Looking Closely at Ourselves



Activities will help students:

  • understand, appreciate, and respect differences and similarities in their classroom and school
  • enhance observation skills which can be useful for self-reflection while learning artistic skills for portraiture
  • define key terms and develop vocabulary for discussing race and racial identity
  • build a safe and supportive classroom community where students can learn together and value the range of diversity in the class and at school
  • develop necessary skills for respectful critiquing of others’ artwork

Essential Questions: 

  • What is “skin color”?
  • What does it mean to observe? Why is looking closely an important skill?
  • What is “beauty”? How does the idea of “beauty” relate or not relate to skin color?
  • How can you use close observation skills to feel good about yourself and the people around you?
  • What are some ways we can make ourselves and our classmates feel comfortable when we are talking about challenging or confusing topics?

Materials Needed: 

  • small hand mirrors for each student or several large mirrors for groups of children to share
  • heavy paper for painting
  • sharpened pencils
  • erasers
  • tempera paints, brushes, and pallets
  • smocks (as deemed necessary)
  • chart paper

In this introductory lesson, students explore race and self-identity by creating self-portraits. If your students have already performed a similar activity, you may want to focus your work more specifically on exploring the essential questions in this lesson.

Even very young children notice racial or ethnic differences, although this awareness takes shape somewhat differently for each individual. School-aged children begin to see themselves in relation to others and to the world at large. It is important for them to learn to look closely at themselves and think about the physical characteristics that may or may not be part of their racial or ethnic identities.

This lesson, the first in a series, aims to help children develop detailed observational skills and use these skills in relation to themselves and others. It also begins building a vocabulary that is crucial in helping to build community and discuss some of the more challenging aspects of race and racial identity formation.

Professional Development
Race can be a difficult topic to address. Before working on these themes with children, it is important to become comfortable with these issues ourselves. Although there are many worthwhile books on the subject, you may want to start with Anti-Bias Education for Young Children and Ourselves, by Louise Derman-Sparks and Julie Olsen Edwards (2010) and Teaching/Learning Anti-Racism, edited by Louise Derman-Sparks and Carol Brunson Phillips (1997).

Some professional development modules that can be helpful when working with issues of racial identity include Culturally Relevant Curriculum and the Starting Small kit. 

Additionally, the notion of color blindness—“In our room, we don’t see color”—can be as harmful as ignoring the social and political implications of race. To understand more, review the training module Colorblindness: The New Racism.

color [kuhl-er]
(noun) the appearance of something, including how bright it is and what shade it is

skin [skin]
(noun) the outer covering of a human or animal body

skin color [skin kuhl-er]
(noun) the coloring of a person’s face and skin

race [reys]
(noun) one of the major groups into which human beings can be divided. As a social construction, it relates to the grouping of people based on physical characteristics, such as skin color, often for the purpose of creating the perception of a superior race.
(Note: There are many ways to define the term “race.” We provide a working definition, but one of the goals for this series is for students to come to individual and collective understandings of the term that make sense to them and their personal, developmental, and communal needs.)

self-portrait [self-pawr-trit]
(noun) a picture a person makes of himself or herself

beauty [BYOO-tee]
(noun) the part of a person—or thing—that makes us like how he or she looks
(Note: There are many different ways to define the term “beauty.” We provide a working definition, but one of the goals of this lesson and series of lessons is for students to come to their own understanding of the term and concept.)


