"Well, who are you?
Who, who, who, who?
Who are you?
Who, who, who, who?
I really wanna know”
—The Who, “Who Are You"

Mary Chapin Carpenter sings her reply, “I am a town in Carolina/[...] a detour on a ride [...].” Emily Dickinson exclaims, “I’m Nobody!” Carl Sandburg announces, “My name is Truth and I am the most elusive captive in the universe.”

Alberto Rios asserts, “You and I, we are the secret citizens of the cities/Inside us [...].” Sally Wen Mao reveals, “[...] Now I am someone’s muse. [...].”

In my November article, we saw how interrogative pronouns lend themselves to extensive and inventive study. This month, let’s explore how asking “Who are you?” can work in concert with the previous activities (What are you from?) or can be used individually.

A riddle-based, guessing activity often used in language courses as icebreakers or for speaking and listening practice is “Who Am I?” which has a number of variations. It is good for introducing, encouraging, reviewing, or applying higher order thinking (HOT), which “occurs when a person takes new information and information stored in memory and interrelates and/or rearranges and extends this information to achieve a purpose or find possible answers in perplexing situations.”

As we’ll see, the identity exploration activities we’ll examine this month can be used for kindergarten through university and arguably for even younger students. The activities introduce or review poetry, figurative language (particularly personification, metaphor, simile, idioms, alliteration, and onomatopoeia), and vocabulary development. As well, the activities can be a springboard for paragraph or essay writing, including research writing, allowing students to examine the lives, times, and cultures of writers, singer-songwriters, historians, themselves — anyone — about whose identities students are curious.

Identity exploration, which is used often in human rights curricula, has proven integral in language development. In an overt rejection of pedagogically problematic NCLB approaches that include high-stakes testing, explicit phonics instruction, and “top-down one-size-fits-all mandates,” a group of Canadian teacher-researchers developed identity texts activities in order to “teach for cross-language transfer and literacy engagement when there are multiple languages represented in the classroom, none of which the teacher may know.”

The teacher-researchers based their pedagogy in established scientific evidence of how people learn. Identity texts “describe the products of students’ creative work or performances carried out within the pedagogical space orchestrated by the classroom teacher. Students invest their identities in the creation of these texts which can be written, spoken, visual, musical, dramatic, or combinations in multimodal form. [...] Students who are encouraged to retell stories in their L1 or compose stories in both languages are transferring concepts and insights from one language to another. They are accessing and expressing their prior knowledge through both languages.”

Moreover, the teacher-researchers found that helping students explicate their identities helps teachers “[define] their own identities. The teachers who supported and appreciated [one of the study’s student-participants) in her initial struggles to express herself and belong in her new school environment were also articulating what being an educator means to them.”

Although there are plenty of Who Am I activities and curricula from which to pick and choose, adapt, or adopt as is, here are a few additional ideas. Considering that multimodal strategies have been demonstrated to be effective in promoting learning, everything I suggest includes multimodal activities. Likewise, as always, you can modify the activities and materials as necessary.

For young children, these videos are helpful for introducing the concept and setting the context. You’ll see that some can also be used to teach reading skills and vocabulary. Alternatively, ask students, “Who are you?” and use their responses for discussion; then, show them one, some, or all of the videos and ask how the videos connect to the question, “Who are you?” Additionally, teach them the song in the Sesame Street video.

Then, have students respond to “Who are you?” by completing one of these templates or speaking or writing without guides. Young children or those whose English is in early development will need help understanding the template language; likewise, you can modify the language so that it matches their literacy skills. Students illustrate their responses; then, students present their creations to the class. Perhaps challenge them to explain their choices.

The next step is to introduce students, no matter how young, to figurative language. Research spanning decades demonstrates that even the youngest language learners can understand figurative language.

According to the University of Illinois Center for Reading, “It is now widely accepted that metaphoric understanding emerges during the preschool years and develops gradually to encompass a greater variety of metaphorical expressions.” Waggoner and Palermo observed that “even the youngest children demonstrated an ability to adjust their metaphoric interpretations to reflect contextual influence.”

In a study published in the Journal of Psycholinguistic Research, the results showed that “The youngest children were able to comprehend each of the metaphoric and nonmetaphoric relationships, and this ability improved withage.” Results of “Observing spontaneous metaphor in children,” which studied nursery and preschool children, “suggest that metaphoric processes exist quite early in development, as exemplified by a high frequency of spontaneous metaphor in the free play of young children. The semantic extensions were often deliberate and used appropriately. On some occasions the child was able to articulate the rationale for the verbal substitution.”

Pearson, in a study of preschoolers, found that “the metaphors were not semantically anomalous to the children and [...] they were processed on a par with literal language. If metaphor is thus shown to emerge early in the child's linguistic repertory, figurative language, it may be argued, occupies a more central position in linguistic theory than it has been accorded.”

Introduce figurative language by asking, “What is your favorite _____?” Fill in the blank with animal, color, story, character in a book or movie, sport, food (or break it into categories: fruits, vegetables, meat, ice cream, cake, et al.), beverage, toy, and/or game. Students can work individually or in pairs or small groups to answer the questions.

Next, ask how students how they are like their favorite things and have students equate themselves using either simile or metaphor: I am like a cat because… or I am a cat because… or … I am like a cookie because… or I am a cookie because…. Be aware, however, that “even (though) the youngest children could interpret metaphors, (not all) could explain their interpretations.” Try challenging students by asking, “What kind of cat? What kind of cookie? What kind of ____?”

