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Who am I? Exploring Identity Through Self-Portraits (lesson plan)


Students will analyze the impact of world and cultural events on individual and perceived identity as portrayed in self-portraits. Students will create dramatic monologues as a way to unpack Silence of Thought #2 by Lalla Essaydi and explore and analyze world and cultural events related to the time period. Students will then create self-portraits that reflect how historical and cultural events have impacted their lives.

Created by A+ Schools of NC

Grade Levels
9th Grade
NC Standards Correlations
World History
Visual Arts
English Language Arts
RL.11-12.5, RL.11-12.1
BC.1.1, BC.1.2, BC.1.3

Artwork Related to this Lesson

  • Silence of Thought #2

    Silence of Thought #2, by Lalla Essaydi

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Student Learning Objectives

  1. Students will be able to analyze character, setting, author’s craft, and author’s purpose in a photograph.
  2. Students will embody abstract ideas in a dramatic monologue.
  3. Students will craft an analytical response using research, performance, and information from a non-print text as evidence to prove arguments.
  4. Student will plan and create an autobiographical photograph that conveys the cultural, historical, and world impacts on their lives.
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Pre-assessment – Instructions to Students: 

In your group, examine the photograph and create a one minute dramatic monologue in the voice of one aspect of the photograph. Use the questions below to guide your monologue’s creation. Your monologue, voice volume, facial expressions, and body posture should reflect the aspect of the photograph you are embodying. Take 3-5 minutes to prepare your monologues and present them to your small group. Your group members may ask you clarifying questions after your monologue that you will need to answer in character. Choose one:

    • The character in the photo: From what you see in the photograph, who am I? How old am I? What do I do every day? What is my life like? What volume of voice do I speak in? Am I dramatic or reserved in my actions? Why? What facial or body expressions do I display while speaking (I am the character, and I am ___ years old, I like___, I dislike___ etc.) 
    • The character’s actions: How is the character acting? What feelings do these actions convey? What volume of voice do the actions speak in? Are they boisterous or demure? Why? What facial or body expressions do the actions display while speaking?  Why? (I am the character’s actions, and I am ___ing, ___ing, and ___ing. I feel ___, etc.)
    • The setting of the photo: Where is the character? Why might the character be there? How does the setting feel? What volume of voice does the setting speak in? What is its energy when it speaks? Why? What facial or body expressions does the setting have while it talks? (I am the setting, and I am created from___, when someone walks into me it feels___because___)
    • The artist’s purpose: What is the artist’s purpose for creating the photograph? What message is she sending? How does that message feel? Why? What volume of voice does the purpose or message speak in? Why? What facial or body expressions does the purpose/message of the photograph have while it talks? (I am the author’s purpose, and I am here to reveal that___because___)
    • The artist’s craft: How did the artist craft the picture? Through what medium? Where did the artist place the objects in the picture? Why? Why is there writing on the character? What kind of lighting did the author use to create the picture? Why? What are the colors?  What volume of voice does the artist’s craft speak in? Why? Why did she choose to use these colors? What facial or body expressions does the artist’s craft have while it talks? Is the craft joyous or somber? (I am the artist’s craft, and I am made up of___the reason for this is to make the viewer feel___)

Research and Creation:

  1. In their performance groups, direct students to utilize at least three reliable sources (see the resource section of this lesson plan) to research Lalla Essaydi’s life and create a timeline depicting the major events from 1993 to 2013 (the decade before and after the photograph was created) that may have shaped her identity. Students should list the sources they use on the back of their timeline.  
  2. Next, ask students to utilize at least three reliable sources to research the major world and cultural events from the early 1900’s until 2003 in the regions Essaydi lived and grew up. Students should decipher the events that may have impacted Essaydi’s identity and the creation of her art, then add these events to the timeline. The sources students use should be detailed on the back of the timeline.   
  3. Ask students to write individual analytical responses interpreting and analyzing how cultural and historical events impacted Essaydi’s decisions for crafting her art. Students may use information from the research, timeline, and dramatic interpretation of the photograph as evidence to prove the arguments in their responses. Prompt students: What historical and cultural events influenced Essaydi’s craft, and what impact is created through these choices? Now that you’ve researched the artist’s life and major events from the area she is from, how would you change the monologue you created?
  4. Tell students that they will now model the process of making autobiographical art that reflects historical and cultural influences. Ask students to create a personal timeline that pairs relevant historical and cultural events with milestones in their life. Students may wish to consider the places they’ve lived and the local or world events that have impacted them the most.  
  5. Have students answer the following brainstorming questions to prepare for directing a self-portrait reflecting the cultural and historical impacts on their life:
    • What three historical or cultural events have had the greatest impact on your identity?  
    • How has each event impacted you?    
    • What three props might reflect each event or how it has impacted you?
    • What setting best symbolically reflects the meaning and feelings of the impacts of the world events on my life? (For example: is your setting blue sky to reflect freedom and happiness or a crowded room to reflect confinement?)
    • What sort of lighting might you use to convey the impact of the events on your life?  
    • What texts might you write on your body that reflect the cultural and historical impacts on your life?  
  6. Have students take a photo of themselves in which the setting, body posture, and props reflect how historical events have impacted their life. (Note: you will need to print photos for your students for the final step) .
  7. Once they receive their photograph, direct students to emulate Essaydi’s work by writing the stories or texts reflective of their or culture directly onto the photograph. Students may write this text using language that feels comfortable to them.    


