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        Iris | Lesson Plan: On Individuality

        In this lesson, students explore the concept of individuality and how people manifest and then sustain the uniqueness of who they are. After viewing clips from the documentary Iris, students delve into what makes them unique individuals.

        Lesson Summary

        In this lesson, students explore the concept of individuality and how people manifest and then sustain the uniqueness of who they are. After viewing clips from the documentary Iris, students delve into what makes them unique individuals.

        The video clips provided with this lesson are from Iris, a film that pairs the late documentarian Albert Maysles (Grey Gardens, Gimme Shelter), then 87, with Iris Apfel, the quick-witted, flamboyantly dressed then-93-year-old style maven who has been an outsized presence on the New York fashion scene for decades. More than a fashion film, the documentary is a story about creativity and how a soaring free spirit continues to inspire. Iris portrays a singular woman whose enthusiasm for fashion, art and people are her sustenance. She reminds us that dressing and indeed, life is nothing but a grand experiment. If your're lucky enough to do something you love, everything else follows.”

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        Time Allotment

        One 50-minute class period (plus homework assignment and review during class)

        Learning Objectives

        By the end of this lesson, students will be able to:

        • Define individuality and how it is exhibited
        • Explain how individuality is developed and sustained
        • Describe potential challenges to maintaining individuality
        • Recognize the unique qualities and characteristics that contribute to their own individuality


        • Film clips from Iris and equipment on which to show them
        • Chart paper and markers
        • Masking tape
        • Copies of Song Excerpts handout (see below) either as one full set of songs or separated into individual songs (the other option is to transfer each song excerpt to a sheet of chart paper to be posted in the classroom)

        Introductory Activity

        Step 1: Distribute or post the lyrics of the songs/spoken-word listed below for students to analyze. (If distributed, small groups can receive one set of lyrics to read and discuss; if posted around the classroom, small groups can walk to each set to read and discuss). Ask students what the essence of the lyrics seems to be (i.e., being yourself, not following the crowd, uniqueness, individuality).

        Do My Thing

        Am I Wrong

        Spoken word by Kendrick Lamar
        Note that this is a commercial for Reebok. Students should focus on the spoken word, not on the commercial itself.


        Everybody Got Their Something
        Nikka Costa

        Believe In Me
        Demi Lovato

        If You Want to Sing Out, Sing Out
        Cat Stevens

        Learning Activities

        Step 2: Write INDIVIDUALITY on chart paper or on a whiteboard/Smart Board. Ask students to reflect on the song lyrics and, using their understanding of individuality, to define the term. (OPTIONAL: The cooperative popcorn method can be used here: After students have reflected for a bit, the instructor says popcorn, inviting students to pop up voluntarily and quickly to offer responses. Seated students write down these responses.) Drawing on the various definitions, students come to consensus on one.

        Step 3: Share one definition of individuality from a trusted source (e.g., that will resonate with students. Probe with students how individuality comes to be.

        Step 4: Explain that the class will have an opportunity to become familiar with a very unique individual, Iris Apfel. (Some students might recognize her from a photo.) Offer background on Iris and show the clips.

        As students watch, have them jot down qualities and sayings that illustrate Iris's individuality.

        Step 5: After viewing the clips, pose some or all of the following discussion questions:

        • How does Iris demonstrate her individuality?
        • In what ways does Iris defy or ignore what others expect of her or what society identifies as acceptable behavior?
        • Is it difficult to develop and then hold on to individuality? What might be some of the obstacles to establishing one's individuality? What might be some of the difficulties people face when they are different from the norm (they do not conform or follow the crowd)?
        • Does everyone develop individuality? Discuss. What can prevent people from expressing their individuality?
        • Do you consider yourself a unique individual? Explain. (Prompts can include the way people think, how they dress, activities in which they participate, the way they interact with other people and so on.)
        • Why does being an individual matter? What are the benefits of expressing one's individuality?

