This activity is ideal for an advisory or as part of a circle, whether online or in person, and incorporates elements of social and emotional learning and restorative practices. It is adapted from a prompt by the poet Anne Waldman in her book The Practice of Poetry: Writing Exercises From Poets Who Teach.
The activity has students share and tell the story of an intriguing object in their life, while other students listen carefully. Students then write and share a poem about one or more of the objects/stories shared by their classmates.
The goal of the exercise is both creative and communal. Students quickly get to know each other better and more deeply. Typically, students tell stories about the parts of life we all share: love, loss, family, relationships, dreams, and childhood. They make connections with each other that would not normally happen so quickly in a classroom, if at all.
Storytelling allows us to find common experiences, to empathize, and to get in touch with the emotional, spiritual, and physical side of our natures—not just the mental and analytical part of self.
Introduce the Activity
Ask everyone to bring an object that is important to them and has some kind of intriguing story. Ask them to be ready to tell the story in a way that will bring the object to life.
Before students choose an object, describe the activity for them. Explain that once someone has “given” their story/object to the group, it no longer “belongs” to them alone: Others may use whatever details they choose. They can change the details, mix them with other objects or stories, or fictionalize/personalize it any way they choose.
Present the Objects
In your virtual or in-person circle, ask each person to present their object. Group members should listen carefully as each person shows an object, describes the object, and tells a story about the object.
Suggest that other students take notes while the person talks to help them listen deeply and hold on to details. This becomes especially important in the next part of the exercise, when they are asked to use something from at least one other person’s presentation when writing their own poem.
When presenting, each person has given a gift to the others to use as each person sees fit.
Write About the Objects
Next, ask students to write a poem using at least one object or story from someone else in the group. They may use as many objects/stories as they want, but they must use at least one, and it must be someone else’s object and story—this is where the connection comes in. If possible, give students till the next to day to think about what objects/stories they want to use.
In the next class, ask students to write the first draft of the poem. They can polish the poem on their own later, but writing together during class makes this a communal act. While they write, they are thinking about other people’s stories and know that other people are thinking about theirs.
Share the Poems
When you’re ready, ask each person to share. Typically, students are eager to share what they have written, and the poems they create are concrete and meaningful. Encourage all students to share their poem. If a student wants to pass and not read their poem, invite them to read a favorite line or stanza so it doesn’t feel like an all-or-nothing proposition.
Often, the group grows closer as people hear how their objects and stories have been used. Some people may use all the objects, while others use one and become deeply engaged in just that object.
Note: Sometimes not everyone’s object/story is used by classmates. As the teacher, you may want to write a poem that uses all of students’ objects to make sure that everyone’s story is included.
Publish the Poems
Ask students to further edit their poems and send them back to you. Then, “publish” all the poems through a group email. It is another group product from the exercise.
If there is interest and every student agrees, work with the group to publish or share their collective product more broadly.