On the Outside/On the Inside

Looking to engage learners at the intersection of art, literacy, and human connection?

Try On the Outside/On the Inside, a powerful activity that invites student reflection and creativity, while simultaneously building background in vocabulary and concepts for talking about character traits.


Students two collages of images and words to finish these sentence starters:

On the outside, I seem …

On the inside, I am …


Here’s my personal example, as a model.  I folded piece of paper. On the outside of the folded paper, I created the first collage you see at the top of this post. It represents how I imagined people might perceive my external self.

On the inside of the folded paper, I created the second collage, representing how I feel I am on the inside. Even as I prepare to share it here, I feel vulnerable, which is a timely reminder of how some students may feel with the invitation to create or share a personal collage. Always let sharing be optional.

Gulp. Here it is.

It has been a few years since I created this two-part collage, and it still rings true for me.  Also, I imagine the next time I sit down with a blank page to create a collage to this prompt, the outcome will be different. I imagine some new words will emerge, and some of the ones in that collage might fall way.  I’m also reflecting now on the many spaces where I feel my whole self in community with others – and in those spaces those inside words are outside words, too.

Here are some tips as you try this for yourself or with students:


One great thing about this activity is that it can be done with as much or as little technology as you choose. It’s the message, not the medium, that matters.

  1. Off Screen: Use a large piece of paper folded in half. Create your collage with markers, magazines, scissors, and glue.
  2. On Screen: For a digital version, create a two-page Jamboard or a two-slide show in Google apps. Insert online images and add text for your collage.


Get comfortable. You may play music or have a favorite beverage. Choose your approach, paper or digital, and add the two prompts at the top of each page:

On the outside, I seem …

On the inside, I am …

Try it. Notice how you approach this and what works for you. Then, reflect on how you will structure this with your learners.

I like to find images first, and then think of words. The randomness of flipping through magazines to identify what stands out helps me get out of my head and expands how I think of expressing myself. Some people prefer to think of words first and then look for images. Others build up words and images together.

Some reflection questions:

  • What comes up for you as you create your collage? Include feelings, questions, and things you wonder about.
  • When you finish, reflect. Ask yourself, “Would I feel comfortable sharing this with others? Is this something I would like to share with my class?”
  • If you decide to proceed, ask yourself, “How will I facilitate a space for students to feel comfortable trying this?”
  • Whether through this activity or another, ask yourself, “How might we create trust together with opportunities to listen and share?”


Choose your approach, digital or paper, and gather your materials.  Share your own example and create a space for students to explore and create their own.  Some students like calming music for this while others create better in silence, so collaborate to create the conditions for introspection and creativity.

While many students will be eager to share and discuss what they create, some will prefer to keep their collages private.  Just as I do with personal writing, when I’m structuring time for peer sharing in partners, table groups, or a class meeting,  I honor each individual’s choice to share their collage, or pass.


One challenge that can come up both for emerging language learners and neurodivergent students, is approaching the collage literally and seeking out images of things they like (e.g., cars, friends, animals) instead of images that represent their personality in some way.  Providing a model helps scaffold the focus.

You can also build background by teaching simile and metaphor, and facilitating a more focused “choose between” activity before doing this collage.  For example, post four nature images on the four walls of your space (e.g., ocean, river, mountain, desert) and ask students, “Which best represents you, and why?” Ask them to walk to the image they chose. Then ask them to talk with someone who is also by that image and share, “I am like _________ because ________________.”


From Singer, T. (2018) EL Excellence Every Day, p. 262.

Build connections from this shared experience to literacy analysis lessons. For example, you might co-create a word bank with all of adjectives students use. Post the word bank as an interactive list open to categorizing (e.g., cards in a pocket chart) or a digital resource to build up together over time. Reference it and add to it when talking about characters in the texts you read.   You also might have students collaborate to create and inside/outside collage for a character, and then justify their thinking with text evidence in conversations and writing about the collage.


My husband, a sixth-grade teacher, shared this activity with me.  We love it and we’d love to know if you try this – either for yourself, with your students, or to build connection in any community.

  • What worked for you?
  • What did you change, and why?
  • What connections did you make beyond the activity?

To share, please post a comment below, reply to my newsletter, or tag me in a Twitter post @TonyaWardSinger.

I am a keynote speaker, author and educational leader helping educators teach and lead for equitable schools. My books include EL Excellence Every Day, Breaking Down the Wall & Opening Doors to Equity. I'm a descendant of colonizers and enslavers deeply committed to transforming my family legacy for healing.

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