Robert Downey, Jr. and Maggie Gyllenhaal

Lesson Plan – Tradition & Identity

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LESSON TITLE: Tradition & Identity

GRADE LEVEL: Grades 9-12

TIME ALLOTMENT: Two to three 45-minute class periods


In this lesson, students will explore the ways in which family narratives are woven into individual identity, as illustrated by Dr. Henry Louis Gates, Jr.’s revelation to actress Maggie Gyllenhaal of her own family roots in Episode Six of Finding Your Roots.

In the Introductory Activity, students are asked to plot out the different sources of their own “identity factors” and discuss what their responses may reveal about the relative influence of family upbringing, community values, genetic inheritance, and individual choice. In the Learning Activities, students explore five different family narratives for Maggie Gyllenhaal and their relative impact on her sense of identity. In the Culminating Activity, students are asked to interview a parent or other older relative to compare his or her sense of identity against their own, and suggest explanations for the generational differences.

This lesson is best used as part of or an introduction to a unit on genealogy or personal identity.


Social Studies; Psychology; Sociology; History


After completing this lesson, students will be able to:

– Weigh the relative influence of family upbringing, community values, genetic inheritance, and individual choice in an individual’s sense of identity.

– Theorize on why genealogy is more important to some individuals than others

– Discuss the significance of narrative in family history and suggest why it is so subject to embellishment and/or romanticization.

– Explain why certain family ancestry is more easily traced—either by traditional or technological methods—than others.

– Discuss how traditions are created, how they evolve, and how they sometimes come to be rejected.


National Standards for High School Psychology Curricula

– Sociocultural Context Domain

After concluding this unit, students understand:

Content Standard 1: Social cognition
Students are able to (performance standards):

– Describe attributional explanations of behavior.

Content Standard 2: Social influence
Students are able to (performance standards):

– 2.2 Describe effects of others’ presence on individuals’ behavior.

– 2.3 Describe how group dynamics influence behavior.

– 2.4 Discuss how an individual influences group behavior.

Content Standard 3: Social relations
Students are able to (performance standards):

– 3.1 Discuss the nature and effects of stereotyping, prejudice, and discrimination.

– 3.2 Describe determinants of prosocial behavior.

– 3.3 Discuss influences upon aggression and conflict.

– 3.4 Discuss factors influencing attraction and relationships.

Sociocultural Diversity

After concluding this unit, students understand:

Content Standard 1: Social and cultural diversity
Students are able to (performance standards):

– Define culture and diversity.

– Identify how cultures change over time and vary within nations as well as internationally.

– Discuss the relationship between culture and conceptions of self and identity.

– 1.6 Discuss how privilege and social power structures relate to stereotypes, prejudice, and discrimination.


After concluding this unit, students understand:

Content Standard 3: Issues in personality
Students are able to (performance standards):

– 3.1 Discuss biological and situational influences.

– 3.2 Discuss stability and change.

– 3.4 Discuss self-concept.

– 3.5 Analyze how individualistic and collectivistic cultural perspectives relate to personality.

Common Core English Language Arts Standards » History/Social Studies » Grades 11-12

Key Ideas and Details

– RH.11-12.3. Evaluate various explanations for actions or events and determine which explanation best accords with textual evidence, acknowledging where the text leaves matters uncertain.

Integration of Knowledge and Ideas

– RH.11-12.7. Integrate and evaluate multiple sources of information presented in diverse formats and media (e.g., visually, quantitatively, as well as in words) in order to address a question or solve a problem.

– RH.11-12.9. Integrate information from diverse sources, both primary and secondary, into a coherent understanding of an idea or event, noting discrepancies among sources.



Finding Your Roots, Episode 6, selected segments

Access the video segments for this lesson at the Video Segments Page.

Clip 1: “Starting Points”

Actors Robert Downey, Jr. and Maggie Gyllenhaal discuss what they know of their respective family origins.

Clip 2: “A Long Journey”

The story of Maggie Gyllenhaal’s maternal ancestry dating back to her Jewish great grandfather’s emigration from Tsarist Russia.

Clip 3: “Noble Blood”

An exploration of Maggie Gyllenhaal’s noble lineage dating back to King Henry I of England.

Clip 4: “Faith and Rebellion”

The story of Maggie Gyllenhaal’s third great grandfather’s central role in creating a religious community, and her father’s ultimate rejection of it.

Clip 5: “As American as it Gets”

An exploration of Maggie Gyllenhaal’s connection to some of the earliest and most prominent members of the American WASP establishment.

Clip 6: “Founding Mothers”

Professor Gates uses DNA testing to trace Maggie Gyllenhaal’s maternal lineage back thousands of years to Ancient Judea.


For the Learning Activities:

The Glencairn Museum

The website for the Glencairn Museum in Pennsylvania, which educates visitors about the history of religion using art and artifacts from a variety of cultures and time periods.


For each student:

– Two copies of the “Roots of Identity” Student Organizer


Prior to teaching this lesson, you will need to:

– Print two copies of the “Roots of Identity” Student Organizer for each student.

– Preview all of the video segments used in the lesson. Prepare to watch them using your classroom’s Internet connection.

– Bookmark all websites which you plan to use in the lesson on each computer in your classroom. Using a social bookmarking tool such as or diigo (or an online bookmarking utility such as portaportal) will allow you to organize all the links in a central location.

Proceed to Lesson Activities.