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        Identity and Intersecting Perspectives: Between the World and Me | MacArthur Fellows Program

        In this lesson, students will explore how our complex identities shape our understanding and experience of our world. Through video interviews with a diverse range of MacArthur Fellowship recipients and an excerpt from Ta-Nehisi Coates’s essay “Between the World and Me,” students will map their own multiple “identities” and use the lens of Intersectionality to examine how each of these identities intersects with and influences their interactions and perceptions. Using Coates’s epistolary style as inspiration, students will share their own experience of identity and Intersectionality in an epistolary poem. 

        This resource is part of the MacArthur Fellows Program Collection.

        Lesson Summary

        Time Allotment

        90-120 minutes + Assignments (Approximately two to three 45-minute class periods)

        Learning Objectives

        Students will:

        • Map their own identities and examine how identity shapes their experiences and perceptions
        • Examine how the complex concept of identity has shaped the work of a variety of MacArthur Fellows
        • Understand and describe the meaning and origin of Intersectionality
        • Analyze and discuss the themes of identity in Ta-Nehisi Coates’s “Between the World and Me
        • Create and present an epistolary poem about their own experience of identity and Intersectionality

        Prep for Teachers

        Prior to teaching this lesson, you will need to:

        • Familiarize yourself with the MacArthur Fellows Program Overview and interview videos
        • Print out Student Handouts and prepare Teacher Handouts
        • Review the resources for Epistolary Poetry (see Teacher Resources)
        • Prepare the multimedia projector for Learning Activities 3 & 4
        • Prepare activity supplies
        • Print out excerpt from the Atlantic Magazine article “Letter to My Son” (from the book Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates)
        • The excerpt begins and ends as follows:
          • Begins: “Some things were clear to me: The violence that undergirded the country, so flagrantly on display during Black History Month, and the intimate violence of the streets were not unrelated…”
          • Ends: “…We were individuals, a one of one, and when we died there was nothing.”

        Notes about discussing sensitive material:

        This lesson and the accompanying videos and reading materials address sensitive social and political issues. Teachers should screen the videos and review all of the related materials prior to facilitating the lesson.

        Remind the class that this is a supportive environment and review the classroom’s tools for creating a safe space. These might include guidelines like “no name-calling,” “no interrupting,” “listen without judgment,” “share to your level of comfort,” “you have the right to pass,” etc. And remind students that when they talk about groups of people, they should be careful to use the word “some,” not “all.”

        Adapted from:


        Media Resources:

        Videos for use with the lesson plan Learning Activity 3:

        • Alison Bechdel: Cartoonist and graphic memoirist Bechdel is expanding the expressive potential of the graphic form in intricate narratives that explore the complexities of sexual identity and familial relationships.
        • Ta-Nehisi Coates: Coates is a journalist interpreting complex and challenging issues around race and racism through the lens of personal experience and nuanced historical analysis.
        • Junot Díaz: Fiction writer using raw, vernacular dialogue and spare, unsentimental prose to draw readers into the various and distinct worlds that immigrants must straddle.

        Videos for Extension Activities and for additional lesson plan support, as needed:

