Exploring Identity | Facing History & Ourselves
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Exploring Identity

Students identify the social and cultural factors that help shape our identities by analyzing firsthand reflections and creating personal identity charts.


At a Glance

lesson copy


English — US


  • Civics & Citizenship
  • History
  • Social Studies




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


About This Lesson

The question “Who am I?” is especially critical for students during adolescence. The goal of this lesson is to prompt students to consider how the answer to this question arises from the relationship between the individual and society, the topic explored in the first stage of Facing History & Ourselves’ scope and sequence.

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. In this lesson, students will learn to create visual representations of their own identities, and then they will repeat the process for the identities of several individuals they read about. In the process, they will analyze the variety of ways we define ourselves and are defined by others.

The factors that influence our identities are too numerous to capture in a single class period. The resources suggested in this lesson include some of these influences—such as race, sexual orientation, and personal interests—but not others. Chapter 1 of Holocaust and Human Behavior includes additional 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. This lesson’s first extension is designed to help students start to recognize that identifying as Jewish implies membership in a rich and diverse set of beliefs and cultural practices.

Unit Essential Question: How can learning about the choices people made during past episodes of injustice, mass violence, or genocide help guide our choices today?

  • What factors shape our identities? What dilemmas arise when others view us differently than we view ourselves?
  • How do our identities influence our choices?

Students will identify social and cultural factors that help shape our identities by analyzing firsthand reflections and creating their own personal identity charts.

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

  • 3 activities
  • 2 teaching strategies
  • 5 readings, 4 of 5 available in English and Spanish
  • 1 assessment
  • 2 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 labeled 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 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.

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 and needs.

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. A sample identity chart is included below.

An example of a student's identity chart.

Facing History And Ourselves

This lesson’s main activities include an activity that uses the Jigsaw teaching strategy with five readings of varying degrees of complexity. If you are creating the “expert” groups based on reading levels, note that the reading Finding One’s Voice contains complex vocabulary and syntax that may not be as accessible to struggling readers, and the reading Navigating Multiple Identities contains the poem “Two Voices” that includes rhetorical questions, imagery, and metaphors.

The following are key vocabulary terms used in this lesson:

  • Identity
  • Dilemma

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

If your school or community does not have a large Jewish population, or your students have not had exposure to Jewish faith and culture through their friends, families, or curriculum, it is important to include the extension “Explore the Complexity of Jewish Identity” and the reading Being Jewish in the United States when you teach this lesson. The extension is designed to help students start to recognize that identifying as Jewish implies membership in a rich and diverse set of beliefs and cultural practices. You might devote extra time to this reading and its subsequent questions or include the reading in the activity “Explore the Complexity of Identity.”   

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Lesson Plans


  • Explain to students that today they will be thinking about what makes up their identities and reading firsthand accounts of how various individuals have grappled with the different ways they define themselves and are defined by others.
  • Tell students to write a response to the question “Who am I?” in a quick journal entry. They might list, or write in complete sentences, the first five to seven ideas that come to mind when they think about this question.
  • Now 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 students create their identity charts on a new page in their journals, because they will be adding to them throughout the lesson and later in the unit.
  • Next, have students read five personal reflections on identity using the Jigsaw teaching strategy. Begin by dividing the class into four “expert” groups, and pass out one of the following readings to each group:
  • Explain to students that each “expert” group will read together the group’s assigned reading, briefly discuss the connection questions on the handout, and then create an identity chart representing the person featured in that reading.
  • Then divide the class into new “teaching” groups. The members of each “teaching” group should have read a different reading in their “expert” groups.
  • Instruct each student to summarize his or her “expert” group’s reading for the new “teaching” group and share the identity chart they created. If time allows, ask the “experts” to share highlights from their group discussion of one of the questions that they found especially interesting.
  • After each student has shared, ask each “teaching” group to make a list of the different categories of identity (such as race, gender, nationality, and religion) that came up in their discussion, and have them share their lists with the class. You might record this list on the board or on chart paper.
  • Ask students to add information to their personal identity charts if new categories emerged through the Jigsaw activity that they hadn’t previously considered.

Ask students to reflect on their own identity charts in their journals by selecting from the following questions:

  • What parts of your identity do you choose for yourself? What parts of your identity do you think 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 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.


  • Observe the group discussions during the Jigsaw activity to assess students’ understanding of the readings and the factors that shape our identities. You might tell students in advance that they will be assessed on these conversations in order to ensure that everyone contributes.
  • Collect the identity charts that students created based on the readings in the Jigsaw activity, as well as the lists they have compiled of factors that shape identity, in order to check for understanding and ensure that students have completed their work.

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. Applying the Read Aloud teaching strategy, ask students to answer the connection questions. You might ask students to first respond to the questions on their own or with a partner before opening a larger class discussion.
  • After discussing the reading, begin an identity chart on the board with the words Jewish identity at the center. Lead the class in adding characteristics to the identity chart. Guide this activity carefully to avoid including inaccurate stereotypes or generalizations 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 practice 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.
  • If you have an additional class period, consider reading and discussing with students the children’s book The Bear That Wasn’t. The book explores the relationship between the individual and society and the relationship between how we define ourselves and the ways that others try to define us. While written for younger children, The Bear That Wasn’t often prompts sophisticated discussion among adolescents and becomes a touchstone throughout the unit.
  • After reading, students can discuss how the bear responds to the ways others define his identity, including both the ways he accepts others’ definitions of him and the ways he resists. Students might then create an identity chart for the bear in the story. 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.

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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.

The resources I’m getting from my colleagues through Facing History have been just invaluable.
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