Inviting students to tell their story, safely, in a way that builds trust and offers hope.
“Our mission is to ensure that all young people (K-12) are provided an opportunity to heal from stress and trauma through high-quality, therapeutic journaling. We give an opportunity to talk about their feelings, process difficult life experiences, and Imagine a new story in their lives…. [We aim] to give kids a voice to bring positive change into their lives, and those of future generations.” The Imagine Project ()
What if you attended a faculty meeting after school and the main speakers were fifth graders? What if they made a compelling case for the whole elementary school to take part in a program they had experienced? What if these 10- and 11-year-old boys and girls shared with all of us present that afternoon personal and sometimes painful “Imagine stories”—one outcome of this project? And what if their teachers left both moved and excited, so much so that soon after every one of them, in grades 1-5, asked to bring the project’s 7-step writing tool to their classrooms?
I want you to hear from those fifth graders (page 2), and hope their words, more persuasive than anything I can offer, will make you curious enough to learn more about The Imagine Project.
My introduction came from hearing its founder, Dianne Maroney, RN, MSN—a neighbor here in Parker—speak of her work. And then from reading her book: The Imagine Project - Empowering Kids to Rise Above Drama, Trauma, and Stress, Yampa Valley Publisher, 2018. (Addendum A includes several excerpts.) The more I have learned, the more it strikes me that, if the strategy and the tools in The Imagine Project are fairly simple, the idea behind it is profound. As an educator, it is aligned with what I believe about good schools and the importance of knowing our students well; as a writing teacher, I see it as a great tool to help students find their voice (see Addendum B from previous newsletters). Like those fifth graders, I am now an advocate for this work.
The Imagine Project (founded in 2015) is much more than a school-based program, but schools are my focus—so here are the basics for a classroom. A teacher might spend 60-90 minutes going through the 7-steps with her class—perhaps best done over several days, or even longer. There are four age-appropriate journal forms: for K-2, 3-5, 6-12, and for adults. It begins as “free writing”—i.e., not to be judged nor graded for spelling or grammar.
Steps 1 and 2 serve as a warm-up, a kind of brainstorming. The writing begins with Step 3.
Step 3: Imagine
Choose one challenging experience in your life. Tell the story of that experience by beginning each sentence in your story with the word Imagine. Start with your first memory—what do your heart and mind think of first, when you consider that experience?
Step 3 can begin to explore a painful past event, as in these two examples (from The Imagine Project):
By Kate, 5th grader:
Imagine … being friends with a girl one moment and being bullied the next.
Imagine … not knowing what you did.
Imagine … feeling sad and upset.
Imagine … not telling your mom, feeling afraid she might be angry.
By Joseph, 4th grader:
Imagine … you left your country for a better life.
Imagine … you need to travel by train so others don’t see you.
Imagine … you need to walk in the desert for days and days.
Imagine … you need water but you don’t have any for days.
The next step invites the writer into a more hopeful space. What might be. What could be.
Step 4: Possibilities - Now it’s time to imagine new possibilities in your life. What is the ending you would like to have to your Imagine story? Dream big—imagine what you want to do in your life!
Steps 4 -7 takes the writer forward. Maroney believes such expressive writing encourages the student “to process and find meaning from a difficult life circumstance, to let it go, and to create a new story for their lives. This kind of writing also allows the writer to feel seen, heard, and validated” (The Imagine Project, p. 78).
Those fifth graders at Walnut Hill Elementary School in Cherry Creek must have felt that way, based on their enthusiasm in asking their teachers to bring The Imagine Project to every classroom. The words of the boys and girls—quoted here—seemed natural and honest, and proved effective in leading the faculty to agree.
During the sessions, kids are able to reflect on themselves. They can talk about their struggles, triumphs, and tragedies. Writing about their stories can lead to healing.
It can help kids at Walnut Hills get through their problems that they might be having at school or home or anywhere. For example, a divorce. Some kids have parents who are divorced or getting divorced. The Imagine Project would help those kids see over the arc [of their story] and help them get to the other side of the sadness.
One of our big goals is to show kids that it's ok to be open about what they are going through.
The Imagine Project also helps kids reflect. When kids think about good and bad things in life it can help them see that they can rise above sadness and any other bad feelings they might be having. They can also see that they have been able to get through bad things which can help them see that there is always a way to get through something bad no matter how bad it may feel.
By having kids teach the school about The Imagine Project we want to make them feel like this is a privilege and not an assignment.
… we will be sharing our own Imagine Projects so that they can see everyone goes through this.
There are many good outcomes of thinking about and writing imagine stories. … From kindergarten to 5th grade we think this project will help kids of all ages. …
My goal: merely to provide an introduction to The Imagine Project, and to ask you to take a look. Education policy and school reform (and no doubt Another View) can feel cold—too much “data-driven analysis,” too little heart. All of us need to be wary of becoming so PARCC, SPF, and PDU-obsessed that we lose our way. The young kids and teenagers walking into our classrooms hope for and need adults who will pay attention to them as individuals. And many are hurting. They need to find a way to share their stories with a trusted adult. When they are allowed to do so, the classroom can become a safe haven, a place where they are known, and an even better place to grow and learn.