        • Sarah Deer: Legal Scholar and Advocate Sarah Deer is developing policies and legislation that are empowering tribal authorities and reshaping the landscape of support and protection for Native American women at risk for domestic and sexual violence.
        • LaToya Ruby Frazier: LaToya Ruby Frazier is a Photographer and Video Artist capturing the consequences of postindustrial decline for marginalized communities and illustrating how photography can promote dialogue about historical change and social responsibility.
        • Ai-Jen Poo: Labor Organizer Ai-jen Poo is catalyzing a vibrant, worker-led movement for improved working conditions and labor standards for domestic or private-household workers.
        • Matthew Desmond: Matthew Desmond is an urban sociologist revealing the impact of eviction on poor families and the role of housing policy in sustaining poverty and racial inequality in large American cities.
        • Mary L. Bonauto: Civil Rights Lawyer Mary L. Bonauto is breaking down legal barriers based on sexual orientation and gender identity to equal treatment under the law for all, and working to secure the freedom to marry for same-sex couples and the protections, obligations, and dignity marriage affords.
        • Jennifer Eberhardt: Social Psychologist Jennifer L. Eberhardt is investigating the subtle, complex, largely unconscious yet deeply ingrained ways that individuals racially code and categorize people and the far-reaching consequences of stereotypic associations between race and crime.
        • Jonathan Rapping: Criminal Lawyer Jonathan Rapping is safeguarding the essential democratic right of every American to high-quality legal representation by transforming the practice of indigent defense in the South through training, mentorship, and community. /li>
        • Carrie Mae Weems: Photographer and video installation artist examining the complex and contradictory legacy of African American identity, class, and culture in the United States.
        • Kyle Abraham: Choreographer and dancer probing the relationship between identity and personal history through a unique hybrid of traditional and vernacular dance styles that speaks to a new generation of dancers and audiences.
        • Marie-Therese Connolly: Elder Rights Lawyer raising awareness about and seeking solutions to the largely hidden but immense problems of elder abuse and neglect.
        • Roland Fryer: Economist offering new insight into such issues as racial discrimination, labor market inequalities, and educational underachievement and illuminating the causes and consequences of economic disparity in American society.
        • Rebecca Onie: Onie is a public health entrepreneur building a low-cost, replicable model called Project HEALTH that melds the aspirations of college students and the unmet needs of health-care institutions to address the link between poverty and poor health.
        • Wafaa El-Sadr: Wafaa El-Sadr is an infectious disease specialist who has developed a multi-pronged approach to treating some of the most pressing pandemics of our time — HIV/AIDS and tuberculosis (TB) — diseases that disproportionately afflict people with the least access to quality health care.

        Student Handouts:

        Teacher Resources:

        Equipment and Supplies:

        • Computers with Internet access
        • LCD projector
        • Speakers
        • White butcher paper/kraft Paper (1 sheet per student + extras)
        • Sticky notes (enough for about 15 per student) or small squares of paper and tape
        • Whiteboard/ blackboard, markers/chalk
        • Pen and writing paper

        Web Sites:


        Epistolary Poem: A poem written in the form of a letter or correspondence

        Intersectionality: The interconnected nature of social categorizations such as race, class, and gender as they apply to a given individual or group, regarded as creating overlapping and interdependent systems of discrimination or disadvantage (Adapted from

        Memoir: A narrative composed from personal experience

        Vocabulary for Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates:

        Howard University: A prominent, historically black university that has been open to people of both sexes and all races since it was founded in 1867

        Jim Crow: State and local laws enforcing racial segregation in the United States beginning in the Reconstruction period through 1965

        One-drop rule: A social and legal principle of racial classification in the United States dating from the slavery era asserting that any person with even one ancestor of African ancestry ("one drop" of black blood) is considered black (Adapted from “Who is Black? One Nation's Definition” by F. James Davis)

        Introductory Activity

        Introductory Activity: Who am I? (5 minutes)

        1. Do Now: Who am I?
          Write the word “Identity” on the board and have students free-write the definition for this word in their own words. Have students share their responses.
        2. Ask for volunteers to look up definitions for “Identity” and incorporate the student’s responses into a collective working definition for the term.

        Learning Activities

        Learning Activity 1: Identity Mapping (25 minutes)

