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Transitioning to Teaching Online – Contemporary Issues in Youth Development, Chapter 4: Identity and Development

This is another post in my series on developing my Adolescent and Youth Development for Youthworkers class as an online course for this fall. The series begins with Part 1.

This is “Chapter” 4 of the interactive and experiential OER I will develop with my students this fall. This will likely be module 4 / week 4 of the course.

Chapter Overview: For some, youth is an identity! It is one way of defining who they are (in contrast to “kid” or “adult”). Youth is also intersectional with all sorts of other identities – race, sexuality, gender, ability, and… How do young people develop and think about their identities? How do these multiple, sometimes even competing, identities work in their everyday lives? How has exploring “identity” become such an integral part of the way we think about the adolescence and youth development? What does supporting young people’s interest in and exploration of their identity do (and what does the absence of this exploration – or even an active fight against the exploration do)?

Learning Aims: As a result of participating in this “chapter”, participants will be able to:

  • Know that identity is not only a psychological frame, but also social, cultural, political, religious/spiritual, and so forth.
  • Understand identity development as a process of young people developing stories about who they are, why they are, and how they fit in the world.
  • Understand identity as a way that young people are seen, understood, and responded to – sometimes in ways they have some control over, and other times entirely outside of their control.
  • Connect identity development to their own experiences of growing up and their own efforts to connect their inner selves to the landscape of stories about who we are and who we can become.
  • Apply these lenses to understanding their own, present identity development.

Part 1: Identity is More Than an Internal Psychological State

We might decide who we are, but who shapes how we are seen?

As we studied in Chapter 2, the psychological frame of adolescence is only one (and a very limited, often problematic, one at that) way of understanding youth development. However, this way of understanding youth development is also the way many understand adolescent development.

Let’s watch this short video together in VideoANT – a video annotation software like that lets us collectively point to particular parts of the video and add shared comments. This video is about James Marcia’s States of Adolescent Identity Development – a fairly common framework for understanding the process through which a young person might explore – and decide upon – answers to “who” and “why” they “are X, Y, and Z.” While you listen, add comments in VideoANT that respond to these questions (and/or ask questions of your own):

  • What does Marcia’s theory teach you about adolescent development that’s interesting – and why?
  • When Marcia says X (pick up on a point in the video), what do you think is missing from this idea, or mis-framed, or oversimplifed? An easy way to notice these points is when you watch the video and think “that’s not what it was like for me!”
  • At the end of the video, I’ve started a comment thread that says, “what do we lose if we see youth identity development from this perspective?” Add a comment there on what you think is lost.

Again, this is just one way of understanding young people and identity. And, based on what we discussed in Chapter 2, it isn’t that this limited perspective is necessarily and outright wrong, but that, due to its power and popularity, it risks becoming the only way we see identity development. And thus, it becomes the only way we think to respond to identity development.

Part II: Developing Identities

So what are some other ways to think about identity and identity development? Let’s develop some collective expertise, based on some of your own reading, about what this means. First, you’ll choose an article and get smart about it. Read it and take some notes. Choose one you are interested in. If none of these are interesting, choose another scholarly article and talk to me about it.

Choose and read ONE article from the following list:

  1. Gay identity development: Halverson, E.R. (2009). InsideOut: Facilitating gay youth identity development through a performance-based youth organization. Identity, 5(1), 67-90.
  2. LatinX identity development: Romero, A., Arce, S., & Cammarota, J. (2009). A Barrio pedagogy: identity, intellectualism, activism, and academic achievement through the evolution of critically compassionate intellectualism. Race, Ethnicity, and Education, 12(2), 217-233.
  3. Refugee identity development: Mosselson, J. (2006). Roots & routes: A re-imagining of refugee identity constructions and the implications for schooling. Current Issues in Comparative Education, 29, 20-29.
  4. Religion and identity development: Hemming, P.J. & Madge, N. (2011). Researching children, youth, and religion: Identity, complexity and agency. Childhood, 19(1), 38-51. (requires institutional access)
  5. Native / Indigenous identity development: Leavitt, P.A., Covarrubias, R., Perez, Y.A., & Fryberg, S.A. (2015). “Frozen in time”: The impact of Native American media representations on identity and self-understanding. Journal of Social Issues, 71(1), 39-53. (requires institutional access)
  6. Social media and identity development: boyd, d. (2014). It’s Complicated. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press. Chapter 1.

