The Pursuit of Identity
Written by Kelsy, Miranda, Melissa, and Zane
Piecing Me Together, written by Renee Watson is the coming of age story of an African-American teen named Jade set in Portland, Oregon. This book takes a focus on discussing identity and how it is related to friendships, race, self-acceptance, home environment, and also education. Jade is a character that draws people in through her deep thoughts, feelings, and creativity. She is an artist, daughter, friend, and young person seeking out justice for her community. This story is centered around the different people in Jade’s life, and how each of those relationships influence her journey towards creation of her voice and identity.
Jade is a student at St. Francis High School, and she is on scholarship to go there. The school is located in the upper class area of the city, so she takes a bus there every school day. Jade lives with her mom and uncle in a small two bedroom apartment, and they do not have a lot of extra money. Jade watches her hard working mom sacrifice a lot, so that she can live a comfortable life. We sees Jade struggle with feeling like an outsider at school, because she has to leave her own community in order to be there. Through encouragement from her teacher Jade finds herself in a mentorship program called Woman to Woman where Jade is introduced to her mentor Maxine who could not be more different than her. Through this relationship we see the benefits of two individuals in community with one another, and how these types of relationships can be impact the lives of both parties.
People are continually telling Jade to take every opportunity for her future. She quickly grows tired of these “special” opportunities, because they make her feel as though she is just a project or a problem that needs help fixing. She finds that people are often making big decisions for her, and she searches to find the confidence to speak up for herself and let me know what she needs. Jade has many relationships that she has to balance in her life, including a new friend that has a hard time fully empathizing with Jade when she is treated wrongly because of the color of her skin. Throughout the story we see that the trials that Jade goes through push her towards gaining confidence in who she is and what she wants for her life. Jade is able to use her art to express what she is feeling, and she influences the people around her to do the same.
For me, reading Piecing Me Together was a very eye-opening experience. Often times, realistic fiction can feel very far removed from the readers' life, but as someone born and raised in Portland, Oregon (the setting of the book), this was not the case. Witnessing Jade’s struggles occur in real locations that I have had a personal connection to my entire life allowed me to have a deeper understanding of them.
In the book, Jade has many experiences with people of various racial and economic backgrounds, which I also feel allows a very wide variety of readers to connect with the book. I very much appreciated how Watson handled concepts of class inequality in addition to racial equanimity. Class inequality and its consequences is often overlooked in young adult literature. One quote about this that has stayed with me after I have finished the book is a thought that Jade has after her teacher offers her tickets to a hockey game she got for free: “Why do people who can afford anything they want get stuff for free all the time?” (pg 16) Piecing Me Together is full of intelligent observations such as these, all resented in a way that respects the intelligence of the reader, while still being digestible for a wide range of young adult readers.
I really enjoyed taking the time to read this book. Jade’s character pulled me into the story because it was interesting to see how she viewed the world. Her story opened me up to a life experience that I am not familiar with. I have never had to deal with racism towards me in any way, and I also have never fallen victim to micro-aggressions. The experience of a young white girl like me in Portland is very different from the story of Jade. It was interesting to read a story that was set in the city that I grew up in, and also reading different scenes set in specific places around the city. Stories are a powerful way to share the struggles that people face, as hard as it was to read about the way Jade is treated in the story it was beneficial for me to see examples of the ways the African-American community it treated in my own city.
It was enlightening to read about the different relationships that Jade had in her life, and the ways that they influenced her to have more confidence. Even when she had a fight with her friend Sam, they were both able to walk away from that experience more understanding of each other. My favorite quote from the book is, “Here I am, so focused on learning to speak another language, and I barely use the words I already know.” Pg. 174. This quote was inspiring to me because it shows us the importance of young people being able to find their voice. Young people should feel empowered to speak up for themselves and to not feel like adults are the ones that are creating the path for them. Jade used art to find her voice, and everyone should be given the opportunity to express themselves in a way that fits for them.
