Are You Carrying Rocks in Your Backpack? A Lesson in Mattering, from the #FoxHollowFlyers

Earlier this week, I read a Tweet from Matthew Goff, which included the above picture. It read:

Carrying Rocks

“Rocks in our backpack lesson – the invisible weight we carry when we forget we matter.” #FoxHollowFlyers

I loved this on two levels: first, it included use of a school hashtag, from an educator determined to tell his own story, rather than let others tell it for him. Secondly, and more to the heart of this post, it provided a visual reminder of what we do to ourselves when we don’t believe that we’re enough.

I often see a quote attributed to Carol Gordan: “If someone talked to you the way you talk to yourself, you would have kicked them out of your life long ago.”

I invited Matthew, a sixth-grade teacher at Fox Hollow Elementary School in Lehi, UT to submit his lesson plan, which teaches us to kick out of our life the person inside us who talks to us that way. I liked it so much that we’ve added it to our toolkit for making mattering part of your school culture.

“I’m stupid. I’m fat. I’m ugly. I’m not worth it. I don’t matter. I’m not good enough. I can’t.”

These are all written on rocks all around my classroom.  Why would we focus on these negative things? Because we don’t know how to get rid of them if we don’t address them or even know they’re there.

Everyone in the world, says John Bytheway, is wearing an invisible backpack.  You don’t see it on some people, but you surely can on others.  You’ll be able to tell because they’re hunched a bit, they’re not smiling, and their eyes are troubled.  These people have rocks in their backpacks weighing them down.

Words matter. Words carry weight.  That’s why it’s so important to monitor what we say to ourselves.

  • When we wake up in the morning and we look in the mirror and tell ourselves that we shouldn’t have even bothered getting up, we put a rock in our backpack.
  • When our siblings push us out of the way and say we’re idiots and always in the way, they’re handing us a rock.  If we believe them, we’re taking that rock and putting it in our backpack.
  • When we get to school and see someone who’s super kind to everyone and we compare ourselves and say we can never be that friendly, we’re putting a rock in our backpack.
  • When we struggle with a math concept and say we’re not good at math, there’s another rock.
  • If someone says they don’t want us to join them, that we’re not cool enough, and we believe them, we put another figurative rock into our invisible backpack.

My students wrote some of those things on rocks they brought to class.  It had to be something they’ve said to themselves or to another person or something they’ve heard someone else say to them or to another.

I then challenged some to take their rocks with them to recess.  They came back and each said they didn’t like carrying their rocks.

  • “It was annoying”
  • “It made it so I couldn’t play with my friends”
  • “I tried to not think about it, but it was always there”
  • My favorite: “My rock feels heavier now that the words are on them.”

This turned into an amazing conversation around Mr. Browne’s famous precept from the book, Wonder: “When given the choice between being right and being kind, choose kind.”  We underestimate the need to choose to be kind when we are talking to or thinking about ourselves.  If we’re unkind, we run a dangerous risk of putting lots of rocks in our backpacks.

Their next assignment was to put their rock on their desk and ignore it.  They can’t do it! Just like in life, when we’re entertaining those thoughts, it’s supremely difficult to ignore them.

After a few days of discussing these thoughts, we look at how to get rid of them.  There are two main ways I teach: first, the mirror test (inspired by “I love you” rice vs. “I hate you” rice) and second, help others get rid of their rocks.

We’ve been doing the mirror test for a while, which is to look directly in the mirror and say:

__Name__, I love you (3x),

__Name__,  three different compliments or positive affirmations (You matter, you are enough, you’re a great friend, etc.)

__Name__, I like you (3x).

Do this when you wake up and when you go to bed and you start your day off right and end it right. If they don’t do it at home, I have an Angela-Maiers-inspired “You Matter mirror” in my classroom (I catch students doing the mirror test all the time).

The other way is to help others get rid of their rocks.  Because we know what it looks like and feels like to have rocks in our own packs, we’re more aware of others who have burdens. We see more than people are in need, and we help them.  A lot of class time is devoted to helping others.

Some students always state that having a rock or two is no big deal, they can carry it around and it doesn’t bother them.  That’s when I pull out my actual backpack and ask the loudest and most confident to put it on.  I ask them how it feels if they could walk around all day with it on.  It’s no big deal.  I then proceed to grab some rocks from around the room, saying what’s on them and then placing them in the backpack.  After a little while, the student starts complaining how heavy it is.  I get to some of the bigger rocks and you visibly see the struggle of the student.  He’s sweating with exertion after just a couple minutes.  The strong kids all want to try it on to see if they can do it.  I want the class to see the physically strongest kids struggling under the weight of these rocks because even the emotionally strongest kids would struggle if they’re telling themselves these toxic things.

Why would we ever want to put all this weight on our shoulders?

Nobody ever wants to, but we do anyway all the time.  It’s quite the epidemic amongst school-age children.  We try to imagine life with a heavy backpack – school life, home life, friend life, etc., and it isn’t pretty.

Their writing assignment is to imagine “A Day with No Rocks.” Once they’ve completed this, we go out to the playground during 1-4th grade recess times and test our skills finding those kids who need a smile, a friendly face, a high-five, someone telling them it’ll be okay, someone to play with them, etc.  We journal about this and discuss it afterward.

The culminating activity is to, as a class, take another person’s rock from their desk and heave it over one of the fences at our school, so we never see it again.  It’s a powerful way to get rid of our rocks.  And the best thing is, once we know that words matter and we matter, we start treating ourselves and each other a bit better after all this, and it makes these kids better people.”