        1. Ask students to think about how they would describe their own identity. Give them two minutes to brainstorm a list of words and terms that describe their identity. They can describe/illustrate their identities in words, drawings, symbols, etc. Encourage them to get creative!
        2. Distribute a sheet of butcher paper, a marker, and tape to each student. Have them hang the large sheet of paper on a wall, draw a circle in the center of the paper, and write their name inside the circle. (Facilitator tip: Butcher paper works best for this activity but students can also create their maps on blank writing paper.)
        3. Ask students to review their list and look for similarities and connections. Have them think about how they would organize them into groups/categories. (Examples can include: family, social group, age, political affiliation, religion, racial/ethnic identity, recreational activities, talents/skills, health/ability, body, economic class, geographic identity, language)
        4. Distribute sticky-notes and have students select a color for each identity category. Students should write each word/term/drawing from their list on a separate sticky note in the appropriate color. (If a word/term/drawing falls in more than one category, students can write it on multiple sticky notes.)
        5. Students should place the notes on the butcher paper around their name. The more significant identities should be placed closer to their name and less significant ones farther away from their name.
        6. Have students share their maps with a partner, explain their identity “categories,” and give and receive feedback. (Students can use this opportunity to refine their map by adding identities and reorganizing their categories.)
        7. Convene the class and have students do a gallery walk.
        8. Discuss:
          • What surprised you?
          • What identities and categories appeared most frequently? (Example: Did most people include “student” as an identity?)
          • What was the most valuable feedback you got from your partner? How did it help you refine your map?
          • What did you appreciate the most about another student’s map?
          • After seeing the other Identity Maps, would you make any further changes to your map? What would you add, edit, or reorganize?
          • How did we group our categories? What categories did we identify?
          • What did you discover during this activity?

        Learning Activity 2: How our identity shapes our experience (15 minutes)

        1. Distribute Student Handout 1: Identity and Experience to each student. Explain that they should review their Identity Map and:
          • Select three identities that are most significant to them (How do I see myself?)
          • Select the three identities that they believe are most significant to other people (How do other people see me?)
        2. Ask students to raise their hands if their two lists of identities are the same (and if they are different). Why do we often see ourselves differently than other people do?
        3. Have students complete the rest of the handout: They will briefly describe situations when they are comfortable and uncomfortable in each of their identities.
        4. Request volunteers to share their responses. (Students are welcome to share their results from this handout or keep it private.)
        5. Have students organize in pairs or small groups and discuss the following (they can speak generally or share their own experiences):
          • How can different aspects of a person’s identity be perceived/responded to differently in different situations? (Give at least three examples)
        6. Facilitator note: Students will refer back to these responses for the Culminating Activity.

        Learning Activity 3: Meet the MacArthur Fellows (20 minutes)

        1. Explain that the class will be introduced to The MacArthur Fellowship Program and the stories of award recipients.
        2. Meet the MacArthur Fellows: Distribute copies of the MacArthur Fellows Program Overview or ask for volunteers to read it out loud. (Optional: Play the MacArthur Fellows Program video and follow with a brief reflection and discussion.)
        3. Instruct students to take notes while watching the MacArthur Fellow interviews and write down quotes and examples of the Fellows talking about how identity shapes their work and personal experiences.
        4. Play the interviews with the following MacArthur Fellows:
        5. Discuss:
          1. How have the MacArthur Fellows’ identities shaped their experiences?
          2. In what ways do these experiences inspire and influence their work?

        Learning Activity 4: Intersecting Perspectives (15 minutes)

        1. Explain: As we have seen, we all have multiple identities that shape and influence our perception and experience of the world in positive and negative ways.
        2. Project Teacher Handout 1: Intersectionality and read the summary to the class or ask for volunteers:

          In 1989, Kimberlé Crenshaw (now a Professor of Law at UCLA and Columbia Law School) was thinking about the multiple forces of discrimination Black women experience in America. She noticed that there were college classes and social justice organizations that addressed racial discrimination but they often focused on the experiences of Black men. Similarly, women’s rights resources looked at feminism from the perspective of White women. In both circumstances, Black women’s complex stories and experiences were silenced or missing. Ms. Crenshaw, coined the term Intersectionality to describe the multiple, intersecting systems of oppression that black women experience.

          Since then, the term Intersectionality has expanded. According to, Intersectionality is “the interconnected nature of social categorizations such as race, class, and gender as they apply to a given individual or group, regarded as creating overlapping and interdependent systems of discrimination or disadvantage.”