Develop: A ten-minute mini-lecture that teaches others the following:

  • What is identity and identity development for the authors of the article you chose?
  • What are challenges young people face in identity development?
  • How does identity development get supported or challenged?
  • How is identity development for this author different from adolescent identity development presented above?

Your mini-lecture should use Google Slides as a visual and can include images and very short videos. You can choose to present it live or to record it (say from a Zoom call) and play it back.

Part III: Identities Developing

When we talk about “identity,” it seems important that we first acknowledge that a single word will never be enough to name the many identities that make us, well, us! Identities are intersectional. Before we move on, watch this quick video about intersectionality.

“Identity is a relationship between people, communities, histories, and institutions”

Kimberlé Crenshaw

I like Crenshaw’s definition of identity from this video. And I think that she shows us two major missing pieces of the adolescent theory of identity development:

  1. Identity is not always (or maybe even often) a choice or an exploration. While we might choose what our queerness or our race or our gender mean to us, and while we might choose how we name it to others, we will also be perceived by others based on their understanding of our identity – and treated as such.
  2. Identities have real consequences in the world. In fact, they are profoundly consequential to how we think about ourselves and how the world treats us.

In this way, we don’t just develop our identities – our identities develop us! For example, if we are put into ESL (English as Second Language) classes because we are perceived as an “outsider” in a Minnesota school, this changes the entire context in which we are growing up. It will also change how we are treated by others. And, as Tuck showed us in Chapter 3, it changes how we treat and understand ourselves. We might accept it (I am learning English) or reject it (I already know English and I’m only in ESL classes because of racism), but regardless it is impacting how we think about who we are and who we will become.

To return to Crenshaw’s definition of identity – there are a limited number of identities available to us. These are constituted by what we see and hear around us. And they are transformed by the ways they are interpreted by those around us. For example, at some point in my early childhood I decided I was a boy. The world treated me in all the ways it was supposed to that reinforced this identity. I also learned a great deal about what it meant to be a boy – how I should act, who I should be attracted to, and so forth. My identity development became intimately intertwined with all the stories around me about what it means to be a boy. Sometimes those didn’t fit how I felt – and then I needed to negotiate the complex territory of whether, where, and how to go with how I felt inside vs. what I knew I was supposed to present to others. It’s in this constant, ongoing negotiation that we regularly create and recreate our identity.

It’s also in this negotiation that others can affect us profoundly. Sometimes we have role models who demonstrate that our identities can be more complex than the limited ideas we’ve received up to this point. Sometimes we have friends or family we trust to hold the complexity of our internal feelings. These kinds of circumstances open up the opportunity to understand ourselves differently – and to invite others to understand us differently too.

Theories of adolescent identity development seem to suggest that the exploration of our identities at some point ends. I doubt this is true. I think it’s more likely that, as we get older, we feel there is less space for our identities to evolve. We feel we are beholden to a certain identity to keep things easy and comfortable for ourselves and the people around us. I think it serves a purpose to connect identity development to youth development so closely – it means that we can limit the time in our lives where we have to think about who we are and why we are here! And that kind of stability means that adults can be seen as constants – and constants are great employees because they always do what you expect!

But even if we wanted to stay constant, we can’t because the world creates chaos for us! We get sick, we are laid off, or we have some other kind of life altering experience. Eventually we get older. And then we are perceived differently by others, even if we don’t change how we see ourselves!

I wish to say what I think and feel today, with the proviso that tomorrow perhaps I shall contradict it all.

Ralph Waldo Emerson

Part IV: Navigating Our Own Identities


  • What would the world be like if it was acceptable or even encouraged to continued to explore our identities throughout our lives?

Story Circle:

We are going to spend some time talking with each other about our own negotiations of identity. To do that, we are going to use a discussion model called a “story circle.” There are many traditions of story circles throughout the world. This particular version draws from the Highlander Folk School, which played a major role during the Civil Rights movement. Here’s an explanation in 10 points by the people I learned it from – Lynn Englund and John Wallace:

Learning circle process guidelines – pulled together by Lynn Englund and John Wallace in February 2011

