Looking Closely at Ourselves

In this lesson, students explore race and self-identity by creating self-portraits. The lesson aims to help students develop detailed observational skills and use these skills in relation to themselves and others. It also begins constructing a vocabulary that is crucial in helping build community and discuss some of the more challenging aspects of race and racial identity formation.
Grade Level


At the end of the lesson, students will understand the importance of self-reflection and how it helps us improve our observation, understanding, and communication with others in our community.

Essential Questions
  • How does looking closely at ourselves help us understand others?
  • What are some ways we can make ourselves — and people around us — more comfortable when we are talking about challenging or confusing topics?


Enduring Understandings

  • Looking closely at ourselves can make us more sensitive to how we see and think about others, and heighten our awareness of our own and others’ beauty.
  • Talking about challenging or confusing topics requires sensitivity and thoughtfulness. Speakers should use respectful tones, be specific when offering feedback, and listen carefully to responses.   
  • small hand mirrors for each student or several large mirrors for groups of students to share
  • heavy paper for painting
  • sharpened pencils
  • erasers
  • tempera paints, brushes, and palettes. NOTE: If paints aren’t available, students can use markers, colored pencils, construction paper, or other art supplies that may be more readily available.
  • smocks (as deemed necessary)
  • chart paper


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.)


Suggested Procedure

  1. Have students talk about these questions in small, diverse groups: 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 that 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? Why might some people find it challenging to talk about these topics?
  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 students 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 beauty 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 many 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. As a class, talk about what it means to critique others’ art, and develop students’ comments into guidelines for the critiques. For example: When students workshop one another’s artwork, they should focus on giving 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. Take time to visit each group and to look at students’ self-portraits so you may give helpful feedback. Share anything you noticed about your students, their portraits, and their critiques 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 journals, have students reflect on why or how this activity was helpful or important. Direct students to discuss and/or write down any further questions the activity brought up for then.


Extension Activities

Do Something

Have students research and explore the community’s demographics. Ask: What challenges does our community face as a result of its diversity or lack of diversity? Have students report their findings and recommend approaches to meeting the community’s needs, including ways to facilitate awareness and understanding of important or sensitive issues. Some ways students could report their findings include: write a report, create a bulletin board, plan a campaign or host a town hall meeting.

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.


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.