The Invisible T-Shirt: A Narrative Lesson Plan

Photo courtesy of Slate

The Rationale:

My idol Dr. Ladson-Billings (1995) states that “students must develop a broader sociopolitical consciousness that allows them to critique the cultural norms, values, mores, and institutions that produce and maintain social inequities” (p. 162). These understandings can provide critical awareness of how race and minoritized peoples are socially constructed, and that without explicit discussion of how racist ideologies function, the inequities we see will continue to seem “normal,” putting the blame on people of color instead of an inherently racist system.  This lesson helps make the invisible racist ideologies visible, and this consciousness allows students to better understand the personal impact of the pervasiveness of racism. 

I learned this activity when I was organizing at UW-Madison as a part of the Diversity Committee of the student government.  It was powerful for me then, and even more once I have done it with adults and my senior students. 

The Clip from America to Me

Here is the clip as seen from Starz’s 10 part docuseries America to Me (Teachers, did you know thanks to Participant Media you can watch this for free until the end of the summer? Click here). I appreciate that there is a clear parallel between my own life (feeling important and full of agency in the classroom) and my treatment in the school (powerless with no agency) and the idea of our own sense of selves versus society’s stereotypes.

Note: it is most teacher’s nightmares to have to spell in front of their classrooms, and that fear is exacerbated when on national television.  That dang “h”–I can assure you know I know how to spell “ghetto.” However, with trying to spell incredibly quickly and a camera in my face, I panicked.  I committed, but in panic. It was important for me to note that I know how to spell the word 🙂 

* Large pieces of butcher paper cut into rectangles with tape or sticky easel pad paper
*Optional handout
*Poster Markers or Sharpies
*Colorful printing labels

The Set Up

To set up the lesson plan, I usually sneak down to the school activity center and swipe a long strip of white butcher paper, or if I’m feeling particularly fancy, I’ll get sticky easel pad paper.  I use a black poster marker and do my best to draw a large clip art style outline of a t-shirt, leaving space at the bottom to put the different races. I don’t want to admit how many sheets of papers I have snuck into the recycling as they looked more like the country of France than an article of clothing.

I’ll write the following six races at the bottom of each t-shirt: African American/Black, Caucasian American/white, Hispanic/Latinx, Native American/American Indian, Asian, and Bi or Multi-Racial. I place the two most common modern titles of each race/ethnicity in the attempt to be more inclusive.  Even though it didn’t make it on the 2020 census, I think I’d include MENA (Middle Eastern North Africa) as I will never forget when I included it in the “Where the Wind Blows” (blog on this to come!) exercise, and a Muslim woman held my hands and thanked me for seeing her. You can also change any of the names/races to more specifically reflect the racial make up and diction of your class.

I’d print out the handout if needed, and get out some dark markers, and cut the printing labels into strips with 4-6 labels each.

Me with straight hair! Photo courtesy of the Hechinger Report

The Intro

First, I start off by giving each student 4-6 printing labels and a marker.  I ask them to write one adjective that describes who they are and then stick them to their shirts (I always love the cutely nonconforming kid who sticks one to his or her forehead.  You can have students journal about the words they chose and why, and/or you can have them do a whip around the room and have them each share one of the elements on their labels. The main thing is for them to share the things that make them special and unique.

The Main Event

You then prep them for the change in tone.  I usually tell them that we’re going to have a serious and frank conversation that day.  This conversation is not our first foray into conversations about race, and so we simply review our discussion norms and equity protocols.  I use Singleton’s (2006) Agreements and Conditions, coupled with National Equity Project’s adaptation of the Art of Conversation, but you can use whatever framework you or your district prefer.

There are two ways you can adapt this exercise.  The first way, as seen in the clip from America to Me, works well when you have a really close and mature group of students. The first is to get them physically really close together so it feels intimate,  I say something like, “As you can see, we have 6 t-shirts here with racial identities on each one. We are going to write stereotypes–both positive and negative– and names–again positive or negative– that each racial group is called.  It’s important to note that these are not our personal beliefs or thoughts, but society’s. These stereotypes and names are sometimes shocking and hurtful, but it’s important that we are honest and transparent about what associations and slurs come with each race.  I ask that you don’t laugh, which is a pretty understandable reaction when you share things typically not shared in school and particularly un-politically correct, but let’s sit together solemnly with the weight of these words.”  Then, I ask students to call out the stereotypes and names one by one, while I furiously scribble them on t-shirts.  We spend time on each one individually until we exhaust the ideas before moving on to the next one.   

Pros of this method:  Get many more overall responses, feels powerful to be a part of a raw and honest discussion, easier to “humanize” the conversation using how people reacted in the final discussion  Cons of this method: With more immature groups, this method can lead to laughing and making fun of, shy students might not feel comfortable saying things aloud, it may be harmful for some students to say or hear slurs. 

Photo courtesy of “Black Girls Rock,” who adapted this lesson.

The second way, for a group that you might worry might not be able to frankly name the titles without harm, is for students to write the stereotypes and names, both positive and negative, that each racial group is called on the t-shirt handout at the end of this narrative lesson plan.  Provide them some time to write quietly and independently, and then have them walk around and write their words on their little t-shirts onto the big ones. There will be some words that will be duplicates, and you can either tell them to write theirs down anyway, or they can put a check mark or a star next to one they had as well.  It’s interesting to see what the most common stereotypes and names students came up with, so including multiples help students think more deeply about patterns.

Pros of this method: Students brainstorm individually and as a collective, words are never said aloud, shyer students participate equally Cons of this method: students feel less connected to each other as it’s an individual activity more than a collective, students may have to wait in front of t-shirts before they can write, which may cause off task behavior.

Photo courtesy of the New York Times

Once all of the words are on the screen, regardless of which method you chose, then have your students gallery walk around and study the posters.  I sometimes put these questions up and they write notes in their journals. Some guiding questions for their gallery walk are:

  1. What surprises you on these t-shirts?  What doesn’t surprise you?
  2. What patterns do you notice?
  3. Which t-shirts seem to have the most positive stereotypes and names? The most negative? What t-shirts have the most things written on them?  The least?

Then, have them spend time looking at the t-shirt that is supposed to represent the racial group they identify with the most.  Some guiding questions for this study are:

  1. What sorts of things are on your t-shirt?
  2. Does your t-shirt reflect who you are?  Why or why not?
  3. How is your t-shirt similar or different than what you wrote on your own t-shirt?

Finally in small groups or whole group, after we share out findings from our independent reflection time, students discuss: 

  1. In your own words, what metaphor is the invisible t-shirt making?  In other words, what is the point of this exercise.
  2. How do we learn the things you wrote on the t-shirts?  To put it another way, how do we learn the stereotypes? Try to give specific examples.
  3. What is the long term impact of having to wear these invisible t-shirts that are not representative of who you are? That are not representative of who the people you meet are? Why is it important to make these invisible t shirts visible?

For a copy of the handout that goes with Option Two, click here or download the handout below!

Ladson‐Billings, G. (1995). But that’s just good teaching! The case for culturally relevant pedagogy. Theory into practice34(3), 159-165.

I hope you enjoyed this narrative lesson plan of how and why I do this invisible t-shirt activity. What other lesson plans or classroom protocols would you like to see?

One thought on “The Invisible T-Shirt: A Narrative Lesson Plan

  1. I’m interested in how Ke’Shawn is doing today. The documentary was amazing and your relationship with him as a student reminded me somewhat of my Hugh school experience with my favorite teacher.


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