Self portraits, bio poems, and “Me Bags”

In 8th grade, kids are fairly… if
you’ve ever had an 8th grader or anyone who, you know, or you’ve been an
8th grader yourself, you know the world kind of exists within just a few
inches of your body. And wherever you are, that’s the world. And so we like to
capitalize on that at the beginning of the year. And it’s surprising how many
students don’t want to talk about themselves. It’s really funny. They might
want to take selfies with their friends, or they might want to be in a video, or
they might want to show off at home, or whatever, but when you really get down to
it, even though they seem to be really kind of egocentric, they really aren’t. We
want to build classroom culture within each group. And so
one way to do that is to spend some time at the beginning of the year modeling
these three things. And both language arts teachers, we model them. I
kind of cheat and bring in a self-portrait that my son did and talk
about that. And then we definitely do the bio poem out loud, which asks
different qualities like, “I feel…,” you know, “I love…” and different things like
that. And then we also do a “Me Bag” speech. And the “Me Bag” speech, they bring
in five different components of them. They can be things that symbolize them,
and they talk about those things. And so we kind of use that unit as an introductory
unit because they’re doing a lot of the types of things we do. They do
presentations during the year, we do a lot of visual components because we lack
an art teacher at our building for 8th grade, and so we do not have that
available to them, so we do a lot of visual things whenever they get up to
give a presentation. They either create a visual with a group member or whatever.
So we kind of ease them into it, and during that process we’re teaching them
symbolism. And so, students don’t have to draw their face or a caricature
of themselves. They may choose an object that symbolizes themselves. One year I
had, for an example, I had a boy who drew a salmon, and I thought he was
going to get up and talk about a great fisherman, or he went on a trip and
caught a salmon. No. He did the true symbolism. He moved
around quite a bit, and so he lived in quite a few different communities, and so
he talked about being a salmon–he always felt like he was swimming upstream. And
so it really gripped me when he did that. And I said, you know, this is something
I’m going to do all of the time. And I learn so much about them. I learn what
they need from me to be able to get up and be successful. And we don’t grade
them very harshly. There are criteria. But they talk about different things, and if
they’ve never really thought about art, or never really thought of themselves as
an artist or as a poet, just the conversations that they have around the
tables and just…it’s a way to ease into presentation, which is hard for them.
And it’s part of what I need to have them do. And so we ease into it, and we
learn about them. And it’s surprising. Sometimes really good friends will
surprise each other. I had a girl that talked about one year, she brought in, in
her “Me Bag,” she brought in Ramen noodles. And I thought, “Oh, she’s
going to talk about how much she likes Ramen noodles.” No. She talked about how,
when she was a kid, everything just tasted bad to her, and
she spent a lot of time going to specialists and people because she was a
failure-to-thrive kind of baby and then just kept going. And she brought the
Ramen noodles, and she said, “My mom always brags that Ramen noodles kept me alive
because it was the only thing she could get me to eat.” And so she talked about
that, when she was younger, she was thin, and so she said, “I feel like I’m
normal-sized now” and compared to what she was. So she kind of shared her
journey. And I don’t think other kids had really known that. I think they just saw
her as a picky eater. And she talked about how things taste weird to her, and so it was really kind of an eye-opening experience that labeling
people is…and so lots of different things happen when we
do this. And it’s really, I think it’s a pretty magical thing. I’ve only a couple
of times over…I’ve done it since I’ve been here, and I’ve done “Me Bags” for
years, but I added the other two components. And you would think, “Oh,
someone’s going to make fun of somebody’s picture…” I really don’t
have that. You know, they really are very appreciative, and if somebody kind of
flounders around, people wait quietly, and so we go over the rules and things. But
over the years, I really…it kind of sets the tone for how it will be when they
get up to give something a little more formal…that kids might disagree with a
persuasive speech or those kinds of things that they do later on…it gets
them ready for that. Because, you know, if you can be kind about that, then you can
be kind about anything.

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