Lessons That Honor Identity: Self-Portraits

Last week, I discussed the concept of intersectionality. When we talk about identity, it’s important to recognize that social identities overlap. Over the next several weeks, I will post a lesson per week that you can use in your classroom to honor the many-faceted identities of your students. This first lesson is one I usually do in September, but it can really be done at any time. It may seem that many of the lessons are ideal for the start of the school year. Indeed you do want to do these types of activities initially to build your classroom community, but conversations and lessons surrounding identity need to take place throughout the school year. So please feel free to do them at any time!

During the first week of school, I have my students create self-portraits. I started doing this my first year of teaching, under the guidance of the veteran teachers at my grade level, and I fell in love with it. I explain that the projects will be mounted and displayed in our classroom all year (displaying student work is great way for everyone to see themselves represented). I tell them that I miss them when they are absent, and the portraits allow me to see them when they’re gone (I stole that little gem from my mentor teacher, Sharon).

As with all the projects I will share, I start by modeling. Modeling not only allows you to demonstrate the expectations, it also helps you create a safe space for sharing about oneself. If I’ve learned anything about nurturing relationships with kids, it’s that they just want to know you. When you make yourself vulnerable by sharing about yourself, you make it okay for your students to do the same.

I take the same blank head and shoulders outline the kids get and begin to draw myself. I talk about artistic concepts like realism and proportion, but I also do the all-important “thinking aloud” as I make choices about my portrait. For example, I tell them I’m selecting dark brown for my hair even though it looks black to some people. I recount the story of 4 year-old Kimmie at vacation bible school getting upset at her friend insisting she had black hair. I pull out the multicultural crayons, talk about being biracial, and show them how I combine different shades to get my unique skin color. Although multicultural crayons are a great resource, they can’t possibly represent the huge variety of colors that make up the human race!

When I pass out the outlines, the only restriction I give the children is that they must use crayons or colored pencils so that they can blend and get the colors just the way they want them. I encourage students to draw themselves exactly the way they see themselves. “Do I have to draw my glasses?” Only if you want to. “Can I draw earrings?” Sure! (I tell them the answer to most “Can I…?” questions is yes!) I love to walk around and listen to their conversations. They stare deeply into each other’s eyes trying to determine the exact color. They compare skin tones. I stick my arm right down there with them to make sure those conversations are observational and judgment free. I take advantage of teachable moments like when one student says that you can tell which pictures are girls because they have eyelashes, to which I reply, “Don’t we all have eyelashes?” Cue responses of “Oh, yeah!” and prompt additions of eyelashes to all self-portraits. And in this subtle way, I have challenged assumptions about masculinity and femininity (and yes, young students already have these).

So make your “rules” for this project minimal, create a sample in front of your students, and most important, circulate and talk to them! I guarantee these will be a cherished part of your classroom and a talking point for kids the rest of the year.