Another possibility is to have partners complete the question for each other and explain their choices; then, they can discuss if they agree or disagree with the choices. Students can do this for the teacher as well, and the teacher should do it for themselves as modeling writing is an essential teaching and learning strategy. When students have written their simile-metaphor, have them illustrate it and present it to their classmates. When students and teacher finish the song, poems, illustrations, and presentations, ask students to reflect on what they’ve learned. Finally, students’ creations can be made into a class publication.

For older students and those whose have intermediate or higher skills, here are some ideas.

Ask students, “Who are you?” and have them respond individually or discuss the question in pairs or in small groups. Alternatively, you can set the stage by showing the video of the Mary Chapin Carpenter song, “I Am A Town,” or The Who classic, “Who Are You?” For a listening comprehension exercise, do not give students the lyrics.

Instead, have them listen a couple times to see if they can ascertain the lyrics. Likewise, give them a cloze at the beginning or after they’ve listened at least once. In pairs or small groups, students discuss what they believe the lyrics mean.

The Carpenter song provides immediate access to metaphor: What does it mean that the singer-songwriter asserts she is a town? A detour? Peaches in September? Each line can be examined until the entire song is considered as a whole or vice versa. Sometimes when I’ve taught this activity, I have not played the music; instead, students and I reviewed and discussed the lyrics, and then I asked them to consider what type of music would suit the lyrics and why. While the Who’s “Who Are You” is as relevant today as it was 41 years ago when it debuted, the song provides an excellent opportunity to study the cultural unrest reflected in much of the rock music of the time.

Students may know nothing about the tumultuous era in which it was released, so you can approach an examination of the song in a variety of ways. For one, you can use the strategy I suggested for the Carpenter song: Give students the lyrics without the music and have them suggest the type of music that would match the lyrics.

Another strategy is to have students watch and listen to the video and complete a KWL chart with guided questions: “When do you think this song was written and performed? What do you know about the band? What do you think was happening in the world when the song was written and sung? Why do you think so?” For examining the lyrics, ask, “What and where is Soho? Why does the protagonist wake up in a doorway? Why does the policeman know his name? Why does the protagonist stagger? Who is the ‘you’ to whom the singer directs his question? Why does the protagonist repeat ‘who’ again and again?” There are gems from which to create questions and decipher meaning throughout the lyrics. The lyrics also allow you to examine literary terms (protagonist; who or what is the antagonist?). After the discussion, students complete the KWL chart.

Next, listen to and read Sandra Cisneros’ My Name, an excerpt from her acclaimed book, “The House on Mango Street.” Have students discuss the excerpt; you can use this handout or adapt it to forthrightly introduce the concept of identity.

Then, students read and discuss Kuhn’s poem who are you, really? Using Kuhn’s poem allows introducing or reviewing literary devices (e.g., punctuation, layout, narrator) and how they differ from academic writing. When examining the poem’s content, ask: Why do you think the narrator begins with the negative, “You are not…”? Why do you think everyone chooses “to see the million things you are not?”

The narrator concludes by saying that “you are where you are going/and I’d like to go there too.” How does the narrator know where the other is going? Why do you think the narrator would like to go there, too? Students share their responses with the class; the teacher writes students’ answers on the board. You can also use Aquilo’s “Who Are You” and have students create a character for the person to whom the singer is singing.

Next, students create a mind map/brainstorm web, list, or journal entry finding connections among the songs, book excerpt, and poem. They discuss the connections, and as a class, create a diagram or list of what they’ve found. Ask, “What does each artifact examine? What is each artifact about?”

Then, use either “I Am A Town,” “who are you, really,” or these templates for students to create their own poems. Likewise, the templates used for early language learners (links above) work well.

From here, go in whatever direction suits your needs and GOOs. If you used my What Are You From activities, have students compare and contrast the two final products. In what ways are they similar and different? What has happened that influenced the changes? Why do you think some things are the same? Do you have similes and metaphors that, though different from one another in each poem, conjure the same or similar emotion or image (e.g., tornado/hurricane; tears/rain; box of crayons/rainbow; piece of cake/easy as pie)?

Look at how nouns become verbs and vice versa or nouns acting as adjectives. Have students write paragraphs or essays about themselves: They can compare-contrast their characteristics with those of a family member; they can argue-persuade that their characteristics are ideal and/or troublesome.

Try using the I-Search approach to introduce students to research: Although students should identify their own topics, suggestions might include cultural comparisons and contrasts (traditions in food, greetings, conversation, family roles et al.) or an examination of a current or historic figure from their culture or country of origin or of the country in which they live if it is different from their country of origin.

Students illustrate their poems, paragraphs, or essays, perhaps by creating a collage, by drawing, or by photographing. Give students the option of creating a soundtrack for their poem (What music matches you? Why?), or writing their own music for the poem, paragraph, or essay. They can adapt it into a performance or a brief play or video. I’ve found that students always appreciate a class publication.

Of course, it is key that you have students reflect on what they’ve written, created, and learned. As we’ve seen, it is essential for teachers to participate. When Donald Graves, the inspirational and gifted writer and teacher, was asked, “If you had to choose one thing teachers should do when teaching writing, what would it be?”, he answered, “Write yourself.”