The Impact of Identity | Facing History & Ourselves
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The Impact of Identity

Students explore how identity impacts our responses to other people and events by examining a cartoon and analyzing an opinion poll from a week after Ferguson.


At a Glance

lesson copy


English — US


  • Civics & Citizenship
  • History
  • Social Studies




Two 50-min class periods
  • Democracy & Civic Engagement
  • Racism


About This Lesson

In the aftermath of the shooting of Michael Brown, the American public was sharply divided about who was at fault. 

In this lesson, students will explore the reasons for this division by looking at how identity affected the ways in which people responded to the events. Students begin by reflecting on how identity influences our perceptions of people. They then examine a public opinion poll about a range of issues related to Ferguson, sortable by different aspects of identity (race, gender, age, etc.) and consider what the poll reveals as well as its limitations. Finally, after watching police officers talk about race, students reflect on the diversity of perspectives, opinions, and experiences that exists within this—or any—group.

  • What is the relationship between identity and the way we respond to news and information?
  • How did people’s identities and experiences influence the way they responded to news and information from Ferguson? 
  • How does identity affect how police officers think about race?
  • Students will be able to identify how their identity contributes to the way they respond to other people (and how other people respond to us).
  • Students will be able to understand the deep divisions reflected in the different ways that some people in the US thought about race relations in the aftermath of Michael Brown’s death.
  • Students will be able to describe the value and limitations of public opinion polls.
  • Students will be able to reflect on how identity shapes the ways in which different people and groups view police and think about race.

This lesson is designed to fit into two 50-min class periods and includes:

  • 4 activities 
  • 1 teaching strategies
  • 1 video
  • 1 handout 
  • 3 readings

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Lesson Plans


To begin this lesson, project or distribute copies of the “Street Calculus” cartoon by Garry Trudeau. 

  • Discuss students’ first impressions. What do you see? What story is being told in this cartoon? Where are the two people? What are they thinking? The title is “Street Calculus.” What is the artist trying to say?
  • Now focus on the thought bubbles. What do you notice? What is the same about both lists? What is different? What do you think is missing from either list? What might influence what’s on the list? How might these lists shape the choices these people make (beyond greeting each other)? What would it take to change the lists?
  • Expand beyond the cartoon. Do you think this is realistic? Do people have lists? Does the thought process these characters are going through seem reasonable? How aware do you think they are of their lists? When someone sees you walking down the street, what lists might they make about you?
  • Have students write privately in their journals in response to this prompt, not for public sharing: Think about a group of people who are different from you. What lists are used to describe them? Where do you think such lists come from? Is it okay to act on them?
  • As a follow-up or different approach, ask students to create an Inside/Outside Identity Chart to explore what factors make up our individual identities. Distribute copies of the graphic organizer and ask students to include words and phrases they use to describe themselves as well as attributes and labels that others use to define them. Ask: How does the way you see yourself differ from the way that others see you? Discuss why these differences exist and how they affect our interactions.

Alternatively, you could have students read an excerpt from Sandra Cisneros’s book The House on Mango Street, “Those Who Don’t.” Read the story either aloud or silently, and then have students record their reactions in their journals. Ask: What does the story mean to you? How do you connect with Esperanza’s experience? According to Esperanza, what is the relationship between identity and perception? As an extension in class or as homework, have students write their own “Those Who Don’t” stories. (We have a separate lesson, Those Who Don't Know, supporting this activity.)

Students will now use a real-world example to look at how identity shaped people’s perceptions of the events surrounding Ferguson. Polling revealed radically different understandings of both the basic facts and the underlying issues behind the shooting and protests. To explore these divisions, have students review the results of an August 21, 2014, New York Times/CBS News poll on reactions to Ferguson as a class or in small groups (depending on your access to multiple computers). Because there is so much information in this poll, we have suggested a few focal points. 

  • Tell students that this poll was conducted about ten days after Michael Brown was shot, at a point when the events were continuing to unfold and much was still unknown.
  • Start with the Race Relations category. Compare the first two prompts, “Are race relations in the United States…” and “Are race relations in your community…”
    • Without rolling over the responses (which are broken down by group), ask students what they observe about the overall responses. What do they find interesting or surprising when comparing the responses to the two questions?
    • When you roll over the breakdown by group, what do students observe?
  • Move down to the Michael Brown Shooting category.
    • Before rolling over the text, discuss the three responses overall, remembering that this is a snapshot taken ten days after Michael Brown was shot.
    • Now roll over the results and discuss three dyads: white/black, male/female, and the two age categories, 18–44/45+. What do students notice within and among the pairings?
      • For example, thinking back to the discussion at the beginning of the unit about where students get their news compared to their parents and other older people, how might differences in information sources affect responses to the shooting across age categories?
      • Comparing the responses by race to those by gender, what is surprising? Looking at the responses by race for “Not justified” and “Don’t know enough to say,” why do you think there might be such a significant difference in the responses? How does gender factor in?
      • What other kinds of experiences, beyond identity factors, might influence the way people respond to events such as those in Ferguson?
  • What can we learn from this type of poll? What are its limitations? For example, can (or should) people be summed up or defined by just one aspect of their identity? What kinds of experiences and information can cause or encourage people to change their points of view? (Teacher note: We will investigate this question more deeply in the next lesson as we discuss confirmation bias.)

All of us have complex identities and diverse experiences. No single element can define us or predict how we will behave or feel in any situation. In the poll we just looked at, one category of questions focused on law enforcement; in the conversations about Ferguson, police are often treated as a monolithic group.
Too often people assume that all police officers think and behave the same way, allowing stereotypes to affect how we see these individuals. Police officers bring their own identities, experiences, and perspectives to their jobs. And their experiences on the job, in turn, shape their view of the world. 

  • View and discuss the New York Times Op-Doc video “A Conversation with Police on Race.” As students watch, have them make note of a voice or idea that surprises them, one that resonates with them, and one that troubles them.
  • After watching the video, use the Learn to Listen/Listen to Learn teaching strategy to have students reflect in writing about what they heard for a few minutes before discussing what they saw. Did the video challenge or complicate opinions they held about the police? To focus the journal reflection, you might use the S-I-T strategy: Have students write about one Surprising fact or idea, one Interesting fact or idea, and one Troubling fact or idea that they made note of when watching.
  • Then, as a group, discuss how the individual officers’ race, family background, and personal experiences may have shaped their opinions and point of view about race. 

Alternatively, you could pull eight to ten thought-provoking quotes from the video and use them as the basis for a Gallery Walk activity. Students could return to the quote that resonated with them or that they were most troubled by and have a conversation with other students who chose that quote. Ask: What attracted you to this quote? What follow-up questions do you have for the person who said it? What do you think is shaping that person’s viewpoint and opinion?

Provide a few minutes at the end of class for students to reflect on the day’s activities and discussions in a private journal entry.

  • Prompt them with these questions: How did today’s lesson impact you personally? What is the most important idea that you would like to hold onto?

Materials and Downloads

Quick Downloads

The handouts below, available in English and Spanish, are used in the The Impact of Identity lesson plan.

Explore the Materials

Dive into the resources that help students explore the power and impact of our choices.

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