  1. We want to create a safe space—one where we feel free tospeak from the head and the heart (to express thought and emotion).
  2. The facilitator will pose a question of the nature “Dig back in your experience and tell a story of a time when…”
  3. After a short time to reflect on the question and to let a story come into our minds or to choose just one story from many, someone will volunteer to start.
  4. That person will choose the direction to go around the circle either to the right or to the left.
  5. We will take turns telling our stories without interruption. This “no interruption” norm for discussion is one that we are not used to—and it is not easy to follow! As people speak around the circle, you are going to hear ideas and experiences that you want to respond to immediately—to affirm, to question, to tell about a similar experience of your own, to ask for more details, … countless impulses to respond that we are used to following up on quickly in conversations with friends. But in these circles I ask you to hold onto these impulses, and to file what you felt like saying to be used later.
  6. When it is your turn to speak, if for whatever reason you don’t wish to speak at that time, that is fine and you are free to pass. When we have gone all around the circle, we will go back to those who have passed and give them another opportunity to speak. It is fine if for any reason someone still chooses to pass.
  7. You contribute as much to the discussion by your listening as by your speaking. One of the main things that interfere with listening is that we tend to think of speaking as a performance on which we will be judged. Here we are creating a space in which we don’t need to think of speaking in this way, but rather as a quiet and patient sharing of thoughts among friends.
  8. Freedom to listen is enhanced by realizing another rule of learning circles: silence in a learning circle is OK. If, as you are speaking, you find that you need to pause to arrange what you want to say next, that is fine. If, when it comes your turn to speak, you wish to take a few seconds to silently collect your thoughts, that is fine. Please don’t feel that the movement from speaker to speaker to speaker has to be a split-second handoff as in a relay race.
  9. Once everyone has had a chance to speak—and those who passed the first time around have had a second chance—then, if there is time, the facilitator will invite cross-talk. The facilitator may do this by asking an open-ended question, such as, “What common threads did you hear?” “What points of dissonance or tension did you hear?” Or the facilitator may simply open the space for comments, observations, or questions, either general ones or ones addressed to particular people.
  10. It is often a good idea for the facilitator in launching the circle to say something about the time available. “We have two hours for our whole discussion this morning—the circle go-around and cross-talk afterwards. We have fifteen people in the circle so if each of us will be mindful that that we should speak for roughly six minutes, that will leave a half hour for cross-talk at the end.” In opening the space up for cross-talk, the facilitator may want to remind people again of time: “we have about 25 minutes now for cross-talk; let’s be mindful of trying to get as many of people’s further thoughts expressed as possible.”

Here’s the question:

  • Dig back in your experience and tell a story of a time in your life where the identities made available to you didn’t fit how you felt inside. How did this play out – for your own self-image and for the way others understood you? Did you talk to anyone about this mis-alignment? Did you ever reach resolution?

Part V: Does Identity Development Ever End?

If we take up the perspective that identity development is a lifelong activity, it means we might learn a thing or two by thinking about our own identity, now. What is an identity you are actively negotiating? A few examples: career, cultural background, who you are as a learner, gender / sexuality, etc…

Once you have this in mind, let’s do some writing:

  • What is the identity you are actively negotiating?
  • What narratives/models are currently available for you of that identity?
  • How does each of these narratives/models fit with how you feel inside?
  • How does each of these narratives/models fit with how others currently see/understand you?
  • How does each of these narratives/models fit with how you’d like others to see/understand you?

After you’ve spent some time writing about this, let’s think about the phenomenological experience of negotiating identity. In other words, what’s it like to do this?


You don’t need to discuss the identity you wrote about at all – though you are welcome and invited to do so.

  • What did it feel like to think about actively negotiating this identity? Was it… empowering? Scary? Frustrating? Exciting? What did it look, taste, sound, and touch like?
  • Once you’ve shared about this, what does this tell you about the experience of being a young person negotiating identity – what is similar and what might be different?

Jamboard: Now what? Once you know something about what it might be like to experience negotiating an identity, let’s lean on that knowledge, and what you read/mini-lectured about above, to brainstorm some ways we might support each others (or young people’s) identity development.

And look, we all know we oughtta “listen” to young people. But what does that really look like? Because we can be ready to listen all we want, but if someone else doesn’t see us as someone they can talk to, all the listening in the world won’t do much good. So what are some concrete actions we can take to listen? To make space for them? To support their voices? What are some activities we could use?

Part VI: Youth as an Identity


  • Is “youth” itself an identity? If so – what does it mean? How does it / does it not shape a young person’s development?
  • If youth is an identity, who creates and shapes this identity? Can you find an example of a way that youth is being shaped as an identity? In other words, what claims are being made in the world about what it means to be “youth”?

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