Lesson 2 of 23
One 50-minute class period

Exploring Identity

From the Unit:

Essential Questions

Unit Essential Question: What does learning about the choices people made during the Weimar Republic, the rise of the Nazi Party, and the Holocaust teach us about the power and impact of our choices today?

Guiding Questions

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

Learning Objectives

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


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 and 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 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.


“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.

Notes to Teacher

  1. Using Identity Charts as a Teaching Strategy
    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.


  2. Addressing Different Reading Levels in the Class

    This lesson’s main activities include an activity that uses the Jigsaw teaching strategy with four 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.

  3. Previewing Vocabulary
    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.

  4. Exploring Jewish Identity
    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.



  1. Introduce Identity
    • Explain to students that today they will be thinking about what makes up their identities and reading firsthand accounts of how various individuals grapple 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.
  2. Explore the Complexity of Identity
    • Next, have students read four 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, 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.
  3. Identity Chart Journal Reflection

    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.


  1. Explore the Complexity of Jewish Identity
    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.
  2. Read The Bear That Wasn’t
    • 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 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 way 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.



Get Started

Begin here to find useful information and rationale for teaching this unit.

Lesson 1 of 23

Introducing The Unit

Students develop a contract establishing a reflective classroom community in preparation for their exploration of this unit's historical case study.

Lesson 2 of 23

Exploring Identity

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

Lesson 3 of 23

Stereotypes and “Single Stories”

Students create working definitions of stereotype as they examine the human behavior of applying categories to people and things.

Lesson 4 of 23

Universe of Obligation

Students learn a new concept, universe of obligation, and use it to analyze the ways that their society designates who is deserving of respect and caring.



Step 1:

Introducing the Writing Prompt

Students draft a working thesis statement for an argumentative essay about the impact of choices in history.

Lesson 5 of 23

The Concept of Race

Students analyze the socially constructed meaning of race and examine how it has been used to justify exclusion, inequality, and violence throughout history.

Lesson 6 of 23

The Roots and Impact of Antisemitism

Students explore the long history of discrimination against Jews and come to understand how anti-Judaism was transformed into antisemitism in the nineteenth century.

Lesson 7 of 23

World War I and Its Aftermath in Germany

Students begin the unit's historical case study by exploring the brutal realities of World War I and the impact of the armistice and the Treaty of Versailles.

Lesson 8 of 23

The Weimar Republic

Students reflect on the idea of democracy as they analyze the politics, economics, and culture of Germany during the period of the Weimar Republic.



Step 2:

Introducing Evidence Logs

Students start to gather evidence that supports or challenges their initial thinking about the writing prompt.

Lesson 9 of 23

The Rise of the Nazi Party

Students examine how choices made by individuals and groups contributed to the rise of the Nazi Party in the 1920s and 1930s.

Lesson 10 of 23

European Jewish Life before World War II

Students analyze images and film that convey the richness of Jewish life across Europe at the time of the Nazis’ ascension to power.

Lesson 11 of 23

Dismantling Democracy

Students examine the steps the Nazis took to replace democracy with dictatorship and draw conclusions about the values and institutions that make democracy possible.

Lesson 12 of 23

Do You Take the Oath?

Students consider the choices and reasoning of individual Germans who stayed quiet or spoke up during the first few years of Nazi rule.

Lesson 13 of 23

Laws and the National Community

Students are introduced to the Nazis’ idea of a “national community” and examine how the Nazis used the Nuremberg Laws to define who belonged.



Step 3:

Adding to Evidence Logs, 1 of 3

Students respond to the writing prompt in a journal reflection and begin to evaluate the quality of the evidence they are gathering.

Lesson 14 of 23

The Power of Propaganda

Students analyze several examples of Nazi propaganda and consider how the Nazis used media to influence the thoughts, feelings, and actions of individual Germans.

Lesson 15 of 23

Youth and the National Community

Students learn about the experiences of people in Nazi Germany through a variety of firsthand accounts and identify the range of choices that they faced.

Lesson 16 of 23


Students learn about the violent pogroms of Kristallnacht by watching a short documentary and then reflecting on eyewitness testimonies.

Lesson 17 of 23

Responding to a Refugee Crisis

Students think about the responsibilities of governments as they consider how countries around the world responded to the European Jews trying to escape Nazi Germany.

Lesson 18 of 23

Race and Space

Students examine the Nazi ideology of “race and space” and the role it played in Germany’s aggression toward other nations, groups, and individuals.



Step 4:

Adding to Evidence Logs, 2 of 3

Students share their ideas about the writing prompt in groups and continue to build their evidence logs.

Lesson 19 of 23

The Holocaust: Bearing Witness

Students are introduced to the enormity of the crimes committed during the Holocaust and look closely at stories of a few individuals who were targeted by Nazi brutality.

Lesson 20 of 23

The Holocaust: The Range of Responses

Students deepen their examination of human behavior during the Holocaust by analyzing and discussing the range of choices available to individuals, groups, and nations.

Lesson 21 of 23

Justice and Judgment after the Holocaust

Students grapple with the meaning of justice and the purpose of trials as they learn how the Allies responded to the atrocities of Nazi Germany.



Step 5:

Adding to Evidence Logs, 3 of 3

Students approach the unit writing prompt in its entirety through journal reflection, evidence, gathering, and discussion.

Lesson 22 of 23

How Should We Remember?

Students both respond to and design Holocaust memorials as they consider the impact that memorials and monuments have on the way we think about history.

Lesson 23 of 23

Choosing to Participate

Students use the “levers of power” framework to identify ways they can bring about positive change in their communities.



Step 6:

Refining the Thesis and Finalizing Evidence Logs

Students complete activities that help them think about the unit as a whole as they prepare a strong thesis statement for their essay.

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