the development of a critical consciousness, the critical autobiography can be used in a number of ways to open dialogue and create opportunities to build important personal connections to ideas and concepts.

  • Some educators/facilitators assign it at the beginning of their time with students/participants to gain insight about where there students are in relation to issues of social justice and equity.

  • Others assign it at the end to assess how well students/participants apply these social justice and equity lenses to their own lives.

  • Still others, like myself, assign it at the beginning, have students refer to and reflect on it throughout the course/sessions, and revisit and revise it at the end of the semester to assess growth and development.

Regardless of how you choose to incorporate it into the course or professional development, there should be some way of sharing or discussing key takeaways. It is in the dialogue that students begin to build the necessary connections between their experiences and interactions, their identity development and how that manifests in their motivations, commitments and engagement with their work. Personally, I weave the critical reflection analysis throughout the course, requiring that students find a personal connection to each of the topics we discuss, even if that connection is that they can't seem to think of one because that in and of itself speaks to a certain degree of privilege and ability to ignore a particular reality, as well as how the new/deeper understandings they've gained from engaging with that module's materials and class discussions have impacted their views for themselves as educators.

I use some format of the critical autobiography in every single course that I teach. In fact, this semester. While my pre- and in-service teachers don't always walk away with drastically different views on the field and their approach to education, it does often spark important "AHA!" moments where they begin to understand the ways that certain narratives, identities and ideas are constructed, and the dangers of failing to reflect on them deeply and often.

Important Note: It is important to assign critical texts that foster critical analysis discussion.

Try it Out & Share

So now it's your turn. Think about how you can incorporate the critical autobiography into your own classroom and/or practice. Write your own. Think about what comes up for you in terms of the identities that are closely tied with your most prominent memories and how those have shaped who you are and your approach to your work. Push yourself to think about which aspects of your identity you rarely think about and what that says about the privileges you may have been afforded and how that might impact the things you highlight and overlook in your own practice. Reflect on the dominant messages about race, gender, sexual orientation, social class and ability and their connection to social and academic engagement.

Then, try it out with your own students. Whether you're teaching pre- and in-service teachers or K-12 students, this can provide valuable information and insight into students' cultural, social and academic backgrounds and open up critical dialogue. Of course some tailoring may be needed to ensure grade level appropriateness. If you feel comfortable share any post-activity reflections, lessons and questions for others who may be interested in trying it or to think about for the future.

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