These thought-provoking texts help students answer the question, “Who am I?”
Growing up can sometimes be confusing. Kids in upper elementary school are figuring out who they are and who they want to be in relation to their family and friends. As teachers, we want to support our students as they grapple with these big questions about their identities!
Here is a great set of texts from CommonLit for grades 3–5 that focus on the theme of identity. This diverse selection includes poems, short stories, and an informational text.
“Masks” by Shel Silverstein (5th Grade)
In this famous poem, the speaker describes two people with blue skin who wear masks to hide their true selves. The mask wearers searched their whole lives for others like them, but because they kept their masks up, they were never able to connect. This poem is a great way to get students thinking about what it means to “fit in,” and if there are differences between the identity they show the world and who they are inside.
There are two other great poems by Shel Silverstein in the CommonLit library that could be paired with this text to further explore the theme of identity through poetry. In “Underface,” the speaker describes their “outside face,” which they show to the world, and their “underface,” which reveals their true emotions. “Yesees and Noees” is about three kinds of people who make different choices in life that lead to different outcomes. The three poems could all be used together to shape a discussion about different influences on our identities.
“Eleven” by Sandra Cisneros (5th Grade)
In this engaging short story, Rachel has just turned eleven but feels like she is much younger when her teacher thinks an ugly red sweater belongs to her. Rachel cries in front of her classmates, feeling like she is three years old while wishing she knew how to handle the situation. Students in upper elementary will find Rachel’s description of feeling “ten, and nine, and eight, and seven” at different times in the story highly relatable. This text can be used to start a meaningful discussion about how your students have changed as they have gotten older and how age shapes our identities.
As they read the text, have students follow the annotation task, which asks them to take notes on how the narrator reacts to the red sweater. After reading, students can discuss how Rachel’s age affects her identity. Then, they can share if they have experienced feeling younger than they actually were in that moment and what that felt like.
“Omer’s Big Dive” by Lucinda H. Kennaley (4th Grade)
Omer is excited and nervous about his first dive for pearls in the Arabian Gulf in this short story. The dive is a challenging one, but Omer is able to collect lots of oyster shells and proudly proclaims himself a pearl diver by the end of the story. This text provides a great opportunity for students to discuss that what we do, like being a reader or a soccer player, is part of our identity.
The video “Pearling in the UAE” under the Related Media tab provides more context for what it is like to be a pearl diver and why the tradition is important to families. Have students watch the video before reading the text to build background knowledge, or after reading the text to make connections to Omer’s experience in the story. Then, discuss the question, “Why do you think families in the Arabian Gulf care so much about passing pearl-diving down in a family? How is that similar or different from people in our community?”
“What We Eat is Who We Are” by Prana Joy Mandoe (5th Grade)
This informational text discusses the importance of traditional food to Hawaiian communities. Catching, growing, and eating foods like ‘opae, a native Hawaiian shrimp, and poi, the pounded root of the taro plant, are essential to Hawaiian life and culture. The author explores the threats facing important delicacies, like over-harvesting and pollution, and describes how Hawaiians across the islands are working together to protect the sources of their cultural foods.
Culture, including what we eat in our families and communities, is a huge part of our identities. After reading, have students make text-to-self connections by sharing what foods are part of who they are. Then, ask them to describe the significance of what they eat and how it shapes their identity.
“Peaches” by Adrienne Su (5th Grade)
In this poem by Chinese American author Adrienne Su, the speaker shares how her immigrant family bought peaches by the crate and always kept an extra freezer stocked with food. The speaker’s family stores a lot of food because her mother worries they could run out and wants to ensure her children are well-fed. She realizes that the American families around her do not have the same concern, which makes her feel like both an insider and an outsider in the United States.
This lesson is a great opportunity for students to consider the ways that our families affect our identities. Use the second Discussion Question in the lesson, “Is there anything your family does that makes them different?” as a way to have students think about what makes their families unique and make connections to the speaker’s experience in the poem.
“Blue-Sky Home” by Lisa Papademetriou (5th Grade)
Phoebe travels to Greece to spend time with her grandfather, who is excited to show her around his town. At first, Phoebe is uncomfortable in the unfamiliar country and with her grandfather’s insistence that she is Greek, not American. Phoebe comes to realize that her grandfather loves her and just wants to share the experience of being Greek with her. At the end of the story, she starts to appreciate the beauty of the country.
The annotation task for this lesson, which asks students to take notes on why Phoebe’s grandfather wants her to see the real Greece, helps students consider how our identities are shaped by our families and nationalities. After reading and taking notes, students could share their ideas about how their family’s background affects their identity.
Looking for more elementary texts or text sets on CommonLit? Browse the CommonLit Library!
If you’re interested in learning all about CommonLit’s free digital literacy program for elementary students, join one of our upcoming webinars!