  1. Have students talk about these questions in a small, diverse group. What does it mean to look closely? Why is looking closely important in school? Why is it important in life outside of school? Encourage each group to share one or two key points. (Note: With older students, you may have them write about the questions instead.)
  2. Help students understand that one reason we look closely at ourselves is to start understanding who we are as physical people, which is often the first thing we notice about ourselves and each other. One thing we often notice—also one of the first things other people notice about us—but sometimes don’t talk about, is the color of our own skin and each other’s skin. With your class, discuss these questions: What is color? What is skin? What is skin color? Why is it important? Why isn’t it important?
  3. One important reason for looking closely is to find beauty in ourselves and in others. As a shared-class writing activity, make a list of other words or ideas you associate with the word “beauty.” (Note: With older students, have them write their own lists in journals.) Encourage students to consider these following questions: What does this word mean to you? Are there different ways to be beautiful? Do you think beauty is important? Why or why not? (Note: During your conversation about skin color, the concept of race might come up. Help students speak openly about their understanding concerning race. It is important to assess where your students are in their conceptual understandings, and to provide a safe and open forum for talking about race and how it relates to skin color. You might have children talk with partners or as a class about what they think race might mean or how they have heard this word used. Lesson 2 in the series will explore race more explicitly.)
  4. Artists look closely at themselves when they paint self-portraits. Explain that a self-portrait is a picture you create of yourself. Pass out a mirror to each student or each group of students. Show students how they can use mirrors to pay attention to what they look like: the shapes of their faces, the different shades of skin, and the different features they have. While still looking in the mirror, have them use a pencil to draw an outline of their face on painting paper. They can mix the paints together in a lot of different ways to show the different colors present on their faces. (Note: Lesson 5 in the series will include more explicit and targeted explanations of mixing colors. This is to give students a starting point; then they’ll have something to look back on at the end of the series to see how their vision of themselves may have changed.) Help students consider this question: How did looking closely at yourself influence the way you see and think about yourself? (Note: If students have performed similar activities in the past or are very experienced with self-portraits, encourage them to notice something about themselves this time that they have never focused on before.)
  5. When students finished painting the portraits, leave them to dry. Come together as a class to talk about what it means to critique others’ art. When students workshop one another’s artwork, they should focus on giving them specific compliments and maybe one thoughtful suggestion. Chart the guidelines your class comes up with for a helpful workshop. Some starting points for conversation could be colors used, attention paid to detail or favorite parts of the portrait.
  6. Circulate among the groups to look at your classmates’ self-portraits so you may give each other helpful feedback. Share anything new you noticed about yourselves and your classmates during this activity. (Note: Try to focus the conversation around the theme of skin color or, if it has come up, race. If students are struggling to stay with these themes, you may want to start a separate conversation about why skin color can be difficult to talk about and what might make it a more comfortable topic.)
  7. Either in groups or in your journals, reflect on why or how you thought this activity was helpful or important. Discuss or write down any further questions the activity brought up for you and the class.

Think about the experience of looking closely at yourself while painting a self-portrait. Consider the conversations you’ve had with your classmates about race, shades of skin color, and beauty. In your journal, respond to the following questions:

  • Why is it important to practice looking closely and, particularly, to look closely at yourself? 
  • What does the word “race” mean to you? How did or didn’t the experience of looking closely at yourself through painting a self-portrait change or influence your thinking about skin color or race? 
  • What does the word “beauty” mean to you? What do you think is especially beautiful about yourself? How did the experience of looking closely at yourself to create a self-portrait change or influence your thinking about beauty?

This activity addresses the following standards using the Common Core State Standards for English Language Arts.

CCSS SL.1, SL.2, SL.4, SL.6, W.10, L.1, L.3, L.6

Extension Activity: 

Looking closely is a way to get to know ourselves better, but it can also be a way to get to know someone else. After completing the self-portrait assignment in class, discuss what you learned with someone in your home. Spend some time looking carefully at that person, then try making a portrait of them to practice your close observation skills. If you don’t have paints, you can try using crayons, chalk, markers, or colored pencils. Think about how the activity is different depending on what materials you use. You may want to provide students with materials for use at home to make the assignment equitable. After you are finished with your portrait, write in your journal about how it was similar to and different from doing a portrait of yourself. Share your portrait and experience with your classmates when you come back to school.

ELL Extension
A self-portrait involves learning about different parts of your face and even your body. Working with art materials also means learning words for different colors. Depending on the level of the students’ English, explore the distinction of colors. This means not only “red,” “orange,” “yellow,” but also terms such as “shade,” “light,” “dark,” and “darken.” As you work on your portrait, make labels on sticky notes for any new nouns, verbs, or adjectives you learn. Keep them beside your portrait. Once the portraits have dried, put your sticky notes in appropriate places on your portrait. Challenge yourself to see if the same words might also find homes on some of your classmates’ portraits! Practice using these words in sentences as you critique your classmates’ work.