Masks We Live In

A lesson on shame, expectations, and common humanity based off Fellow Ashanti Branch's work at the Ever Forward club

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This is from Day 4 of a weeklong emotional intelligence bootcamp called Real Life Real Leaders I ran for Palo Alto's Unified School District with 10 students ages 13-18. The following lesson takes about 1 hour to complete. I drew inspiration from fellow Ashanti Branch's incredible work with the Ever Forward Club

Topics Covered

  • Societal Expectations
  • Shame
  • Masks We Live In

Societal Expectations

In the first segment, we cover Societal Expectations through an experiential activity inspired by fellow Ashanti Branch.

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  • Time: 4 Minutes
  • Give students a piece of paper with a blank box frame
  • Draw a stick figure of yourself inside the box in any pose you want
  • In the blank space of the frame, write all the "Must's" and "Don'ts" that society puts on you. If students struggle with this, have them begin with the expectations family puts on them.
  • When done, tape their Box onto a whiteboard
  • Do a silent gallery walk when all students are done and have them look at others' Boxes, noting how they feel when they see these.
  • Note: You must MODEL for students by creating your own prior to the lesson, and sharing it with them.


Because we have all these societal expectations imposed on us, it's hard for us to be the authentic self who we actually want to be. There are parts of ourselves that are less understood and accepted by society, and as a result we feel ashamed of those parts of our identity. To explore that, I then show Brene Brown's video on Shame. 

After watching the video, I present the students a quote:

“Whatever is unnamed… will become not only unspoken, but unspeakable.”- Adrienne Rich


After talking about Shame and Societal Expectations, we now examine the masks we've put up to deal with these pressures, but also look inward to understand who we really are beneath the masks.

Masks Front (Examples)

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Masks Back (Examples)

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  • Time: 6 minutes
  • Give each student a blank piece of paper
  • For the front, draw a mask and write the words that answer the following prompt
  • Filling out the front: Draw a mask and write words / feelings in response to the following questions: 
    • How do you want the world to see you because of Societal Expectations?
    • What is the self you show to the world because of the "Must's" and "Don'ts"?
  • Filling out the back: Draw the inside of the mask and write words / feelings in response to the following questions:
    • What are the parts of you that you don’t talk about?
    • The things you don’t get a chance to express?
    • The parts you hide or pretend don’t exist?
    • The parts you’re ashamed about?
  • Note: You must MODEL for students by creating your own prior to the lesson, and sharing it with them.

Final Shareout

  • Note: This is Day 4 of a 5 day emotional bootcamp, so a lot of safety was built prior by enforcing confidentiality. 
  • The Confidentiality Agreement asserts that whatever is shared and discussed in the room, stays in the room. We are encouraging all to be vulnerable and thus it's important to create a safe container built on trust.
  • The reason why I have the 2nd person to the left and right of each sharing-student is to:
    • 1) prevent the adjacent students from spending more time thinking about what to say next vs being present for the student sharing
    • 2) to ensure every student gets heard and feels acknowledged / seen 
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  • Note: Students have had 3 days of intense practice noticing and sharing their feelings prior to this activity. The following Feelings Sheet was created to support those students throughout the week (especially for this final share out).
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We then end the activity with a group hug, and thank everyone for their vulnerability and sharing.

Feedback From Previous Students

How disappointed would you be if this program were no longer offered to future students?
Average (Mean): 9
Most Frequent (Mode): 10

How likely are you to recommend this to a classmate?
Average (Mean): 8.85
Most Frequent (Mode): 10

Calm Comfortable Hopeful Pleased
Warm-hearted Content Inspired Accepted

Student Quotes:

"The biggest thing I learned is that other people feel like society is imposing rules on them. I'm not alone"

"My biggest takeaway is that everyone has the pressure of being the way society wants you to be and I'm not alone"


Join the conversation:

Photo of Sagar Agrawal

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Photo of Old Friend

Ever to the laws of the live in from the several countries who have passed this law need some implement also on this law. We have to feel some shame to apply this law on the website about live in sections make to read in details.

Photo of Kim Vinh

How cool that you got to teach a weeklong emotional intelligence bootcamp. Were students chosen or nominated for that, or did they select that on their own? Was it during the school year or a summer offering? I wonder if any other schools offer this!

I used the film The Mask You Live In when I was teaching Macbeth last year. We had great conversations about gender roles (since Lady Macbeth keeps telling her husband to "man up") and this lesson would be a good next step. I do think it's harder to fit these kinds of lessons into other subject areas. Other teachers, where else could this lesson fit in your curriculum?

Photo of Norman Tran

Students were all informed of the opportunity, and those interested would apply through a short questionnaire. The goal of the program was to seek out disadvantaged students, however, and prioritize them over students who were more privileged (i.e. were already going to attend summer enrichment programs on their own). 

I love your question of where the lesson might fit into other subjects! I think these exercises fit well under Humanities, but less so in STEM classes. Social Studies and Literature are probably the most opportune for bringing social emotional learning into the curriculum.

Photo of Valerie Lewis

I really like this activity and I wonder how open students were to share about their innermost and honest feelings. Do you suspect that there could be any pushback from administration or parents although you have defined this appropriate for high schoolers? How might it be modified for younger students?

Photo of Norman Tran

The trust definitely takes time to build. I had 3 days prior to this of icebreakers, and activities for students to get to know each other in increasingly deep ways. There definitely is a fear among students of "I don't want to be the only one, so I'll wait for others to speak first" which creates a dynamic of total silence. To counteract that, have them share their reactions / feelings in pairs or triads or even small groups as opposed to the big group. I have seen this work much better in getting them to share their innermost and honest feelings.

If there is pushback from administration or parents, I could see concerns of:
- safety
- relevance
- time required of staff to teach the lesson

 Because I received training from Stanford and Mindful Schools, this is usually not the concern with parents. But with any other teacher trying to use this, they might have to discuss the relevant credential pieces around facilitation, childhood development, and safety-building have prepared

The program was designed specifically in partnership with Palantir (a software company with a Corporate Social Responsibility arm dedicated to education) and the Palo Alto Unified School District to bridge the achievement gap during summers, where privileged students attend additional enrichment activities while underserved students do not have such luxury. We framed the program around leadership development and 21st century skills that are required in the modern workplace. The parents of the students were highly satisfied with the learnings students shared with them.

This will be dependent on schools. Ours was a 1-week summer program, so we had the luxury of less constraints of time. For most schools, I imagine some kind of Advisory program, after-school program, or Assembly could be an opportune time to teach this class. As long as the student:facilitator ratio is kept roughly between 1:9 to 1:15, it should work.

For younger grades, I would reduce the scope of the frame from "Society" to "Parent" expectations, and give students more guided categories. For example, in the "Get Me Out Of This Box Man," I might give students some categories: Food, Clothes, Hobbies, Music, Friends, Dreams. Students can then think of parental expectations based on those 6 categories instead of a blank canvas. 

The Masks We Live In exercise, I suspect, can still be done with middle schoolers given the richness and complexities of their lives even at that age. Things like bullying, appearance, who-has-the-latest-tech, apps people use, and grades are all things on their mind. That stuff may come up in the exercise, and again, those categories can be given to students to scaffold the activity.