This lesson is part of the following unit:
Identity & Community: An Introduction to 6th Grade Social Studies
In the first two lessons, students engaged in activities in which they answered the question, “Who am I?” Yet, even as we struggle to define our unique identity, we are being defined by others. Sometimes groups attach labels to us that differ from those we would choose for ourselves. In the book The Bear That Wasn’t, Frank Tashlin uses words and pictures to describe that process. Tashlin tells the story of a bear who is told again and again that he is a “silly man who needs a shave and wears a fur coat.” So many people label him this way that eventually he begins to question his own identity as a bear. Ultimately, the bear recognizes that he is not a man but he is not convinced that he is a bear either. Tashlin’s story is a metaphor for how identity is formed not only by our perceptions of ourselves but also by how others define us.
In the following lessons, students will explore the relationship between the individual and society by looking at how their own identities are influenced by others. This is a theme relevant to the study of world history, especially ancient world history. Before the modern era, most cultures placed labels on individuals that were determined at birth—labels such as slave, prince, merchant, or farmer. Reminding students about how, even today, their own identities are shaped by larger society can help students relate to the histories of people whose culture may seem distant and unfamiliar.
This warm-up exercise prepares students for reading The Bear That Wasn’t by helping them think about how the labels others use to describe us are sometimes different from the ones we choose for ourselves.
First, show students an image of a famous person—a movie star, an athlete, a historical figure—anyone who will be easily recognizable by all students in the class. Ask students to respond to the prompt, “What words or labels would you use to describe this person?” For example, if you use an image of Martin Luther King, Jr., students might use words like “hero,” “leader,” or “African American” to describe him.
Next, ask students to think about the labels or words that are used to describe themselves. Have them answer the following prompts in writing:
- What words or “labels” would you use to describe yourself?
- What words might others use to describe you?
- What words might others use to describe you that you would not choose for yourself?
You can segue to the main activity by explaining that in today’s lesson the class will be reading a story about what can happen when other people put labels on us.
The relationship between individuals and society is complicated. The Bear That Wasn’t provides an opportunity for students to begin to understand how society shapes our identities as individuals.
If you have access to a classroom set of this book, you can read the book aloud to students as they follow along. Or you can ask student volunteers to read the following parts: Narrator, Bear, Foreman, General Manager, Third Vice President, Second Vice President, First Vice President, President, zoo bears, circus bears.
If you do not have a classroom set of the book, while you read the story aloud, have students illustrate what they hear on a storyboard. A Storyboard Template has been included with this lesson. Students can draw an image in the large box next to a short caption describing the main idea in that section of the text.
Curriculum connection: Drawing is a literacy strategy that helps students comprehend and retain ideas from written text. Use this strategy to help students better understand historical texts, myths, or parables.
Debrief this story by asking students to create identity charts for the bear. You can use the Bear Claw Identity Chart handout to highlight the distinction between how the bear describes himself and how others describe him. Ask students to write all of the words the bear uses to describe himself inside the paw and all of the words that others use to describe him outside the paw.
After students make identity charts for the bear, lead a class discussion about the meaning of this story. Here are some prompts to help guide the conversation:
- What words does the bear use to describe himself?
- What words did others use to describe him?
- How does the identity of the bear shift over time?
- What point do you think Frank Tashlin, the author, is trying to make in this story?
- What do you think has more bearing on identity—the labels we give ourselves or the labels others give us?”
To help students apply their understanding of identity, they can read another story about how we are often labeled by others. In her memoir Farewell to Manzanar, Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston tells the story of what it was like to be a Japanese American in California during the 1940s. In 1945, Jeanne’s family moved to Los Angeles and she started sixth grade in a new school. A short Excerpt from Farewell to Manzanar describes how Jeanne experienced being labeled as a foreigner by her white classmates even though she had lived in the United States her whole life. After reading this excerpt, ask students to compare Jeanne’s experience to that of the bear. What do their experiences have in common? How are they different?
Note: If you are interested in having your students read all of Farewell to Manzanar, possibly in collaboration with the literature teachers in your school, you can borrow classroom sets of the book from Facing History’s library. Facing History has also published a study guide to Farewell to Manzanar.
If you do not have time for students to read the excerpt from Farewell to Manzanar during class, you may want to have them read it for homework. Students can write a short journal entry comparing Jeanne’s experience to that of the bear. Use the following prompts to guide students’ writing:
- What do the experiences of Jeanne and the bear have in common? How are they different?
- Identify a time when you have been labeled by others. How did it feel? How did you respond?
- Identify a time when you labeled someone else. Why did you do it?
- Why do you think we are quick to place labels on each other?