Hands raised in the air by group of people
Lesson

Exploring Identity (UK)

Students identify the social and cultural factors that help shape our identities by analysing a story and creating personal identity charts.

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This resource is intended for educators in the United Kingdom.

At a Glance

Lesson

Language

English — UK

Grade

6–12

Duration

One 50-min class period
  • The Holocaust
  • Human & Civil Rights

Overview

About This Lesson

‘Who am I?’ is a question all of us ask at some time in our lives, and it is a particularly critical question for adolescent students’ own social, moral, and intellectual development. Our society – through its particular culture, customs, institutions, and more – provides us with language and labels we use to answer that question for ourselves and others. These labels are based on beliefs about race, ethnicity, religion, gender, sexual orientation, economic class, and so on. Sometimes our beliefs about these categories are so strong that they prevent us from seeing the unique identities of others. Sometimes these beliefs also make us feel suspicion, fear, or hatred towards some members of our society. At other times, especially when we have an opportunity to get to know a person, we are able to see past labels and, perhaps, find common ground even as we appreciate each person as unique.

Through the analysis of a short story and the creation of their own visual representations of their identities, this lesson invites students to consider how the answer to the question ‘Who am I?’ arises from the relationship between the individual and society (the first stage of Facing History and Ourselves’ scope and sequence) – the ways in which we define ourselves and the ways in which we are defined by others.

Understanding identity is not only valuable for students’ own social, moral, and intellectual development, it also serves as a foundation for examining the choices made by individuals and groups in the historical case study later in the unit. The factors that influence our identities are too numerous to capture in a single lesson. Chapter 1 of Holocaust and Human Behaviour includes resources that address a larger variety of factors that influence identity, most of which can easily be added or swapped into the activities of this lesson.

In some environments, it might be especially important to address one specific identity: Jewish identity. Because Jews were a primary target of malicious stereotyping, discrimination, and horrible violence in the historical period explored later in this unit, it is important for students to have a basic understanding of the faith, culture, diversity, and dignity inherent in Jewish identity. In some schools and communities, students may not know anyone who identifies as Jewish, or they might not have had any exposure to Jewish faith, culture, and diversity. It is important to help students recognise that identifying as Jewish implies membership in a rich and diverse set of beliefs and cultural practices

What does learning about the choices people made during the Weimar Republic, the rise of the Nazi Party, and the Holocaust teach us about the power and impact of our choices today?

  • What factors shape your identity?
  • What parts of your identity do you choose for yourself?
  • What parts of your identity are determined for you by other people or by society?

Students will consider the factors that shape our identities, which parts we choose for ourselves, and which are determined by other people, by society or by chance.

This lesson is designed to fit into one 50-min class period and includes:

  • 3 activities
  • 4 teaching strategies 
  • 1 video
  • 1 reading 
  • 1 PowerPoint
  • 1 extension activities 

‘Who am I?’ is a question all of us ask at some time in our lives. It is an especially critical question for adolescents. As we search for the answer, we begin to define ourselves and to notice how we are defined by others. Our exploration of identity includes questions such as:

  • To what extent are we defined by our talents, tastes, and interests? By our membership in a particular ethnic group? By our social and economic class? By our religion? By the nation in which we live?
  • How do we label and define ourselves, and how are we labelled and defined by others?
  • How do our identities inform our values, ideas, and actions?

Answers to these questions help us understand ourselves and each other, as well as history.

Our society – through its particular culture, customs, institutions, and more – provides us with the language and labels we use to describe ourselves and others. These labels are based on beliefs about race, ethnicity, religion, gender, sexual orientation, economic class, and so on. Sometimes our beliefs about these categories are so strong that they prevent us from seeing the unique identities of others. Sometimes these beliefs also make us feel suspicion, fear, or hatred towards some members of our society. Other times, especially when we have an opportunity to get to know a person, we are able to see past labels and, perhaps, find common ground even as we appreciate each person as unique.

This lesson explores how individuals and society influence each of our identities. It also begins to explore some of the dilemmas people face as they establish themselves both as individuals and as members of a group – as they define themselves and are defined by others.

Preparing to Teach

A Note to Teachers

Before you teach this lesson, please review the following guidance to tailor this lesson to your students’ contexts.

Identity charts are a graphic tool that can help students consider the many factors that shape the identities of both individuals and communities. In this lesson, students will use identity charts to analyze the ways they define themselves and the labels that others use to describe them. Sharing their own identity charts with peers can help students build relationships and break down stereotypes. In this way, identity charts can be used as an effective classroom community-building tool. See this sample identity chart.

The following are key vocabulary terms used in this lesson:

  1. Identity
  2. Dilemma

Add these words to your Word Wall, if you are using one for this unit, and provide the necessary support to help students learn these words as you teach the lesson.

Exploring Identity

Use these slides to help students learn about the social and cultural factors that help shape our identities by analysing a story and creating personal identity charts.

Each lesson in this unit includes a PowerPoint of student-facing slides.

The PowerPoints are intended to be used alongside, and not instead of, the lesson plans because the latter include important rationales, context, and detailed activity instructions that teachers should familiarise themselves with before teaching the lesson.

