Sometimes students get stuck on superficial notions of identity, both in understanding themselves and in looking at their classmates. This activity uses literature to challenge stereotypes and help children think about their inner selves. It also allows them to explore metaphor, other poetic language and visual artistic expression as they get to know themselves and one another better.
Grade Level

Read aloud I Look Like a Girl by Sheila Hamanaka (Morrow Junior Books, 1999). Spend time talking about each page and the accompanying pictures. Ask students to consider what the narrator might mean when she says things like, “I look like a girl, but really I’m a tiger.” Push the discussion in the direction of gender stereotypes by asking questions like, “Why is it surprising for a girl to say that inside she is a tiger? What does she mean by ‘look twice/ past the sugar and spice’?”

Have students work in small groups to talk about aspects of their identities that might not show on the outside, particularly things that defy stereotypes. Encourage them with your own example: I tell my class that although as a teacher I seem outgoing and brave, really I’m very shy and it takes a lot of effort for me to be so outspoken.

After the kids have talked about their personality traits, have them write in their journals about the ideas that have come up. Encourage each child to think of a metaphor for one or more of her or his ‘hidden’ characteristics just like the character in the book. I usually say, “I look like a teacher, but really I’m a turtle, longing to hide in my shell.” Allow students to help each other, because part of the purpose of this activity is to understand one another more deeply.

Finally, give each student a piece of black construction paper. Have them use oil pastels to illustrate their inner animal or whatever metaphor they have come up with, writing their statement at the bottom of the page in the style of Hamanaka’s book. After they have shared their “self-portraits,” be sure to display them in the classroom as expressions of who everyone really is, and return to these portraits when you feel children are losing track of their deeper selves and getting stuck on superficial details.

Clio Stearns
The Neighborhood School/P.S. 363
New York, New York