Each year I have my students create self-portrait boxes. The self-portrait boxes are a way for them to generate and symbolize important memories and stories in their lives. They were required to fulfill a few specific requests (for example, a symbol for a story where they or someone in their family effected change), but they were also given free rein to include as many stories as they wanted.
We made the boxes together, two boxes actually. One was the lid. We used an origami box format and worked together to master the simple yet masterful technique. The more adept students helped others who were more challenged in the folding.
A week later, each student presented his/her box to the rest of the class, identifying all the images on the outside, the images/items on the inside, and then they shared one story. I had them sit in the front of the class when they presented, in the “share chair” (the name of which the students found quite humorous). We have learned quite a bit about each other from these sharings: from near death experiences and accidents to congenital disease, and unique and varied family structures, from moments of bravery to moments of great fear and awkwardness. With each presentation, the students seemed to become more and more open, more and more courageous in what they shared. We will grow a personal narrative out of one of the stories in the box.
We have put all the boxes in the display cases outside the library (which I do every year) accented by memoirs from the library (ie Epileptic by David B., Stitches by David Small, Night by Elie Wiesel, etc.). The students arranged the boxes in the cases and the objects inside and outside their boxes on the shelves. The cases themselves have become the large portrait box of all of us in class this year. It’s a curious, quirky, and provocative landscape of all of our energies, sensibilities, and possibilities.
It is fascinating to watch others looking in the cases. Especially my former students who are now in high school, who remember making these boxes in 8th grade. They peruse and comment on the boxes, but mostly they reminisce about their own boxes and try to remember what they put in them. Some tell me they still have theirs and have since added items. Some wonder what they did with their box.
The students bring an abundance of wisdom, ideas, and feelings to class. Most are not even aware of this depth. But somehow in the sharing of the boxes there is a communal glimmer of the richness of our shared humanity. Whether the kids still have their boxes years later, whether they remember what they put in them, whether they wonder where they are, it’s this glimmer that remains.