Personally, I really enjoyed reading Piecing Me Together. I felt like it did a great job at teaching me about things that I haven’t experienced, as well as having components that I could relate to. Looking back on my teen years there were many things that Jade struggled with that I too struggled with. Things like figuring out who I was and learning to be comfortable with it, exploring family dynamics and how they compare to other families, finding friends and figuring out where I fit in and going through high school trying to be as successful as I could. There was a lot of what Jade felt that I also felt. There was also a lot of things I didn’t feel. I didn’t grow up dealing with racial microaggressions or just straight up acts of racism. I didn’t grow up in an area that people considered the “ghetto”. I didn’t have to bus out of my neighborhood in hopes of a better education. Being able to take aspects of someone’s story that a student can relate to, and also help them learn from the things that they can’t relate to is a great learning tool.
I feel like this book does a great job exploring many dynamics of a teen’s experiences in life. One of my favorite quotes from the book is, “Those girls are not the opposite of me. We are perpendicular. We may be on different paths, yes. But there’s a place where we touch, where we connect and are just the same” (pg 132). It is a strong statement that shows that while many of us may be different, we all connect in some way. We are perpendicular to each other.
“My grandmother called it bearing witness. She'd sit on the porch with her sister and talk the night away. Sometimes gossiping, sometimes praying. I'd hear them confide in each other...it feels good to know someone knows your story, that someone took you in...it's how we heal” (pg. 217). This quote from the book rings so much truth to me. We all need to have time in our day where we can just vent. Sometimes we need action done after the venting, but other times we just need the release. This book shows the importance of talking. Talking about how things impact you. Talk about how things made you feel. Talk about what scares you. It takes strength sometimes to talk. Sometimes you are scared you will not be heard. You are afraid people will not believe you. You are concerned that your issues are nothing compared to someone else. And sometimes you just feel that if you talk about it you will explode.
Divide the book into four sessions, with each week focusing on a general theme.
Week One - Chapters 1-14. Theme: Identity
Week Two - Chapters 15-34. Theme: Microaggressions
Week Three - Chapters 35-53. Theme: Speaking Up
Week Four - Chapters 54-End. Theme: Art Project/Identity
WEEK ONE - IDENTITY
Identity is a very important theme that Jade explores. She is learning what parts of her make up her identity and how they interact with each other. On pages 6-7 Jade describes herself as, “girls like me, with coal skin and hula-hoop hips, whose mommas barely make enough money to keep food in the house, have to take opportunities every chance we get.” This sentence describes how Jade is a female, African-American, plus size, and low income. Those are all aspects of her identity.
Encourage the students to explore different parts of their identity. Then have them make identity webs. This can be used as a reference they use throughout the book as a way to see how they relate to the characters in the book and can be used again in the final art project. Here is an example of an identity web that could be used for Jade.
If you want to go a step deeper, you can then go into a discussion on what areas of our identities hold privilege, and which ones are marginalized. Bloomsbury has a great table to use to show different privileges and marginalizations in identity.
WEEK TWO: MICROAGGRESSIONS
Microaggressions are small things that can add up fast. They can be meant innocently or done on purpose. Examples your students may have heard:
You speak so well for a black person.
Just another dumb jock.
You're Asian. Can you help me with this math problem?
Hey good looking! Need a ride home?
With your learning disability, college may not be a good goal for you.
Christians just hate everyone.
When someone makes fun of someone's stutter.
Below are three different YouTube videos that show what microaggressions are. The first one is best as it can be the least likely to trigger and has no adult language. The other two are also good additions but you should view them first and think if they would be appropriate for your classroom.
After viewing the video(s), a conversion about this topic would be good; “bearing witness” as stated in the book. Communicate with students of color and others you think this will be hard on before the class and let them skip this class or participate in study hall. Let it be their choice as they may want to be in the class. Also, have a planned action for students to use if they do get triggered and need to step away. You can decide if everyone knows this action or if you only share it as needed. Be prepared for students to argue that people are “just being too sensitive.” This could be a defense mechanism to protect themselves from their actions or a way to avoid talking about microaggressions that they have experienced. It will be very surprising if anyone doesn’t have something they have experienced. Make sure that people are not discounting others' experiences. Let all experiences be allowed as their personal truths.
