What Shapes Your Identity? | Facing History & Ourselves
Student writing notes.

What Shapes Your Identity?

Through a poem-writing activity, students broaden and deepen their understanding of identity.


At a Glance

lesson copy


English — US


  • Civics & Citizenship




One 50-min class period
  • Democracy & Civic Engagement


About This Lesson

This lesson is part of the unit Identity & Community: An Introduction to 6th Grade Social Studies

The previous lesson introduced students to the term identity and encouraged them to think about the factors that shape their own identity. This lesson includes activities to deepen and broaden students’ ideas about identities. First, students share their identity charts as a way to reflect on their own identities and to get to know their classmates.

Next, students will write bio-poems. This poetic format emphasizes how personal experiences shape identities. When students consider how experiences have influenced their own identities, it lays the groundwork for them to connect the customs (e.g., how people ate, dressed, and played) and dramatic events (e.g., war and famine) that occur throughout world history to the individuals who lived through these experiences. This step helps bring distant history down to a human scale.

  • Students will review and deepen their understanding of identity.
  • Students will be able to identify how their experiences have shaped their identities.

This lesson is designed to fit into one 50-min class period and includes:

  • 3 activities
  • 1 teaching strategy
  • 1 handout
  • 1 extension activity

Preparing to Teach

A Note to Teachers

Before you teach this lesson, please review the following guidance to tailor this lesson to your students’ contexts and needs.

One step toward establishing a respectful classroom culture is to remind students about the difference between appropriate and inappropriate ways to respond to their classmates’ work. Later in this unit, students will have the opportunity to explicitly discuss the norms and rules they think should guide classroom behavior. For now, you may wish to go over a few dos and don’ts, such as “Do write questions you have after reading the bio-poem” and “Don’t make comments that are not related to the ideas in the bio-poem.”

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Lesson Plans


Begin class by having students share their identity charts from the previous lessons. They can do this in small groups of four to six, with students each taking a minute or two to present their charts to the group. Or you can structure the sharing of identity charts as a “pass around” in which each student gives his or her chart to the student to the right. After about a minute, instruct students to “switch,” and have students pass the charts to their neighbors. Continue this until students receive their own identity charts.

Looking at classmates’ identity charts can help students recognize similarities and differences within the classroom community. Through the sharing process, students often discover factors included in others’ charts that they may not have considered. For example, some students may have included information about their families’ histories that other students have not. Therefore, you may want to give students the opportunity to add to their identity charts after they have viewed the work of their classmates.

A bio-poem is an 11-line poem that describes a person. In the standard bio-poem structure an individual is described largely through his or her experiences, hopes, and accomplishments rather than by basic characteristics such as gender, height, age, and race. In this lesson, students write a bio-poem describing themselves.

Curriculum connection: Students can write bio-poems for historical figures based on individual research or class material. For example, ask students to write a bio-poem for Queen Hatshepsut, Charlemagne, or Marco Polo.

Before introducing the bio-poem activity, ask students to write a list of the types of factors or characteristics they used to describe themselves on their identity charts. See if any of them mention hopes, personal experiences, or accomplishments. If not, ask students to identify an example of an experience that shaped how they answer the question, “Who am I?” Or you may want to refer back to the “My Name” reading. In this excerpt, Esperanza describes how her great-grandmother’s identity was shaped when she was “kidnapped” by Esperanza’s great-grandfather. Before this event she was “a wild, horse of a woman.” After she was married off to Esperanza’s great-grandfather, she became a sad woman who sat at a window much of the day.

When students have an initial understanding of the relationship between identity and personal experience, share with students the Bio-Poem teaching strategy procedure. In preparation for this class, we suggest you write your own bio-poem to share with the class as an example. You can also share this example.

Another way to structure this activity is to have students complete Step 1 of the Bio-Poem procedure and then hand their work to a partner. Students could use this information to write a bio-poem about their partner.

Give students the opportunity to share their bio-poems. Depending on how much time you have, small groups of students could read their bio-poems aloud to each other. Or you could have students read their poems to the whole class. Some students might be shy about reading their own poems so you could have students read each other’s poems. To ensure that each student gets a response to his or her bio-poem, you could assign one student to be the “responder” for each poem. After a bio-poem is read aloud, the responder has to comment about something he or she heard that was particularly interesting or surprising.

If you have more time, the following exercise is another way students can read and respond to each other’s bio-poems:

  • Ask students to pass their poems to a neighbor. (Note: This exercise works best if students have written their poems on large sheets of paper with ample room in the margins for comments.)
  • Give students several minutes to read their neighbors’ poems. After they read them, they should respond to them silently by writing comments or questions in the margins.
  • The room should be silent for the entire activity.
  • After about three to five minutes, have students pass the poems to their neighbors so that each student gets a new poem.
  • Repeat this process for as long as your class period allows. This activity works well when at least three students have read each poem (or other text).
  • At the end of class, students get their own poems back and can read the comments of other students.

Extension Activities

Students can add to their identity charts based on the type of information they included in their bio-poems. As a follow-up to this lesson, you might also ask students to write a brief journal entry using the following prompt:

Experiences help us define who we are and who we are not. Identify an experience that shaped your identity. Describe this event or experience and then explain the impact it has had on how you answer the question, “Who am I?”

Materials and Downloads

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Facing History & Ourselves is designed for educators who want to help students explore identity, think critically, grow emotionally, act ethically, and participate in civic life. It’s hard work, so we’ve developed some go-to professional learning opportunities to help you along the way.

Using the strategies from Facing History is almost like an awakening.
— Claudia Bautista, Santa Monica, Calif