The other side of that viral classroom 'baggage activity'—it's not as feel-good as it seems

Sometimes we can get caught up in a seemingly feel-good story and miss that it might have a dark side. An article I wrote recently praising a middle school teacher's "baggage activity" is a perfect, personal example of this. I saw that the post had been shared widely, looked at the activity through my own lens as a former teacher and current parent of teens, and missed the red flags that those trained in trauma saw in it.

The viral post, shared by a veteran teacher, explained how she had her students write down the emotional baggage they were carrying around, wad up the papers, and toss them across the room. Each student then picked up a random paper and read it to the class. Students could share if they wrote it or remain anonymous. The teacher described how the students were moved by the activity, and how she felt it helped them develop empathy for one another. The bag of wadded papers hangs by the door to remind students "they are not alone, they are loved, and we have each other's back."


Again, I looked at the post through my own lens. My experience teaching middle schoolers was that despite appearances, they desperately want to be real—to share their struggles and have their experiences and feelings acknowledged. So many kids walk through the halls of their schools thinking they are alone, and I see value in letting them know that they are not. I also have a kid with mental health issues who has been helped tremendously by hearing from others with similar issues. And I've seen personal sharing activities like this have a positive impact on people in various settings, creating deeper connections with others.

RELATED: This teacher's viral 'check-in' board is a beautiful example of mental health support.

But in sharing the post and singing its praises, I missed some things—some important things. My lens didn't include personal experience with severe trauma. It didn't include the principles of trauma-informed education, which came about long after I left teaching in middle and high school classrooms. It didn't include how anonymous sharing of abuse creates a conundrum for teachers as mandatory reporters.

Like hundreds of thousands of others, I took the post at face value and neglected to dig deeper into potential pitfalls of the activity. That was a mistake.

As trauma-informed teacher and researcher Addison Duane wrote, "Research has found that asking students to relive traumatic events or emotional moments during the school day can exacerbate a problem. The student may not give off any outward indication but the internal effects, according to doctors, are long-lasting. In fact, child advocacy centers are explicitly trained in not asking a child for a traumatic story more than once, to avoid further traumatizing."

Other social workers, mental health experts, and education professionals have expressed similar concerns with the classroom baggage activity. While well-intentioned, it may have a negative impact on students dealing with trauma. And while the activity was intended to bring students closer together, it also has the potential to create fodder for further isolation or bullying.

In addition, serious emotional issues are better handled by professionals in the mental health field than teachers in the classroom.

"Our students are living through far more traumatic times than we did," says Kellie Cashion, a former middle school teacher and current school administrator. "We should not compound that trauma by asking them to relive it in their classrooms with their peers, led by a teacher not a licensed therapist."

RELATED: Finland is really good at stopping bullying. Here's how they're doing it.

Teaching empathy is important, and finding ways to do that is a challenge. While this teacher may have known her kids well and had a sense for how to make the activity have the intended effect, it's not a model to follow blindly.

Many of us got caught up in the feel-good nature of the story and our desire for human beings to connect on an emotional level—and in the process we neglected the good work of trauma specialists and professional counselors who are trained and equipped to help kids navigate those waters in a healthy way. I know I did.

Let this be a cautionary tale for all of us who are desperate for stories of human connection. Not all feel-good stories are as uplifting as they seem, and while we don't need to look at every story with a negative eye, we do need to use a wider lens. Our optimism and intentions can blind us to reality, so it's vital that we take the time to dig deeper before sharing a seemingly positive story that may actually cause more harm than good.

Courtesy of CeraVe
True

"I love being a nurse because I have the honor of connecting with my patients during some of their best and some of their worst days and making a difference in their lives is among the most rewarding things that I can do in my own life" - Tenesia Richards, RN

From ushering new life into the world to holding the hand of a patient as they take their last breath, nurses are everyday heroes that deserve our respect and appreciation.

To give back to this community that is always giving so selflessly to others, CeraVe® put out a call to nurses to share their stories for a chance to be featured in Heroes Behind the Masks, a digital content series shining a light on nurses who go above and beyond to provide safe and quality care to patients and their communities.

First up: Tenesia Richards, a labor and delivery nurse working in New York City who, in addition to her regular job, started a community outreach program in a homeless shelter that houses expectant mothers for up to one year postpartum.

Tenesia | Heroes Behind the Masks presented by CeraVe www.youtube.com

Upon learning at a conference that black mothers in the U.S. die at three to four times the rate of white mothers, one of the widest of all racial disparities in women's health, Richards decided to take further action to help her community. She, along with a handful of fellow nurses, volunteered to provide antepartum, childbirth and postpartum education to the women living at the shelter. Additionally, they looked for other ways to boost the spirits of the residents, like throwing baby showers and bringing in guest speakers. When COVID-19 hit and in-person gatherings were no longer possible, Richards and her team found creative workarounds and created holiday care packages for the mothers instead.

Keep Reading Show less
via Fox 5 / YouTube

Back in February, northern Virginia was experiencing freezing temperatures, so FOX 5 DC's Bob Barnard took to the streets to get the low down. His report opens with him having fun with some Leesburg locals and trying his hand at scraping ice off their parked cars.

But at about the 1:50 mark, he was interrupted by an unaccompanied puppy running down the street towards the news crew.

The dog had a collar but there was no owner in sight.

Barnard stopped everything he was doing to pick the dog up off the freezing road to keep it safe. "Forget the people we talked to earlier, I want to get to know this dog," he told his fellow reporters back in the warm newsroom.

Keep Reading Show less
Courtesy of CeraVe
True

"I love being a nurse because I have the honor of connecting with my patients during some of their best and some of their worst days and making a difference in their lives is among the most rewarding things that I can do in my own life" - Tenesia Richards, RN

From ushering new life into the world to holding the hand of a patient as they take their last breath, nurses are everyday heroes that deserve our respect and appreciation.

To give back to this community that is always giving so selflessly to others, CeraVe® put out a call to nurses to share their stories for a chance to be featured in Heroes Behind the Masks, a digital content series shining a light on nurses who go above and beyond to provide safe and quality care to patients and their communities.

First up: Tenesia Richards, a labor and delivery nurse working in New York City who, in addition to her regular job, started a community outreach program in a homeless shelter that houses expectant mothers for up to one year postpartum.

Tenesia | Heroes Behind the Masks presented by CeraVe www.youtube.com

Upon learning at a conference that black mothers in the U.S. die at three to four times the rate of white mothers, one of the widest of all racial disparities in women's health, Richards decided to take further action to help her community. She, along with a handful of fellow nurses, volunteered to provide antepartum, childbirth and postpartum education to the women living at the shelter. Additionally, they looked for other ways to boost the spirits of the residents, like throwing baby showers and bringing in guest speakers. When COVID-19 hit and in-person gatherings were no longer possible, Richards and her team found creative workarounds and created holiday care packages for the mothers instead.

Keep Reading Show less