Kids are famously bad at learning to be sympathetic to their peers. Middle school students especially could do with learning a thing or two about their peers’ struggles. An Oklahoma teacher recognized the problem in her classroom and decided to create an activity to teach her middle schoolers empathy. She decided to share her game and its results on Facebook where it made quite the impression on nearly half a million people.
After 22 years of teaching middle school in Oklahoma, Karen Loewe cracked the code on how to teach her students about baggage. She explained the concept of baggage to them as emotions, struggles, or anything heavy that they carry with them. She created the “Baggage Activity,” as she calls it. She asked the students to write down what was weighing them down. The students were instructed not to include their names and that the activity would be anonymous. After the students finished writing, they balled up their papers and threw them around the room. Then, the students picked up a ball of paper and read what the other students were struggling with. Karen couldn’t believe how effective the exercise was. Her students were feeling and expressing sympathy for one another.
Middle school students are notorious for bullying and self-deprecation. It’s difficult for teachers to get their students to tap into their emotions and really take a moment to consider what their peers might be going through.
Karen knew that the problem existed and decided to kick off the school year with the “Baggage Activity” in hopes that it would set the stage for more empathy. Sympathizing and emphasizing isn’t just important for students, these abilities are a fundamental life skill.
For 22 years, Karen Loewe had experimented with different ways to get students to sympathize. After her success this past August, she felt the need to share the exercise with others on Facebook.
“This starts my 22nd year of teaching middle school. Yesterday was quite possibly one of the most impactful days I have ever had,” Karen began the Facebook post. “I tried a new activity called ‘The Baggage Activity.”
“I asked the kids what it meant to have baggage and they mostly said it was hurtful stuff you carry around on your shoulders,” she explained. This let her know that her students understood what she meant by ‘baggage.’
Karen’s post continued, “I asked them to write down on a piece of paper what was bothering them, what was heavy on their heart, what was hurting them, etc. No names were to be on a paper. They wadded the paper up, and threw it across the room.”
With paper balls littering the room, “They picked up a piece of paper and took turns reading out loud what their classmate wrote. After a student read a paper, I asked who wrote that, and if they cared to share.” Then each student took a turn reading a note aloud.
Karen and some of her students got a little choked up reading the notes. It was freeing for the students to volunteer their sensitivities as opposed to feeling obligated to share. Karen’s post elaborated, “I’m here to tell you, I have never been so moved to tears as what these kids opened up … about and shared with the class.”
Because middle schoolers are so defensive, it’s easy to forget that they are typically carrying around other people’s baggage in addition to their own. This has been even worse with the advent of social media and online bullying.
The kids are dealing with a lot. Karen shared, “Things like suicide, parents in prison, drugs in their family, being left by their parents, death, cancer, losing pets (one said their gerbil died cause it was fat, we giggled????) and on and on.”
The whole experience turned therapeutic and Karen knew her students were truly feeling deeply. “The kids who read the papers would cry because what they were reading was tough. The person who shared (if they chose to tell us it was them) would cry sometimes too,” she explained.
That doesn’t mean the activity was easy. Karen added, “It was an emotionally draining day, but I firmly believe my kids will judge a little less, love a little more, and forgive a little faster.” Really, what more could you ask for?
After such an emotional experience, it felt wrong to throw the paper notes in the trash. They became symbolic of the collective struggles of her students. Karen decided put the notes in a bag and hang it up. “This bag hangs by my door to remind them that we all have baggage. We will leave it at the door. As they left I told them, they are not alone, they are loved, and we have each other’s back. I am honored to be their teacher,” Karen said at the end of the post.
Karen’s post went viral. Many people were touched by her and her dedication as an educator. In fact, many of her previous students commented on the post to tell her how impactful she’s been on their lives. It’s amazing how much teachers can shape the way we see the world. Karen Loewe from Oklahoma, even after 22 years, continues to change lives for the better.
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