        3. Project and review the Infographic, “Intersectionality: A Fun Guide”
        4. Have students pair-up and give them five minutes to write a summary of Intersectionality in their own words. Invite volunteers to share their summaries.

        Learning Activity 5: Between the World and Me (20-40 minutes)
        Facilitator note: To save class time, the following reading can be assigned as a take-home assignment prior to the lesson.

        1. Distribute printed excerpts from Ta-Nehisi Coates’ “Letter to My Son” (Reprinted in The Atlantic from Coates’ book Between the World and Me) and Student Handout 2: Between the World and Me.
        2. Explain:
          We will read an excerpt from Between the World and Me (2015), a book-length essay by MacArthur Fellow Ta-Nehisi Coates, written in the style of a letter to his teenage son, Samori. In his book, Coates describes the evolution of his views on constructions of race and explains his physical and mental experience of being a black man in America today.

          (Teacher note: Students can read the excerpt independently or take turns reading it out loud with a partner. They should discuss the handout together but each student should complete her/his own worksheet. This reading activity can also be offered as a take-home assignment.)

        3. When they complete the reading and handout, have the class form small discussion groups (make sure the reading pairs are now working in separate groups). Groups should share their responses from the handout, then discuss the following:
          In this excerpt from Between the World and Me, Ta-Nehisi Coates talks about how his understanding of his identity as a black man in America and race in general transformed during his time at Howard University.
          Discuss the following:
          • How did Coates’ description of his experience at Howard University illustrate an evolving Intersectional perspective?

        Culminating Activity

        Culminating Activity: Epistolary Poem (10 minutes + writing assignment)

        1. Explain: Ta-Nehisi Coates shared his experience of identity and Intersectionality in the form of a letter to his son. Using his work as inspiration, students will share their experience of identity and Intersectionality in an epistolary poem (a poem in the form of a letter). Have students refer back to their responses from Student Handout 1: Identity and Experience for inspiration. In their writing they can further explore how they experience their identities and why that experience changes in different contexts.
          • Option 1: Students can select a MacArthur Fellow whose identity, story, and/or area of work Intersects with her/his own experience and interests and address their Epistolary Poem to that Fellow.
          • Option 2: Students can select two or more aspects of their Intersectional Identity and write an Epistolary Poem that speaks to those “selves.”
        2. Poems can be completed and refined as homework and through peer feedback.
        3. Completed poems can be performed, collected in a class poetry book, or published on the classroom webpage.

          Resources for writing an Epistolary poem:

        Extension Lessons

        1. The Bechdel Test: In 1985, Alison Bechdel wrote a story for her comic Dykes to Watch Out For called “The Rule.” In the story, two women talk about going to see a movie and one explains that she will only watch films that satisfy three simple criteria:
          1. it has to have at least two women in it, who
          2. who talk to each other, about
          3. something besides a man
          This became known as The Bechdel Test (or The Bechdel–Wallace Test) and has become a popular way to gauge a movie's gender diversity.
          “The Rule” by Alison Bechdel:

          Since then, other tools, like the Mako Mori Test and the Vito Russo Test have been developed to refine the examination of the broad spectrum of diversity in popular media. Have your students:

          • Research the history and motivation for The Bechdel Test and later media diversity evaluation tools
          • Evaluate the relative effectiveness of these tools by applying their criteria to various media
          • Identify areas of Intersectional diversity that are not assessed in existing tests refine and/or create a new “test” in the style of the Bechdel Test
          • Debate the value, effectiveness, and necessity of these tests
        2. Letters on Race and Justice: Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” was written in 1963 and is one of the most influential works on race and justice in American Civil Rights History. Have students read Dr. King’s work and compare his message and arguments with Coates’ Between the World and Me. Have students write a letter in response to both King and Coates.
          • What power or message is conveyed by composing both of these texts in the form of a letter?
          • How far have we come in the past 50 years?
          • What work is yet to be done?


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