Writing That Matters: The Emotional Emergency Kit

What I am writing right now will post early in the day on April 4, 2022 – but I won’t be online to see it. I will be administering the Florida Standards Assessment Writing test Monday morning. It’s a test, like many writing tests, where students read 3 or 4 articles on some issue (fence posts or toothbrushes or, I don’t know, mucus) and then, as a Common Core “research simulation” of real research writing, they will write an expository or argumentative essay synthesizing those articles.

Sadly, this is the main type, or even only type, of writing many school systems and classrooms ask students to do. It neither engages them nor invests in them as people. I have spent much of my career battling the standardization of writing by encouraging students to find their own topics, to write for real audiences, to write free of the constraints of rubrics and checklists. I’m sure that all the teachers reading this blog do the same.

But I’ve come to realize that there is another type of real-world writing that is just as important as writing for a real audience about authentic topics: writing for yourself. Writing for no audience at all. Writing to work out your thoughts, your feelings, your way of dealing with your life. I do it all the time. I fear I had almost allowed this type of writing to get lost completely in the authentic writing going on in my classroom. As our schools struggle to meet the demand for social-emotional learning by throwing videos at students that most of them (in my experience) find dull and/or bogus, the real secret may be in what many of us have been doing all along: letting students journal freely about their lives, their feelings, may be the best emotional learning we can possibly give them.

When I teach Romeo and Juliet as I did last quarter, I frame it around emotional intelligence. We read articles on emotional intelligence about topics like the importance of naming your emotions, the six basic emotions, and why negative emotions are more important that positive emotions, among others. As we read the play, students track the characters’ emotional lives using drawings and emojis.

We try to answer the question, how emotionally intelligent are the characters in Romeo and Juliet? The answer? Not very. (Except Benvolio. As the voice of reason, he leaves after act 3 and the whole play goes to hell.)

This year, we finished our work with the play before spring break, and over spring break I felt we hadn’t quite brought the idea of emotional intelligence home – home being to my students’ own emotional intelligence. I decided I needed to address it as we came back for this last quarter of the year.

In my research on emotional intelligence, I read the book Emotional Agility by Susan David. In it, she gives an account of astounding research by a man named James Pennebaker, a professor at the University of Texas. Pennebaker made a personal discovery while going through a depression that became the subject of his research. His discovery? Writing about their experiences and emotions, openly and honestly, can lead people to deal with their negative emotions and to find ways to move beyond them. She wrote about his discoveries in an article in 2016.

I wanted a way to use this idea in my class, but I wanted to make the writing purposeful and focused for my students. Too many of them are prone to saying they have nothing to write about. As someone who has struggled with depression myself at times – especially about what I see happening to the teaching profession – I thought about how I have used writing to deal with my own emotional struggles. One way was to write about my depression as a series of comic strips. I did so in 2013, and it became my most-read piece of writing ever after appearing in Valerie Strauss’s The Answer Sheet on the Washington Post’s website. I decided that comic strips were too time consuming for a one-day activity, and I have many students who don’t like to draw. So I thought I thought of another type of writing I have developed for myself over the years: my Emotional Emergency Kit.

I checked the idea out with therapist friend to vet it, and she told me it was sound. So without further adieu, here is the Emotional Emergency Kit as I assigned it to my students:

Emergency Kit Assignment 

Journal: What is the best advice you’ve ever found or been given – from another person, or from something you heard, read, or saw online? Why do those words mean something to you? If you have never had any words that meant anything to you – write about why words mean nothing to you, and write about what you do when you feel negative emotions. How do you deal with them?  

Activity: Moods List 

Think about the different moods you get into – the different kinds of negative emotions caused by things that are specific to your life. Give them nicknames. Explain what they feel like and what causes them. (If you literally have no negative emotions or moods – write down why you think you are in this upbeat state all the time – let us in on the secret – or list the different types of good moods you get into.) 

Examples from Mr. Finkle:  

The Tug – The feeling of being tugged downward by stress, because the system is designed to work against what you know is best. Causes: Attending some teacher workshops; hearing about the latest things designed to “improve” teachers and education. 

The Bland – A feeling of dullness – of nothing seeming new and everything seeming boring. Causes: not sure – can strike at any time. 

The Down – The feeling that what I am doing isn’t working, and won’t work in the future. Causes: Not getting good feedback about what I’m doing; feeling that the good I do isn’t noticed or appreciated; not signing the standard rich and famous contract.  

Activity: Emergency Kit  

Now, for each of those moods write down some activity or advice that helps you get out of that mood.  

Activities might be: Watch something funny; go for a walk or run; workout; read; listen to music, like __. 

Words might be… well, there are so many words in the world. And sometimes the right words at the right time put everything into perspective.  

You can write down words you already know, make up advice for yourself, or use some of the resources in the emergency kit file folder in Teams!  (Note to teachers reading this blog: I encourage them to look up quotes online, but I also have quotes all around the room, and several books full of quotes of different types that I leave on the counter or scatter around the table groups. If you’d like a copy of my advice pages, please email me – my address is below.)

Type of mood (name it again) – Action; Advice 

Emergency Kit Reflection 

How well did you focus on and engage in the Emergency Kit activity? What did you get out of the activity? 

A couple of notes: Yes, I am open – and sort of vulnerable – with students about my own emotional struggles. I think it is necessary that you try writing your own problem emotions out and then creating your own emergency kit. Also, I tell them that this writing is for them: it may be personal, and I won’t read it unless they want me to. I tell them I want to read their reflection afterward, and that’s all I gave them some points for.

When students replied to the Reflection prompt, some insisted that they didn’t get much out of it because they don’t have any distressing emotions. If they are being honest, I envy them their emotional well-being. I wish I were so unruffled. But I suspect some of them didn’t want to admit to having negative emotions. That’s okay, too. This idea of naming and then finding ways to deal with their emotions may be useful to them later down the line, even if it isn’t useful to them now.

Many students wrote that they had found the process useful – especially the part where they give their bad moods unique names. Some students asked if they could write down unique names for their happy moods, as well. My answer was, “Of course! This is for you, not for me!” (I actually tried giving my positive moods names and found it very helpful!) Many of them said that they would keep their emergency kits around for any emotional emergencies they had – they had found it very useful indeed.

If we want to help students with their emotional health and emotional intelligence, we need look no further than the tools English is all about. We need to encourage them to use their words. In the process, you might find the emergency kit useful for yourself, too, in these stressful times where we are encouraged to practice self-care!

Images via www.mrfitz.com. Created by David Lee Finkle.

How do you use writing to help students deal with their emotions? You can connect with me on Twitter @DLFinkle or on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/mrfitzcomics

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1 Comment

  1. This was a beautiful read and such great ideas! I wish you were one of my teachers growing up or one of my kids current teachers. Emotional heath, especially after Covid, seems like the most important thing you can teach.

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