This lesson is part of the unit Identity & Community: An Introduction to 6th Grade Social Studies.
In previous lessons, students have focused on various factors that shape our identities. They have learned that our answer to the question “Who am I?” is influenced by biographical characteristics and personal experiences. We define ourselves. At the same time, others choose labels for us. In this lesson, students begin to synthesize their understanding of identity through the creation of a mask.
For centuries, various cultures have used masks as a way to express individual and group identity. In some cultures masks are an important part of spiritual rituals. In other cultures they are part of national traditions such as celebrations of war or independence. Masks play a role in life-cycle events such as weddings and funerals. Throughout their exploration of world history, students can learn a great deal about a culture by analyzing the masks used by its people.
Masks also provide a way to visually represent an answer to the question, “Who am I?” Figuratively speaking, people wear masks all of the time. In his critically acclaimed poem, “We Wear the Mask,” Paul Laurence Dunbar writes, “We wear the mask that grins and lies, / It hides our cheeks and shades our eyes.” Dunbar wrote this poem in 1896. At this time, African Americans were often depicted in literature and the media as happy with their lot in life. Yet Dunbar believed that the smiles worn by African Americans were only a façade used to survive and get ahead, a mask used to hide their pain and resentment at being treated unfairly in the segregated and unequal context of post–Civil War America.
Dunbar refers to the African American experience in his poem but his words capture the universal experience of all people who have used their facial features to hide their true feelings. Through making their own masks, students will have the opportunity to define themselves visually. They can select aspects of their identities to highlight as well as aspects to conceal. Sharing their masks with their classmates (which they will do in the next lesson) provides a way for students to introduce themselves to a new community as well as a way to counter the labels or stereotypes others may have placed on them.
To prepare students for mask making, ask them to respond to the following prompt in writing:
Think about a time when you have pretended to be something that you are not or when you have hidden your true feelings. Why did you choose to hide a part of your identity?
Volunteers can share their responses. Given the personal nature of this prompt, it is best to allow students to keep this reflection private. However, all students can participate in answering general questions such as “Why do people sometimes hide their true selves? What would happen if we never concealed our feelings or parts of our identities?”
Another way to introduce this lesson is to have students read the poem “We Wear the Mask.” This poem has been interpreted in many ways. Dunbar may be referring to the universal human behavior of hiding our feelings or an aspect of our true selves. Many believe that he is referring to the experience of African Americans. For the purposes of this lesson, it is sufficient for students to come away from a reading of the poem with an awareness of the fact that we all wear masks—in different ways and for different reasons. Often in an attempt to come across as “cool” in front of their peers, adolescents will hide their feelings or their interests. They may wear masks to conceal a love of math or disappointment about a bad grade.
If you have more time to discuss the historical context of this poem, you can use the following prompts to structure your conversation:
Paul Laurence Dunbar was an African American poet who was born in 1872. He was the son of slaves. Whom do you think he might have been writing about in this poem? Why might these people be wearing a mask?
He writes, “With torn and bleeding hearts we smile.” Why would the hearts of African Americans be torn and bleeding in the years after the Civil War? Why would African Americans still be smiling? Are their smiles happy smiles?
Why did Dunbar call this poem “We Wear the Mask”?
Explain to students that they will be making a mask that will be displayed in the classroom. The purpose of the mask is to answer the question, “Who am I?” Before beginning the mask-making activity, ask students to list the reasons people wear masks. Encourage them to think about masks both literally and figuratively while helping them to consider the multiple purposes of masks. Sometimes people wear masks to hide their feelings or to pretend to be something they are not; at other times people wear masks to emphasize a particular facet of their personalities. For example, a clown mask emphasizes humor and playfulness.Masks can also function as protection (e.g., a doctor’s mask) or as entertainment.
To make their masks, students first have to decide how they want to present themselves to the class. Which aspects of their identities do they want to emphasize? Which aspects of their identities do they wish to conceal? Completing the “Mask-making Preparation Worksheet” can help students answer these questions before they begin crafting their masks. Students can also refer to their identity charts and biopoems for ideas about what to include on their masks. Before they begin, show students the materials they can use. In addition to markers and paper plates, old magazines are especially useful for this activity because students can cut out words and images. Also, inform students that they can decorate both the outside and the inside of the masks. They can use the outside to represent the aspects of their identities they openly show to the outside world and the inside to represent the more private aspects of their identities.
Curriculum connection: As you study various world cultures, you can introduce students to the masks used in those cultures. Students can discuss the purpose of the masks and what they reveal about a society’s beliefs and customs. You could also have students do their own research about the masks used by particular cultures. Students could even recreate the masks and present them to the rest of the class. The Internet provides numerous resources about masks from around the world and throughout history. One place to start is the “Masks of the World” page published by the Museum of Anthropology at the University of Missouri-Columbia.
Students will likely need the entire class period to finish their masks. You may want to stop class a few minutes early to discuss the idea that identities change over time. The way students design their masks at the beginning of sixth grade is probably different from the way they would have designed them at the beginning of fifth grade. Similarly, the way they answer the question “Who am I?” at the beginning of sixth grade is probably different from the way they would answer it at the end of sixth grade. As you discuss our ability to change our identities, ask students to identify one aspect of themselves that they hope changes during this school year as well as one aspect of themselves that they hope stays the same.
Students can finish their masks for homework. In addition, ask students to write a letter to themselves that you will return to them at the end of sixth grade. Assure them that you will not read their letters. Suggest that students answer any of the following questions:
How do you answer the question, “Who am I?”
When you read this letter at the end of the school year, which aspects of your identity do you hope have stayed the same?
What is one thing about yourself that you hope has changed by the end of the school year?
What can you do to help make this change happen?