The Imagine Project – Empowering Kids to Rise Above Drama, Trauma, and Stress (excerpts)
From Foreword, by Dr. Jerry Yager, Denver Children’s Advocacy Center
Maroney “effectively communicates her understanding of how hard it is to hear young people’s stories, and encourages us to trust that the very act of sharing and having someone present to hear them, see them and know them is healing in and of itself.”
“We cannot get overwhelmed by the challenges we face. We must learn to imagine ourselves collectively, finding innovative, creative solutions. This book offers the reader many resources that can help our children transform their suffering and maximize their resiliency and well-being.”
Her own painful experiences led her to wonder: “What if there was a way to help kids who’ve suffered from stress and trauma? Could telling their stories in the Imagine format steer them away from despair and toward hope and healing?”
From Chapter 1 – What is Emotional Wellness?
“… many of us find it extremely difficult to deal with our children’s expressions of painful emotions like sadness, disappointment, and frustration. Because of this, some children—especially teens—go inward and don’t like talking about their feelings to adults. And yet expressing emotion is extremely important. So how can we help children express their emotions?”
From Chapter 4 – The Value of Expressive Writing
“Kids and teens hold so much in their minds and hearts. When troubles are kept under cover, they remain unprocessed, take up too much space, and prevent kids from moving forward. Being ‘stuck’ only perpetuates cycles of dysfunction, such as abuse, addiction, and poverty, generation after generation. Fortunately, expressive writing is an effective tool that can help kids process and let go of their stories so they aren’t defined or limited by them. Expressive writing inspires them to imagine new possibilities ….”
From Chapter 5 – Writing with The Imagine Project
“At first glance teachers and administrators often worry that doing the journaling process will be heavy and hard for students (and teachers), but in most cases, it’s not as difficult as you might think. Instead, it’s profound and inspiring. Will there be tears? Probably, and that’s okay—what a wonderful way to show kids that expressing emotion is permitted and appropriate.”
Another View (2010, 2013, 2018) and Chalkbeat Colorado (2016)
1. From AV #65 – A Guiding Principle – Know Your Students Well (July 2010)
… What is most important? What makes the biggest difference for students? In facing difficult choices—we can’t be all things to all people—what essential principles should guide our thinking?
Many of us agree on two guiding principles: we want 1) caring, committed, and capable teachers, and 2) a strong curriculum reflecting high standards and expectations. Here is a third principle that might guide us: we need structures that enable the faculty to know their students well.
I believe the principle of knowing students well should be among our top priorities for several reasons. The first reason is because it is such a human principle—it is about relationships—and therefore speaks to all parties concerned—parents, educators, and students. Schools are communities where adults need to show respect for the young people in their trust, where adults need to build connections with and understanding of their students so that they believe: the men and women here do care about me and will treat me as an individual. Second, in an era of data-driven accountability, it speaks to a factor that may not be measurable—and therefore can easily be discounted—even though our best school leaders constantly remind us that a school’s culture, its ethos, and its values—all related to personalization—are critical to its success.
2. From AV #105 – Teaching our students to write: Why I believe we’re headed in the wrong direction - Writing standards & high school expectations frown on students finding their voice (Dec. 2013)
Welcome the young person – not just the student
“The children who came into my classrooms were also perceptive—they caught on quickly whether school was going to be a place where they should bring their whole selves, or leave most of themselves at the schoolhouse door.” Deborah Meier, Nov. 21, 2013, .
On week one after a tense summer, don’t be afraid to tell students: ‘We want to know you’” (Aug. 2016)
[Those freshmen entering this high school of 2,000 students] will wonder: Are the men and women in this building on their side? Is any adult there happy to see them?
In those first days, English teachers will have their own questions about their students’ writing skills and their students’ lives. As a longtime English teacher in Parker, my solution was to embrace the simple journal entry.
In my final years as a teacher, that first week of school, I asked my students to produce three journal entries. No magic there. But perhaps the big high school becomes less scary when one adult says, I care. I’d like to know who you are and what’s on your mind. Tell me.
4. From AV #182 – Schools & the English classroom; depression & suicide (Aug. 2018)
If I were teaching again this year, I would find it impossible not to be thinking, more than ever, about the mental health of my students…. it feels especially important to acknowledge the emotional struggles of so many of our students, and to ask: what is our responsibility? …
[The Addenda included this quote from LeeAndra Khan, CEO of Civitas Partners, Education Post, June 6, 2018}
“t’s hard for all of us to do, especially educators [,] but listen with an empathetic heart. Our students are trying to tell us what they need, but the constructs of schooling sometimes prevent us from truly hearing them. When we listen, we open up opportunities to build relationships. When we build relationships, students can feel connected. If they feel connected, they may ask for your help.”