One way to start this conversation is for students to write/draw on post-its or index cards microaggression they have personally experienced and post them on a wall. This can be a good way for some to vent and a way for other students to see their words and actions have an impact on others. If you are concerned about the maturity of your class or the make-up, a journal entry could be a good alternative. Allow for many different styles of writing and art that can be expressed on paper. Keep this as a last resort. Hearing people talk about things that impact them allows others to examine their personal actions and view.
Lastly, talk to your school counselors about ways they can support students after the class. This will impact different people in different ways and some may be triggered after the fact. Here are also some other resources for teens to talk about their feelings. Remind them that a crisis isn’t just “I want to hurt myself/others.” Talking before they get to that place helps prevent harm to self and others.
https://teenlineonline.org/ Trained teens ready to talk to other teens through call, text, email, or app.
https://www.crisistextline.org/ National Text line for all ages.
https://oregonyouthline.org/ Oregon based Teen-to-Teen line. Call, text, email.
https://www.thetrevorproject.org/ For LGBTQ teens. Call, text, social board
There is currently no line designed for racial issues, but the above should still have people who can help.
VIDEO 1 “What is the definition of microaggression?” By Quartz
This video is about 4:30 minutes long. It is a very good overview of the types of microaggressions and used with scenes from movies to show what they could look like. The movies are not very recent, but there are some well-known movies shown. There is a focus on gender microaggressions, but sexual orientation and racial are also shown. Clean language but some women in bikinis.
VIDEO 2“How microaggressions are like mosquito bites • Same Difference” by Fusion Comedy
This is animated with voiceover and about 2 minutes. Focused on racial microaggressions, but there are disability, gender, and sexual orientation shown also. This does have some adult language: “Goddamn” at 1:00, and F-Boom at 1:07.
VIDEO 3 “Microaggressions in the Classroom” by Focused.Arts.Media.Education.
This video is 18:03 and has a link to a Google presentation in the description. This is good if you want to go in-depth on the topic where college students talk about situations they personally have had microaggressions happen to them or they have witnessed. It does show common symbols of microaggressions that can be posted as graffiti and/or “personal expression.” Could be triggering. Review and think about your class if this would be a good fit for them.
WEEK THREE - SPEAKING UP
One of the primary themes of Piecing Me Together is the act of speaking up. If one sees injustice or wants their voice to be heard, sometimes you cannot merely wait around for others to listen, not even your friends. While many other books also explore this concept in the form of speaking up to oppressors and those in power, Watson provides a unique and important take on this concept that is often overlooked: speaking up to your peers, mentors, and allies, which many may find to be even more challenging, or at least in its own way.
Questions to discuss in groups about speaking up:
When in the book does Jade not speak up when she should have? What does she do instead?
Who are the peers/mentors that Jade speaks up to when she believes that something is not right? (hint: there are at least 3)
How does Jade speak up to these characters? In terms of getting these characters to understand her experience and point of view, what worked well and what did not?
Listening and communicating that you have understood someone when they voice their concerns to you can be just as important as speaking up. When do the characters in the book do a poor job of listening to her, how do they do so, and what is the result?
When do these do an exemplary job of listening to Jade as she speaks up? How do they do so and what is the result?
Repeat questions 1-5, but with examples from your own experiences.
Brief Project: Research the concept of “Non-Violent Communication” and think about how characters act in accordance with this concept, when they do not, and what the results are. Finally, think about how we can put this concept into practice.
WEEK FOUR - ART PROJECT/IDENTITY
To wrap up everything learned from the book, encourage students to create an art piece that is reflective of themselves and their identity. Art is used as a form of expression in characters throughout the book. Such as how Jade takes photos and creates collages, and Lee Lee writes poems. Have the students reflect on what they have learned from the book, and what they have learned about their identity, and have them create either a collage or a poem that reflects their identity. Provide them with magazines, and pictures to cut from, and encourage them to gather supplies that they feel will help them with their project. At the end display their art around the room, and create an art show. This can create a sense of community in the classroom, where they can all find things that connect them to one another.
The Hate U Give - Angie Thomson
This Side of Home - Renee Thompson
Long Way Down - Jason Reynolds
The Poet X - Elizabeth Acevedo