How Are People Like Icebergs? A Lesson on Self-Awareness

This blog is the first in a 5-part series by Adam Elder, Westside's Director of Counseling and SEL. At Westside, we believe that all teaching and learning is both social and emotional. In this series, Adam will be showcasing how we teach students the five pillars of social-emotional learning (self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills, and responsible decision making.)

Identity Iceberg: A Lesson on Self-Awareness

A side-profile sketch of an iceberg floating in the water with "My Iceberg Identity" at the top.

“How are people like icebergs?”

I invite students to consider this question while they draw an iceberg of their own. Their initial look of confusion quickly turns to wonder and curiosity as they think about the connection. In the silence that follows they are hard at work on their drawings, complete with waves, fish swimming below the surface, and birds flying high in the sky*.

*For this blog post, the sample work is from my own Identity Iceberg, which includes a template I adapted for use at Westside School.

Over the course of a 45-minute class students use this simple drawing to develop a powerful visual metaphor to explore the complex concept of self-awareness in a developmentally appropriate way. In the conversations still yet to take place, students explore self-awareness skills such as:

-Integrating personal and social identities;
-Identifying personal, cultural, and linguistic assets; and
-Linking feelings, values, and thoughts.

As they finished their drawings, I again asked, “How are people like icebergs?” For third grade students, who still think very concretely, they commented on similar traits. “People and icebergs can float,” said one student. Another stated in a matter-of-fact tone, “Both are mostly made of water.”

For our middle school students, however, a different kind of connection quickly became apparent as one student said, “For both people and icebergs, you can only see a little bit of them. Most of an iceberg or a person you can’t see.”

Ultimately, with some gentle guidance, our younger students also made this connection and quickly understood that metaphorically, our identity is an iceberg in many ways.

We turned our attention back to our individual icebergs and the part that is above the surface. I wondered aloud about what parts of ourselves we might consider “above the surface”. Students were quick to share ideas about things we can learn by looking at people or by spending very little time with them, such as their: sex, gender, age-range, race, and the language they speak. However, some of these ideas were immediately challenged: “You can’t always tell a person’s race or gender just by looking at them.” Several students agreed, and I encouraged them to consider this as they completed their Identity Iceberg.

As we all began working on our icebergs, one student asked, “How much do I have to put on here?” I emphasized that they should include only what they feel comfortable sharing with others. In order for this activity to be successful, it must be framed as an invitation. This freedom of choice paired with the structured facilitation of the activity allows students to feel emotionally safe. In my experience, this ultimately leads to students being willing to share more.

The top of Adam's Iceberg Identity with stickers about his identity.

After a few minutes of work on their icebergs, I invited students to share what is “above the surface.” As the first student shared, they began discussing something we hadn’t talked about yet: the waterline.

Instinctively, this student (and most others) had placed aspects of their identities closer to, or further from, the waterline based on how obvious they are to others.

The waterline of Adam's iceberg--things just above the surface and just below.

For example, one student placed soccer high above the waterline because he wears a soccer shirt every day, plays for the school team, and talks about it often; whereas another student also included soccer, yet she placed it at the waterline because she loves soccer and plays on a team, but not the school team, and is unsure if everyone else knows that she loves soccer.

Once each student had an opportunity to share, we revisited the idea that only a small fraction of who we are is “above the surface.” Additionally, it can be problematic to think we know a person based on what is above the surface. This can lead to inaccurate assumptions, stereotyping, or “othering” of people who appear different from ourselves. In order to avoid this, we needed to dive below the surface.

Students were then invited to complete the part of their Identity Iceberg that is “below the surface.” These are aspects of their identity that take more time to learn, or may typically only be revealed to certain people (i.e. a teacher or friend). Items closer to the surface included favorite foods, where they have traveled, and whether they have any pets. Deeper below the surface students included family structures, worries, mental health challenges, and learning differences.

Things below the surface of Adam's iceberg: his kids, where he lives, his twin, etc.

What I noticed as students shared their “below the surface” identities is that they became increasingly more open to sharing deeper aspects of themselves once they heard others in the room share relatable experiences. For example, several students shared about their family structures. While most of their family structures are different, they connected with each other on the experience of navigating complex family dynamics.

Our conversation bounced from one topic to another as students made new connections with each other and proudly shared what makes them unique. To conclude the activity, each of us shared something new we learned about someone else in the room.

The Iceberg Identity is one of my favorite activities to get to know students, help students cultivate a deeper sense of self-awareness, and foster community. I hope you enjoyed peering through this window into Social and Emotional Learning at Westside. I invite you to come back for my next post which will highlight how the SEL skill of Social Awareness can be taught through the comical world of cartoon captioning.

Adam Elder
Director of Counseling and SEL

Learn more about social and emotional learning at Westside here.