Have students take a walk around the displayed gallery observing each picture. Ask students to choose a picture that speaks to them or affects them in some way. 


Students write an analytical response to the photograph they chose. Prompt students: What historical and cultural events influenced (Student’s Name) craft, and what impact is created through their choices?


Written by A+ Fellow Heather Barto Wiley


  • Pre-Assessment:Teacher will circulate during dramatic monologue preparation and performance clarifying any questions. Students should display a symbolic voice volume, facial expression, and body language while conveying their monologue. They should answer all questions in character when interviewed by their group members.  
  • Students will utilize three reliable sources and analyze the validity of the sources to research Essaydi’s life and the world/cultural events that occurred that may have affected her during her lifetime. Six reliable sources will be listed on the back of the timeline.  
  • The written response will define the impacts of the cultural and historical events from Essaydi’s life and use evidence from the research, performance, Silence of Thought #2, and the timeline to prove and explain the argument.
  • The brainstorming questions should be reflected in or have evolved into the autobiographical photograph. The teacher will circulate, assist, and assess students’ answers to the pre-crafting questions. The teacher will encourage students to deepen their thoughts about composing their photograph in the pre-planning stage.
  • The photograph should be assessed for: craftsmanship (framing/rule of thirds/focus/lighting/creativity; clear evidence of text to image correlation through choice of setting and subject matter; completion (a parts of the project are completed).
  • Post-Assessment:The written response will define the impacts of the cultural and historical events from the student’s life and use evidence from the student’s photograph to prove and explain the argument.

Lesson Resources

Vocabulary defined

Identity, Craft, Analyze, Gauge, Impact, Medium, Dramatic Monologue

Materials with specifics

  • One NCMALearn print of Lalla Essaydi’s Silence of Thought #2 
  • Two pieces of lined paper per student for creating the written responses
  • One pencil per student for creating the written responses
  • One black pen or fine-point sharpie per student for writing on the autobiographical photograph
  • Cell phones, digital cameras, or computers to take the self-portraits
  • Devices on which to complete research
  • One pack of printer paper on which to print student photographs
  • Printer
  • Teacher example self-portrait for modeling the creation process and creative choices

Advance prep

In advance of the lesson, the teacher should: 

  • Divide students into small groups
  • Become familiar with Essaydi’s art, biography, and the major historical impacts that may have affected her art
  • Create model answers to the questions that students will answer to craft their photograph 
  • Create a model photo of the project
  • Create a model piece of writing that analyzes the autobiographical photo
  • Prepare a process for the students to submit their photographs so they might be printed (email, digital submission, etc)
  • Determine the best way to print the photographs
  • Create a rubric for assessing the written responses

Set-up on day of lesson

  • Display the poster print of the photograph in a central location in the classroom in a way that piques students’ interest.  
  • Have pencils, pens, and devices readily available for use

Resources for researching Essaydi’s life and art

Resources at the Met on understanding calligraphy in Islamic art

Lesson extensions

  • Define the role of women in various world cultures and how women’s roles have changed over time
  • Explore the role and purpose of calligraphy in Islamic art

Grade level adaptations

  • American History II: Consider the role of Arab-American Women in American society, or the impact of immigration on shaping identity


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Partner Organization A+ Schools of NC