Cultural Identity Maps: Practicing Empathy, Awareness, and Community

16 Nov 2017 4:00 PM | Anonymous

By Rachel J. Chapman, PhD Student of Urban Education, The Graduate Center and Teaching Fellow at Queens College of Elementary & Early Childhood Education

Now more than ever, it is pertinent to provide a space for students to voice their experiences of schooling and culture as it relates to their identity development. Most school curriculum reflects the dominant group culture, whereby non-dominant narratives are often silenced. Silencing can lead to shame, doubt, cultural and language loss, as well as a feeling of unbelonging. The Cultural Identity Map exercise is intended to foster community and relationship building and awareness of cultural identity formation within U.S. society, while providing opportunities for students to practice empathy.

Within CUNY alone, we enroll 500,000 primarily working class and immigrant students, who come from communities around the world. More than half come from low-income families earning less than $30,000 a year (Edelman, 2016). Many come from economically-devastated and war-torn regions, fleeing for survival and the need for a new life. The year 2017 has been marked with increasing attacks by racist and nationalist regimes, including the most recent Trump administration. The Muslim ban, proposed expansion to the border wall, increased police brutality, immigrant deportations, injustice at Standing Rock, dismantling of environmental and economic regulations and push to defund healthcare, all come as increasing attacks on working and immigrant communities.

Writing from prison under Mussolini’s fascist regime in Italy, Antonio Gramsci’s work (2011) on cultural hegemony helps us understand that attacks on working class and immigrant communities can become normalized through consent to the dominant values and cultural norms. Because school curriculum tends to reflect the knowledge and norms of the dominant culture, the Cultural Identity Map exercise can provide a space for counter-narratives within the classroom, while also building identity awareness and community.

For the Cultural Identity Map, begin by writing your first name in the middle of a large piece of paper or small poster. Because I am an instructor in Teacher Education, part of the map includes students’ experiences within the K-12 system. However, you can cater it to your course content, which can also include various possibilities such as students’ hobbies, childhood pastimes, meaning of first name, spirituality practices, etc. Using crayons or markers, I ask the students to fill their papers with the following, represented by drawings & symbols:

  1. Three or four aspects of your culture.
  2. One aspect of your culture you like.
  3. One aspect of your culture you dislike or would like to change.
  4. One positive memory from school.
  5. One negative memory from school.

In order to encourage a variety of designs, I grade the maps based on creativity and following directions. I generally give them 15 minutes to work in class and the rest they finish for homework to present at the following class.

According to Tatum (1997), development in late adolescence and adulthood is circular as we face new physical, psychological and social challenges. For example, late adolescence and adulthood are often marked with greater responsibility and employment concerns, as well as increased family and community involvement. Fear and silence regarding one’s identity can lead to isolation and difficulty in social relations and communication. Evidence from research shows that incorporating multicultural methods in the classroom builds group and self-awareness (Banks & Banks, 2016). It can also create spaces for storytelling, community and relationship growth. Additionally, it can lead to practicing empathy in listening to peers’ similar struggles with identity.


Banks, J. A., & Banks, C. A. M. G. (2016). Multicultural education: Issues and perspectives.

Edelman, M. (2016). CUNY Faculty’s Lost Decade & The Risk Ahead. The Gotham Gazette. Retrieved from:

Gramsci, A., Buttigieg, J. A., & Callari, A. (2011). Prison notebooks. New York: Columbia University Press.

Tatum, B. D. (1997). "Why are all the Black kids sitting together in the cafeteria?" and other conversations about the development of racial identity. New York: BasicBooks.

Powered by Wild Apricot Membership Software