The PowerPoints include basic content and student-facing prompts from the lesson plans but are minimally designed because we expect teachers to adapt them to fit the needs of their students and class.

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Lesson Plan

Activities

  • Explain to students that today they will be thinking about what makes up their identities and reading a story in which the main character deals with the different ways he defines himself and is defined by others.
  • Ask students to write a response to the following questions in a journal entry: Who am I? What words or labels would you use to describe yourself? They might list, or write in complete sentences, the first 5–7 ideas that come to mind when they think about these questions.
  • Next, ask students to use the information from their journals to create an identity chart. You might start an identity chart for yourself on the board to help your students understand the format. Make sure that the students create their identity charts on a new page in their journals because they will be adding to them throughout the lesson and in later lessons.
  • Then ask students to respond to the following question in their journals:
    What words might others use to describe you that you might or might not use to describe yourself?
  • After students have written 5–7 ideas, have them return to their identity charts and add this new information. You might invite them to use a different colour pen for words and phrases that others might use to describe them that they do not consider to be part of their own identity. Time allowing, a few students might volunteer to share their identity charts with the class. They could also represent this idea by drawing an arrow that points towards the centre, indicating that the idea comes from outside of themselves rather than from within.
  • Next, have students think, pair, share their identity charts with a partner and invite them to add any new ideas to their charts that arise during their discussions. Let students know that if they don’t feel comfortable showing their charts to their partners or talking about some aspects of their identities, they can talk about some of the things they listed that they feel comfortable sharing.
  • Once students have shared their charts, invite them to discuss the following questions briefly in their pairs: 
    • What parts of your identity do you choose for yourself?
    • What parts of your identity are determined for you by other people or by society?
  • Next, play the video The Bear That Wasn’t (5:32) for your students and then pass out copies of the text so they can refer to them for the discussion. Alternatively, you might choose a read aloud strategy and read The Bear That Wasn’t.
  • Then ask students to work with a partner to create an identity chart for the Bear, thinking about which labels on the chart represent how he sees his own identity, and which ones represent how others in the story see him.
  • Give students a few minutes to share their identity charts for the Bear with another pair and encourage them to add words and phrases from the other pair’s charts to their own.
  • Next, divide the class into small groups so they can discuss the following questions: 
    • Why do you think Frank Tashlin titled this story ‘The Bear That Wasn’t’? 
      • Why didn’t the factory officials recognise the Bear for what he was? 
      • Why did it become harder and harder for the Bear to maintain his identity as he moved through the bureaucracy of the factory?
    • What were the consequences for the Bear of the way others defined his identity?
    • Whose opinions and beliefs have the greatest effect on how you think about your own identity?
    • How does our need to be part of a group affect our actions? 
      • Why is it so difficult for a person to go against the group?
  • Finally, debrief the activity by leading a short class discussion and inviting students to share how ‘The Bear That Wasn’t’ has challenged or confirmed their understanding of the factors that can influence identity (which parts we choose for ourselves and which parts are determined by others or society).

Ask students to reflect on their own identity charts by responding to two or more of the following questions in their journals:

  • What parts of your identity do you choose for yourself? What parts of your identity do you feel are determined by others, by society, or by chance?
  • Whose opinions and beliefs have the greatest effect on how you think about your own identity?
  • What dilemmas arise when others view you differently than how you view yourself?
  • What aspects of your identity do you keep private in order to be accepted? What aspects of your identity are you willing to change to fit in?
  • You might ask a few students to volunteer to share from their responses. However, since students are writing about a personal topic in this reflection, it is important that they are not required to share.

Extension Activities

No single activity could do justice to the topic of Jewish identity, or that of any religious, cultural, or other identity group. Rather than attempt to impart comprehensive knowledge of the diverse identities and experiences of Jews, this activity is designed to help students understand that the reality of Jewish identity does not conform to the stereotypes or ‘single stories’ they will encounter in the history that follows in this unit or in the contemporary world.

Pass out the reading Being Jewish in the United States and read the text as a class using the Read Aloud teaching strategy. Then ask students to answer the connection questions. You might ask students first to respond to the questions on their own or with a partner before opening a larger class discussion. After discussing the reading and the questions, begin an identity chart on the board with the words Jewish identity at the centre. Lead the class in adding characteristics to the identity chart. Guide this activity carefully to avoid including inaccurate stereotypes or generalisations that students may have heard from outside of class. Instruct students to use evidence from the reading in order to support their suggestions for the identity chart. Make sure that at the end of the activity, the identity chart clearly reflects the following ideas:

  • Jewish identity is complex and varied.
  • It cannot be defined by a ‘single story’ or stereotype.
  • There are multiple branches of Judaism; Jews practise their religion in a variety of ways around the world.
  • Jews around the world define what it means to be Jewish in a variety of ways, just as the members of other groups often debate what makes one part of the group.
  • Some Jews are not religious but identify as Jewish because of their connection to a culture.

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Facing History & Ourselves is designed for educators who want to help students explore identity, think critically, grow emotionally, act ethically, and participate in civic life. It’s hard work, so we’ve developed some go-to professional learning opportunities to help you along the way.

Most teachers are willing to tackle the difficult topics, but we need the tools.
— Gabriela Calderon-Espinal, Bay Shore, NY