Culturally Responsive Teaching

Harnessing the Power of Storytelling to Support Migrant and Immigrant Students

Identifying different layers of identity is particularly helpful for students transitioning into a new social and cultural context.

December 1, 2021
John S. Dykes / The iSpot

Storytelling is a powerful tool in a safe learning environment with classroom norms that reflect respect, honor, and empathy. When students are able to tell their own stories, it helps reverse any deficit mindset to create an asset mindset focused on what migrant and immigrant students can offer in each classroom.

In this post, I discuss the idea of “ecology of identity” and propose an exercise based on that concept for migrant and immigrant students in middle and high school. Through this activity, teachers can develop a better understanding of the lived experiences of their migrant and immigrant students, which in turn will allow them to deliver instruction that meets the various needs of their students.

Ecology of Identity

Psychologist Urie Bronfenbrenner tried to capture the influence of the environment on people’s identities in what he called the Ecological Systems Theory of Child Development. In it, he identified the various forces that shape the way we develop our sense of self.

Bronfenbrenner’s model visualizes the various dimensions of people’s identities, such as age, gender, and cultural labels, with concentric circles that make the identity, values, social climate, and political climate of the surrounding communities explicit. Looking at these facets together, we have a tool to begin to discuss the way our identities are shaped by the ecological system that surrounds us. All of us develop our identities within a social and cultural context. To a certain extent, that context impacts what opportunities we have in life and our ability to express ourselves as we wish.

The word ecological refers to the field of ecology, which explores the relationship between a living being and the environment in which it lives. Through the language of ecology, Bronfenbrenner reminds us that who we are, and what we do, are profoundly influenced by our physical and social environment. Humans do not live in isolation, and therefore our identities develop within an environmental context.

Below are parts of the human ecosystem highlighted by Bronfenbrenner. While different scholars have used different words to describe the details of the ecological layers in the chart and have emphasized different aspects of identity, the basic format has remained relatively consistent since he put forth his groundbreaking theory in 1979.

  • Individual characteristics: Age, gender, race, ethnicity, nationality, cultural identities
  • Microsystem: Family, peers, school/work conditions, neighborhood, community memberships
  • Exosystem: Influences of social media, local politics and policies, legal status and rights
  • Macrosystem: Cultural traditions, economic conditions, laws, historical context, community attitudes, prejudices and traditions of inclusion.

Identifying how each layer of the ecological model relates to our identity is particularly helpful for newcomers looking to develop their identities in a new land because they or their family members have recently transitioned from one social and cultural context to another. Helping these students isolate the changes in the relationship between their identities and their environment can help them navigate the challenges of living in a new land.

The formative experiences of immigrant children will be shaped by reciprocal interactions between themselves and their environment. The interrelated contexts of development within which children and youth live shape their opportunities and have important implications for both educational and well-being outcomes. The degree to which students thrive will vary according to several factors, including individual characteristics, their culture, the people they encounter, and their environment over the course of time.

In the Classroom

Begin the lesson with a discussion on the relationships between the stories we tell, the opportunities we have, and our identities as individuals, members of families, members of communities, and within the nation. You can begin by explaining to the class that behind every decision and experience there is a story. Think of a moment that may have changed your life: What was it? How did it change your life? You can also explain that everyone has a story to tell: What is yours and what is mine, and how did the environment shape the stories we shared?

Ecology of Identity Template
pdf 115.03 KB

To make the ideas on the discussion concrete, introduce Bronfenbrenner’s concept of the ecology of identity and have students create their own ecological identity map using the template here.


After completing the chart, give students time to reflect on their own identities by creating a visual, such as a drawing, that represents their “ecology” of identity. Have students pair up or create small groups to share by asking the following questions:

  • What do you see that is the same across the two? Name commonalities and patterns.
  • What do you see that is different? Name the differences you observe.
  • What do we gain from comparing the two?

Think Outside the Box

Beyond using the chart for exploration with immigrant students, this model can serve as a wonderful tool for helping to understand the choices and dilemmas all of us face daily.

  • It can be used as a tool for literary, social, and historical analysis. In social studies, this can be used to analyze a famous historical figure’s life; and in literary content, it can help describe a character or setting of a reading.
  • Educators might use this chart to encourage students to explore their own identities or to focus reflection on a character in a short story, novel, historical event, or social situation.
  • Have students use the map to reflect their school climate and identity they can share to encourage stronger school bonds or areas of growth.
  • Create a classroom contract using the lessons learned from the identity maps. After creating your contract using your identity maps, revisit your classroom norms. Do they need revision? Make sure these norms foster a shared understanding of the kind of community you hope to achieve in the class and that all members are aware of their responsibilities in making it happen.

Everyone has an identity that is reflected in their daily lives, but those identities are also what shape our experiences with those around us. Our lived experiences will reflect how we interact with people we come in contact with during our lifetime, whether they are friends, coworkers, etc. Assisting students in knowing how to maneuver their identities is one of the many ways we can create a more understanding, inclusive welcoming environment.

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Filed Under

  • Culturally Responsive Teaching
  • Diversity
  • Teaching Strategies
  • 6-8 Middle School
  • 9-12 High School

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