        Culminating Activity

        Step 6: Tell students they will share personal qualities they believe best demonstrate their individuality. Each student can choose a preferred format for self-expression. For example, students might:

        • Do a self-portrait in any style
        • Take a selfie in certain attire, at a specific venue and/or participating in an activity that best represents their uniqueness
        • Write song lyrics, a poem, an essay or otherwise express those qualities in writing
        • Create a schematic map that highlights the qualities/characteristics that make them unique

        In their work, students should illustrate how they maintain their individuality despite what is expected of them. Encourage students to think about a variety of qualities, behaviors, characteristics and so on that illustrate what makes them stand out as unique individuals. NOTE: It might be useful to focus on a specific category in order for students to avoid overly personal concepts and/or cross certain boundaries. If a class can negotiate what might be beyond its comfort zone, then any category would work.

        Assignment: Students can work on their presentations. Consider giving students a few days to complete them and then assign a due date. Students can post their projects in class. (If projects are media-based, see if a computer can be made available for showing videos or slideshows.)

        Modification: To modify the lesson not to include an assignment, give students time in-class to write short poems, songs or responses. The forms, lengths and styles of the pieces can demonstrate their individuality and the qualities brainstormed earlier in the lesson.

        Optional: If the lesson can be extended, conduct a gallery walk that has students look at all of the projects and share what emerges about individuality. Probe with them what they thus conclude about the role of individuality in their lives, in the lives of others and in society at large.


        1. Re-envisioning Beauty (High school)
        Have students work in small groups to define beauty (include qualifiers such as physical and intellectual attributes). As a class, students apply each group's definitions to come to a group understanding of what beauty is.

        Ask students how Iris redefines what standard views of beauty are (in the United States), and in that context, what it means for people to be beautiful as they age. What is the common view about aging and beauty? How does Iris contradict that perspective? And why is this contradiction an important statement?

        Ask students to revisit their reflections to assess whether their perceptions of beauty are representative of the many ways people are beautiful across age ranges. Brainstorm ways to alter current standards of beauty, outlining a campaign they can undertake in school that jumpstarts this re-envisioning.

        2. Clothes As Art? (Middle and high school)
        The film points to Iris's style of dress as the intersection between fashion, interior design and art. Iris is identified as a rare bird of fashion. Might she also be a rare bird of art? Students explore the idea of whether sporting a certain type of clothing—worn in specific ways—is possibly also an art form.

        Have students discuss how or whether Iris's clothing can be considered art. In small groups, students can look at clothing from different cultures, clothing exhibitions (such as the exhibition of outfits from Iris's collection at the Costume Institute of the Metropolitan Museum of Art), people wearing non-traditional clothing, models wearing designers' creations, the outfits of performers like Lady Gaga and so on to determine whether clothing, under certain circumstances, is less about style and fashion and more about art. Each group presents its perspective in a format/style of its choice. In the presentation, students must explain whether worn clothing can be art, using evidence to support their perspectives.

        Questions to be considered:

        • If clothing that people wear (sometimes referred to as wearable art) can be art, what does/can it represent?
        • Why wouldn't someone consider clothing art?
        • Why might a person use his or her clothing as an artistic form of individuality?
        • What statements—artistic, political, social, cultural—can a person make with his or her clothing?

        To jumpstart their exploration, they might read one or more of the following:

        3. Individualism vs. Individuality: What's the Difference? (High school)
        Students might think that individuality and individualism are the same. But they are distinctly different. They can explore these differences, and also familiarize themselves with the ideology of Individualism and debate whether it is valuable to society. The following are some of the many websites a teacher can use for background on the concept of Individualism:


        POV: Iris
        The film's official POV site includes a discussion guide with additional activity ideas and resources.

        Magnolia Pictures
        The Magnolia PicturesIriswebsite provides information on the film, special features, a press kit and photo gallery, plus additional clips.

        Maysles Films Inc.
        The Maysles Films, Inc. site forIrisincludes a synopsis of the film and links to information on Albert Maysles, his filmography and other resources.

        Maysles Documentary Center
        The Maysles Documentary Center is a non-profit organization promoting documentary films as a catalyst for dialogue and action. The website includes information on their educational programming, memberships and film screenings.

        Peabody Essex Museum: Iris Apfel: All Dolled Up
        An interactive feature from the Peabody Essex Museum allows users to create outfits with items from Iris' collection. The Peabody Essex Museum website has additional information on their ‘Rare Bird of Sahion: The Irreverent Iris Apfel' exhibition website:

        POV: Media Literacy Questions for Analyzing POV Films
        This list of questions provides a useful starting point for leading rich discussions that challenge students to think critically about documentaries.


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