Understanding Identity Lesson | Facing History & Ourselves
Facing History & Ourselves
An illustration from Fred Tashlin's The Bear That Wasn't.

Understanding Identity

Students consider the question "Who am I?" and identify social and cultural factors that shape identity by reading a short story and creating personal identity charts.


This resource is intended for educators in the United Kingdom.

At a Glance

lesson copy


English — UK


One 50-min class period
  • Culture & Identity
  • Democracy & Civic Engagement


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 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 toward some members of our society. Other times, especially when we are able 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 ways in which we define ourselves and the ways in which we are defined by others.

What is identity? What makes each of us who we are?

  • 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 identify social and cultural factors that help shape our identities by reading and analysing a short story and then creating their own personal identity charts.

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

  • 3 activities
  • 1 video 
  • 1 reading

Preparing to Teach

A Note to Teachers

Before teaching this lesson, please review the following information to help guide your preparation process.

  • Journals are an integral means of participation in the scheme of work for each student. See the teaching strategy Journals in a Facing History Classroom for important suggestions about how to incorporate them into the scheme.
  • Typically, student journals are not considered public for the entire class to read. However, informally reviewing students’ journal entries can help you know the questions that are on students’ minds and can be a place for individual conversations between you and each student. It can also help you correct any misconceptions about what they are learning. If you choose to periodically review students’ journals, it is important to inform them in advance of writing that you plan to do so.

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 analyse 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.

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 lessons plans because the latter include important rationales and context that teachers should familiarise themselves with before teaching the lesson. The PowerPoints include basic media and 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 Plans


  • 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 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 identities. 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 toward the centre, indicating that the idea comes from outside of themselves rather than from within.

  • Finally, 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.
    • 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 (05:32) 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 lead a class discussion, analysing the story using the connections questions at the bottom of the reading. To address the first connections question, ask students to work with a partner to create an identity chart for the Bear. 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 others’ charts to their own.
  • Finally, divide the class into small groups so they can discuss the remaining connection questions.
  • Close the activity by revisiting this lesson’s guiding questions to explore how the Bear has challenged or confirmed your students’ understanding of the factors that can influence 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?
    • How does the Bear help you answer these two questions?
    • How do your own experiences help you answer these two questions?

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. Because students are writing about a personal topic in this reflection, it is important that they not be required to share.

Materials and Downloads

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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.

Using the strategies from Facing History is almost like an awakening.
— Claudia Bautista, Santa Monica, Calif