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First Person


Cyle Talley

‘The funny thing about the stuff we carry’

Jennifer Ryan Smith, on a classroom activity she did with her students that spoke volumes
Ar 170909726
Jennifer Ryan Smith
Ar 170909726
Jennifer Ryan Smith

“Can I tell you something hysterical?” Jennifer Ryan Smith asks, smiling mischievously. “I’m an art teacher at one of the schools here in town and today, they did something amazing.” She tells me about an activity where each student chose an object of value from their backpack and told the class why it mattered to them. I tell her story here, in her own words.

It’s the start of a new school year, and I really want to build community among each class. Just help them look at each other in a new way. So I had this idea to frame it by asking them to look at objects that they have in a different perspective. When each grade came to my classroom, I said, “We’re going to go get your backpacks and bring them back here for an activity.”

They went dutifully, but as soon as we got back to my classroom, they said exactly what I would’ve said: “OK, seriously. What are we doing?” I said, “One of our standards to is participate in a creative community. That being said, being in a community doesn’t mean that we lose our identity, but just finding our individuality amongst each other. So why don’t we start with the stuff that you schlep around all day?” I picked up my bag and said, “You know, the funny thing about the stuff we carry is that we might be carrying stuff around that we really value, without really recognizing why we value those things. Those things usually give hints about who we are and what we’re about.” I pulled out about 30 Sharpies from my bag. They laughed at me. “Why don’t we try to look at these objects with a fresh perspective? Really try to look through your things from the perspective of a person who found your stuff and is trying to piece together what sort of a person you are.”

In a normal class period, I try to limit my directions to about 15 minutes to get to kinesthetic learning as quickly as possible, but I was shocked by how absorbed they were. No one spoke out of turn, no one was wiggly. They were so curious about each other that they stayed still for 45 minutes. For the older grades, I had them speak about their item as they felt ready to, and for the younger ones, I had each of them put their object into a big copy paper box and I pulled out one item at a time and we tried to guess whose was whose. When the kids were sharing, I asked them: Why do you carry this around? What do you feel like this represents about you?

One kid had three half-used bottles of hand sanitizer in their bag. [laughs] Their classmates laughed. “Yeah, this place is gross!” [laughs] and we got to talk a bit about what that would say about someone’s personality. Then later, a kid pulled out a handful of pistachios – no baggie, no container – from the bottom of their bag and said, “For later.”

Adults tend to look at kids and think that they just live in an imaginary world, favoring a specific toy or a rock or whatever without any logic or rationale, but to hear the reasons behind why a kid does what they do was profound. Not to mention a great insight into who my students are.

Here’s an example: A first-grader had a pink straw the diameter of a quarter. They’re missing their front two teeth and said, “It’s because I wanna drink water and milk and juice without everything feeling slimy.” What intelligence! What forethought! This kid is overcoming a temporary obstacle! Another kid has a lunchbox chockablock full of first aid supplies. They said, “I carry this at all times because I’ve been through first aid and CPR training and our school nurse is so so so busy, so if anybody ever gets hurt on the playground, I can help them! Band-Aids? Neosporin? I gotchu!” That was the first one that really made me tear up. Not only do they bring this with them every day, but they’re purposefully schlepping this around to help – to take care of those around them! [touches heart] A couple of times kids would pull out the same book – kids who have nothing in common – and exclaim, “You like that book, too! No way!!!” Or a kid – an 8-year old – who has a photograph of themselves as a 2-year-old because they already feel like they’re losing their childhood and need a constant reminder of what it’s like to be young.

The best part of the day was the end of the day. I’ve got this group of first-graders who are just [sighs]. There’s one – just a half-pint. Smaller by half than the rest of their class. She dropped a block of concrete – cantaloupe-sized – out in front of them. When I asked the rest of the class what a block of concrete could possibly represent about a person, all I got back were “I dunno’s!” Then this itty-bitty voice pipes up and says, “’Cause it makes me feel strong!” And then! They piped up again when I pulled out a small piece of mulch from the box. “Oh, that’s mine, too.” “Well, what does this represent?” I asked.

“That represents my weakness.”

Cyle Talley really likes this story. Email him with what you carry around at: cyle@cyletalley.com