This lesson is part of the following unit:
Identity & Community: An Introduction to 6th Grade Social Studies
“Who am I?” is a question we all ask at some time in our lives. It is an especially critical question for adolescents. As we search for answers we begin to define ourselves. How is our identity formed? To what extent are we defined by our talents 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 ourselves and how are we labeled by others? How are our identities influenced by how we think others see us? How do our identities inform our values, ideas, and actions? In what ways might we assume different identities in different contexts? How do we manage multiple identities? Answers to these questions help us understand history, ourselves, and each other.
As students study world history, they will explore how individuals and groups over time and across continents have answered questions about identity. They will learn that many of the same factors that influence their identities—factors such as religion, gender, and geography—also shaped the identities of the ancient Greeks, the Mayans, and the Chinese. Thus, this lesson establishes an important social studies theme that will resonate throughout the year.
At the same time, beginning the year by having students examine and share their own identities is a way to build relationships in your class. When sixth grade students begin a new school year, often with unfamiliar classmates and teachers, it is particularly important for them to have the opportunity to get to know their new community and to become known by others. The activities suggested in this lesson begin this process of relationship building.
When students begin a new school year they may hold contradictory feelings. On one hand, they may think they know a lot about their classmates just by looking at them. They may have formed judgments about who will (or will not) be their friends based on the clothes people wear or how they speak. On the other hand, students may feel they are in the company of strangers; they may feel that nobody really knows them and that they don’t really know their classmates. To help students push beyond judging their peers based on simple stereotypes, you can have them participate in a “How well do we know each other?” activity.
First, distribute an index card to each student. Ask students to write one little-known fact about themselves on this card. It should be something that people could not know just by looking at them. Their names should not appear on the cards. Then collect the cards.
Read a card and ask the class to guess who the fact describes. You might read several cards at the beginning of each class period throughout this unit. Through this activity students often learn that they have something in common with a classmate or they learn something interesting about someone that might otherwise have taken all year to discover.
In the next several lessons, students will focus on the concept of identity. Write the word identity on the board and ask for volunteers to share their thoughts on what it means. Or
you can share this definition with students: Identity is the answer to the question, “Who am I?” The fact students wrote on their index cards in the warm-up activity represents one part of students’ answer to this question.
Next, distribute copies of “My Name,” a chapter from Sandra Cisneros’s book House on Mango Street. In this excerpt a young girl, Esperanza, reflects on her name. In the process she reveals information about her identity—how she perceives herself, what she values, where her family is from, and so on. Ask student volunteers to read a paragraph of this excerpt to the class. As the text is read aloud, students can underline any words or phrases that give them information about how Esperanza would answer the question, “Who am I?”
In small groups, have students create an identity chart for Esperanza. The diagram on the next page is an example of an identity chart. Students can begin with the words orphrases they underlined in the passage that represent how Esperanza defines her identity.
You can also provide groups with some questions to guide them:
Who is in Esperanza’s family?
Where is her family from?
What languages does she speak?
What does she hope for her future?
What does she think about her name? What does this reveal about her personality?
Alternatively, you can create Esperanza’s identity chart as a whole class activity.
Curriculum connection: Students can create identity charts for historical figures as well as for civilizations and nation-states. For example, have students create identity charts for Athens and Sparta or for Montezuma or Siddhartha.
The purpose of reading “My Name” is to help students think about the various factors that shape our identities. However, the text also introduces other interesting themes such as the concepts of stereotypes and prejudice. Later in this unit, students will have the opportunity to address questions such as, “How do we perceive and judge others?” and “How does it feel to be labeled?” For now, you can frame questions about the way Esperanza describes Mexicans, Chinese, and women in terms of what this says about her own beliefs and experiences.
Now students can create identity charts for themselves. Before beginning this activity, ask students to brainstorm a list of categories people use to help define themselves such as gender, age, physical characteristics, and hobbies as well as ties to a particular religion, ethnic group, neighborhood, and nation. Explain to students that they will be sharing their identity charts with the class so they should be cautious about including information that they want to remain private. In the next few lessons, students will have the opportunity to think more deeply about their own identities. As they gain a deeper understanding of identity, they will add to their identity charts. Their identity charts willalso serve as useful prewriting tools for future assignments such as students’ biopoems.
Teaching note: In preparation for this class, you may want to create your own identity chart. Not only will this model the assignment for students but it also provides a way for students to get to know you. Throughout this unit there are opportunities for you to work alongside the students to reinforce the idea that you are a member of their classroom community too.
Students can complete their identity charts for homework. You could also ask students to write a brief journal entry about their identity charts. Here is a prompt to help structure students’ reflections:
Look over your identity chart. What aspects of your identity are most important to you? Select one characteristic from your identity chart and write about why it is an important part of defining who you are.
Following Esperanza’s example, students could write a personal essay about their own name. Students could share their essays in class the next day as a way to begin to introduce themselves to each other.