Middle school teacher Karen Loewe always uses getting-to-know you activities to break the ice with her new students. This year, she included a new activity called "The Baggage Activity," and her Facebook post detailing its results quickly went viral.
"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 wrote in the post, which had over 425,000 shares on Tuesday evening. "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."
"I saw it on #TeacherProblems," Loewe told TODAY Parents. She currently teaches seventh and eighth grade students in Collinswood, Oklahoma. "I kind of changed a few things and then just went with it. I do a lot of getting to know you activities anyway, so I just tweaked it a little bit. I had no idea the kids would respond in the manner that they did."
She conducted the activity on the sixth day of the school year, after establishing that the classroom would be a respectful place where ideas were valued, students would speak individually, and kindness would be key. Even though she'd been laying the groundwork for the activity since school started, Loewe said she was still surprised by how impactful it was.
"I don't think I ever had a day where I just felt like 'this is what it's all about,' where my kids opened up and shared things," Loewe said. "Kids tell me things, but it takes longer for them to open up a little bit."
While she expected many of the listed concerns, like divorces and deaths in the family, some things surprised her.
"I was kind of shocked about the amount of drugs (discussed)," Loewe said. "I even raised my hand. Drugs affected my family in the past. Suicide is one that's becoming more prevalent, because they either have friends or family members or just someone that they know. These are things I wouldn't expect a 12 or 14-year-old to throw out there. It was really moving."
The activity resonated with the students, who Loewe said have been "so much more respectful" of each other.
"They don't interrupt or talk down to each other," she said. "They're not rude. It's completely, completely changed how they treat each other...I wish I would have done this years ago. It's been so good."
The activity has gained traction. Loewe said that she's been contacted by teachers from as far as Pakistan, Australia, and China, asking how she made the activity so successful. It was a response that she never expected, and she said that if she had anticipated the viral nature of the post, she would have included more details about the groundwork she laid with her students.
"I want people to know that there is so much more that went into this than what I posted," she said. "My original post was just for my friends and people that know me. They said 'You need to make this public,' so I did, but I didn't change anything. If I knew it was going to blow up, I would have said what went into it ahead of time."
Loewe's kids have written classroom contracts, had discussions about how what happened in the room stayed in the room, and done other trust-building exercises. Since then, she's had the students engage in several follow-up activities, like conversation starters, worksheets where they have another opportunity to share their "baggage," and giving feedback.
"I've had so many kids come in that are just thankful, I think, that somebody's listening," Loewe said. "I think they're liking it."