Lesson
Duration:
One 50-minute class period

Exploring Individual and American Identity

Essential Questions

  • Where does a nation’s identity come from? How can individuals with so many identities come together to form a national identity?

Overview

In this lesson, students will analyze a reading from Lesson 6 of Facing History and Ourselves’ My Part of the Story and watch a short clip from the film American Creed in order to explore the relationship between individual identity and the national identity of the United States. Through a close analysis of the reading and video clip, students will identify the ideals and values we share in common as a nation, as well as reflect on how their own stories fit into the larger identity of the United States.

Before engaging with this lesson’s two texts, students will reflect on our national identity in a journal response and then work together to create an identity chart for the United States. They will then explore the relationship between individual identity and national identity through a reading that presents a range of perspectives on what it means to be American and a short video clip from American Creed in which United States Marine Corps veteran Tegan Griffith reflects on the responsibility that she feels comes with being American. Her story adds a veteran’s perspective to the viewpoints on what it means to be American presented in this lesson’s reading. Through their analysis of the two texts and their discussions, students will explore tensions that may exist between individual identity and national identity, as well as consider the ideals and values that we hold in common as a nation.

Context

In the full-length version of American Creed, politicians, activists, veterans, and first-generation college students at Stanford University draw connections between their family stories and identities, reflect on what it means to be American, and share their ideas about what we aspire to as a nation. Diplomat Condoleezza Rice, historian David Kennedy, Major League Baseball manager Joe Maddon, and civic entrepreneur Eric Liu are just some of the individuals featured in the film who reflect on the notion of the “American Dream” and challenge the viewer to engage in conversations across difference—to really listen to what others have to say and to hear their stories—in order to be reminded of the ideals that we share in common as a nation. The film poses a number of thought-provoking questions: “What is our common aspiration in the United States?” “What does it mean to be American?” and “In a fractured nation, what ideals do we hold in common?” While American Creed does not offer any definitive answers to these questions, the men and women featured in this film—through their commitment to service and fostering civil discourse—offer viewers a glimpse of what working together, in the words of David Kennedy, “to build and sustain healthy communities and not just individual lives” might look like.

Notes to Teachers

  1. Creating a Reflective and Respectful Community of Learners
    Because this lesson asks students to consider sometimes contentious issues about national identity, it is important that your classroom is one that fosters mutual respect and an appreciation for different points of views and values. If you have not created a classroom contract, consider taking the time to do so before teaching this lesson. You might also consult the Facing History resource Fostering Civil Discourse: A Guide for Classroom Conversations for additional strategies and resources to help promote active listening, intellectual engagement, and thoughtful reflection in your classroom.
  2. Talking about American Identity
    Discussing American identity and the responsibility that comes with being American can raise issues of identity, belonging, and membership for many students in today’s classrooms. We do not equate “being American” with having American citizenship, and it is important that students who do not identify as American or who may not be naturalized citizens have time and space to reflect on and share their perspective of what “being American” means.

Pacing

If after previewing this lesson’s activities, you don’t think you can complete them in a single class period, skip the first journal reflection and start the lesson as a whole group by creating an identity chart for the United States. You might also shorten the third activity by reading aloud and briefly discussing Eric Liu’s quotation or skipping it altogether and going straight into the reading about what it means to be American and the related American Creed video clip.

Materials

Activities

  1. Reflect on and Create an Identity Chart for the United States
    • Start the lesson by explaining to students that just as individuals have identities, so do nations. Ask students to first reflect on the following questions in their journals:
      • Where does a nation’s identity come from?
      • How can individuals with so many different identities come together to form a national identity?
        • Ask students to debrief in a Think, Pair, Share activity and then to work together to brainstorm a list of words and phrases that they think describe the identity of the United States.
        • On a large piece of paper that you can add to over the course of this lesson, start an identity chart for the United States.
  2. Explore Common Knowledge and Values among Americans
    • Now that students have begun the process of characterizing a national identity, they will read ideas from a variety of people about what it means to be American and what unites individual Americans in a shared national identity.
    • Start by projecting and reading aloud the following passage by author and activist Eric Liu:

      The...challenge, for Americans new and old, is to make a common culture that’s greater than the sum of our increasingly diverse parts. It’s not enough for the United States to be a neutral zone where a million little niches of identity might flourish; in order to make our diversity a true asset, we need those niches to be able to share a vocabulary. We need to be able to have a broad base of common knowledge so that our diversity can be most fully activated.1
    • Have students work with a partner to discuss the following questions:

      • What is Eric Liu saying about national identity in the United States? Explain this quotation in your own words.
      • Do you agree with Liu? Why or why not?
    • Pass out the reading What Does It Mean to “Be American”? The reading includes quotations from a variety of people explaining what they think are examples of what unites individual Americans in the identity of the United States.
    • Students will first read through the quotations on their own and then choose one that they would like to explore in more depth. They should copy the quotation onto a notecard that you provide or into their journals. (If the quotation is long, they should simply copy the first sentence.) Then they will respond to the quotation on the back side of their notecards or in their journals.

      • Why did you choose this quotation?
      • Is it consistent with your experience of the United States? Or do you think it is incorrect or misguided? Why?
    • Explain to students that they will share and discuss their quotations in small groups, using the Save the Last Word for Me strategy.
    • Once the small group discussions are complete, bring the class together to discuss the following questions:

      • What did you learn from each other in your discussions? What ideas from your discussions especially resonated with you?
      • What unifying themes emerged in the reading about American identity and what ideals we share in common? Where did you see a difference in ideals or perspectives?
      • What additional characteristics do you want to add to the class identity chart for the United States? Are there any you want to remove?
  3. Explore American Identity with Tegan Griffith’s Story
    • Explain to students that they will now watch a segment from the film American Creed in which Marine Corps veteran Tegan Griffith responds to the question, “What does it mean to be American?” and shares the responsibility that she feels comes with her American identity.
    • Show the first part of the video Marine Life in the Midwest: Tegan Griffith (0:00-5:40). Ask students to respond to the following question in their journals as they watch this part of Tegan Griffith’s story: What words does Tegan Griffith use to describe what it means to her to be American? Then ask students to review their list of words and respond to the following question: Do you agree or disagree with Griffith’s ideas about what it means to be American? Why or why not?
    • Show the rest of the video Marine Life in the Midwest: Tegan Griffith (5:40-7:24). Ask students to respond to the following questions in their journals as they watch the second part of Tegan Griffith’s story: What additional words and ideas does Griffith add to describe what it means to her to be American? What responsibilities does she feel come with being American?
    • Ask students to think, pair, share their responses and then bring the class together and choose from the following questions for a class discussion, adding any new ideas to the class’s identity chart for the United States. You might want to project Eric Liu’s quotation again when discussing the third question.

      • How might Tegan Griffith have responded to New York Times reporter Damien Cave had he interviewed her for his “The Way North” project?
      • How does Tegan Griffith’s story confirm or challenge your ideas about American identity?
      • Citing examples from the reading What Does It Mean to “Be American”?, Griffith’s story from the film clip, and the class identity chart, what common values and ideals do you see that unite individual Americans in the identity of the United States? What values and ideals were expressed that are important to individuals but are not shared by the whole group?
      • Eric Liu argues that “in order to make our diversity a true asset, we need those niches to be able to share a vocabulary. We need to be able to have a broad base of common knowledge so that our diversity can be most fully activated.” Citing examples from this lesson’s texts and discussions, what vocabulary or common knowledge might Americans share?
      • Where does a nation’s identity come from? How can individuals with so many identities come together to form a national identity?
      • How has your thinking about the national identity of the United States evolved?
  4. Final Reflection on American Identity

    To capture your students’ thinking and understanding of this lesson’s essential questions and content, ask them to respond to the following questions in an exit card, reflective journal, or written homework response:

    • How would you answer New York Times reporter Damien Cave’s question, “What does it mean to be American?”
    • Have any of today’s readings, the video, or discussions influenced how you think about individual and national identity?
    • How does your story fit into the national identity of the United States?

Citations

Extensions

  1. Eric Liu's American Creed
    If you have time to show a third American Creed segment to help students better understand Eric Liu’s work to foster civil discourse and civic engagement, show the video Sworn Again: Eric Liu's Revivals (7:57). After watching the video clip, students might consider how Eric Liu’s story connects to or extends their understanding of what it means to be American and the national identity of the United States. They could conclude their discussion by adding any new characteristics to the class identity chart for the United States.

Return to American Creed Educator Resources

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