The Complexity of Identity | Facing History & Ourselves
Blurred crowd used to illustrate "individual and society" in Holocaust and Human Behavior.

The Complexity of Identity

Students explore the relationship between the individual and society by creating identity charts for a contemporary novelist, a children's book character, and themselves.


At a Glance



English — US


  • Civics & Citizenship
  • Social Studies




One 50-min class period
  • The Holocaust


About This Lesson

This lesson uses resources from Chapter 1 of Holocaust and Human Behavior to prompt students to explore how the ways they think about themselves and others are influenced by society. Students will use the Identity Charts teaching strategy to analyze the roles that both the individual and society play in the complex identities of two individuals described in the chapter, and then they will use the same strategy to reflect on their own identities. These activities serve as both effective classroom community-building exercises at the beginning of a Facing History unit and a way to introduce ideas about human behavior and decision making that will serve as a foundation for examining the historical case study later in the unit.

  • What factors shape our identities? What parts of our identities do we choose for ourselves? What parts are determined for us by others, by society, or by chance?  
  • What dilemmas arise when others view us differently than we view ourselves?
  • Students will understand that the society in which we live, in addition to our own beliefs and attitudes, influences how we think about our identities and the identities of others.
  • Students will recognize that while each of us has a complex and unique identity, others often use labels to describe us that reduce our identities to a “single story” and can influence the ways in which we think about ourselves.

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

  • 3 activities 
  • 1 video
  • 2 readings

Preparing to Teach

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Lesson Plans


  • Read or watch The Bear That Wasn’t with students. Lead a brief class discussion, analyzing the story using the connection questions that follow it.
  • Ask students to create an identity chart for the bear in the story. To do so, students should draw a box in the middle of a blank page and write “the bear” inside. Around the box, they should write words and phrases describing the character. They should take words and phrases directly from the text of the story that represent the labels other characters use to describe the bear as well as those that the bear uses to describe itself. Then students can add additional words and phrases that they think are appropriate based on the story. See the sample identity chart below.
  • Give students a few minutes to share their identity charts with each other, and encourage them to add words and phrases from others’ charts to their own. Alternatively, you might create the identity chart for the bear as a class. See the Identity Charts teaching strategy for more information.

An identity chart is a diagram that individuals fill in with words and phrases they use to describe themselves as well as the labels that society gives them.

Facing History and Ourselves
  • Ask students to create identity charts for themselves. They should start by drawing a box in the middle of a blank page and writing their name inside it. Then they should add words and phrases around the box that describe how they see themselves. When people describe their identities, they often use common categories such as gender, age, and physical characteristics, as well as ties to a particular religion, class, neighborhood, school, or nation.
  • Give students some time to compare their identity charts. As they do so, ask them to notice which categories are included on most or every chart and which appear on only a few. Also, let students continue to modify their own identity charts as they observe the categories and labels that their classmates have included.
  • Finally, ask students to reflect independently in their journals on the following questions:
    • What labels would others attach to you?
    • How do society’s labels influence the way you see yourself?
    • How do labels influence the kinds of choices you and others make?
  • Read The Danger of a Single Story with students. You may also choose to watch Chimamanda Adichie’s TED presentation. Lead a brief class discussion, analyzing the story using the connection questions that follow it.
  • Ask students to create an identity chart for Chimamanda Adichie. As they make the chart, have students think about which parts of her identity Adichie chose for herself and which parts were assigned by others.
  • Once they have finished, have students circle the words and phrases on the chart that others have used to create a “single story” about Adichie. Ask students to share what they circled, and then lead a brief class discussion about what focusing on just those elements that fit a “single story” misses about Adichie’s identity. Ask students to consider why Adichie believes that this human behavior, of reducing the identities of others to “single stories,” is dangerous.
  • Finally, ask students to return to their own identity charts and underline three to five words and phrases that they believe are at the core of their identities. Students might respond in their journals to the following questions:
    • How often do others recognize those core qualities?
    • How often do others overlook them?

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