Start Empathy

Image vs. Reality: A Lesson for the 7th Grader in All of Us

Post written by Emily Cherkin for Ashoka's Start Empathy Initiative, a whole child partner organization.

When I tell people I work with 7th graders, I often hear, "Oh, wow. ... I'm so sorry!" They tell me how miserable their seventh grade year was. Sometimes I hear, "It takes a certain person to work with that age group..." before their voice trails off, uncertainly.

I am usually bemused, at turns slightly offended, but mostly, I understand. Because I remember how hard 7th grade was for me, which is exactly why I so love working with this age group now.

As a part-time teacher and a full-time mom, I have been working with 7th graders for the past few years on a curriculum focusing on media literacy and anti-bullying.

I want to tell you about a recent lesson I did with the 7th graders, but before that, I want to tell you a story:

First, a visual. This was me in the 7th grade, more than 20 years ago. At the time, I played violin in the school orchestra, I took Honors English, and I was Seventh Grade Senator. From this picture alone, you might deduce that I was a confident, go-getter girl. I was organized and neat—see the collar, the perfectly centered necklace? Teachers described me as motivated, an excellent student. Friends said I was funny and loud and klutzy.

So one day in 7th grade P.E. class, we were doing Double Dutch jump rope, and I held the two ropes, one in each hand. We were outside, by the portables. It was sunny. I was wearing white shorts with a fish pattern on them and a coordinating t-shirt.

And the next thing I knew, John*, notorious 7th grade prankster, had snuck up behind me and yanked my fish shorts down around my ankles.

I stood there, paralyzed by fear. I realized in that honey-thick pause that my hands were still clutching the ends of two jump ropes, and I didn't know what to do. When I was able to push through the mortifying horror of the moment, I dropped the ropes, yanked my shorts back up, and fled to the relative safety of my gym teacher, Mr. Walden*, where I hid behind him, on the steps of the portable, until the end of class. He did and said absolutely nothing. To me, or to John.

Above all the other angst and misery and embarrassment of being a preteen, this memory stands out above the rest because of how vividly I remember it left me feeling.

Hiding behind Mr. Walden, all my worst fears seemed confirmed: nobody understood, nobody would stick up for me, nobody felt the way I did.

From my school picture and the characterizations of my teachers and friends, one might conclude that a girl like me could have handled a situation like this. That I was confident and feisty. That I would bounce right back.

But I didn't. It was painful. I was totally ashamed.

Looking back, what I realize is that there was a total dichotomy between what I presented to those around me—even those who knew me relatively well—and what I felt was really going on inside. The image I projected hid much of who I felt I was in reality.

This distinction between image and reality is something I have been talking about a lot recently with my 7th grade students—because the truth is, a lot of this stuff still comes up.

To illustrate, I want to share a lesson I did a few weeks ago. Because we talk a lot about media messages in class, I wanted the kids to stop and think for a minute about how they viewed each other, and themselves, and to think about the ways media—TV, advertising, movies, etc.—perpetuate and reinforce these perceptions.

First, I showed the students a TEDx Talk featuring Cameron Russell. If you don't know who Cameron Russell is, she is a Victoria's Secret underwear model. This fact alone might give you an idea of what she looks like. But it doesn't tell you what a powerful story she has to tell.

According to Russell, "Image is powerful. Image is superficial." From her talk, we learn that "winning the genetic lottery," much to many people's surprise, does not mean automatic happiness for Russell. In fact, she admits to feeling constantly scrutinized, uncomfortable with the attention she gets, and stuck in a line of work that values her looks and body above her mind. She tells us that the images we see in ads and on TV are constructed—they are part of a long process of makeup artists and lighting technicians and Photoshop editors whose ultimate goal is to show you an image that is actually quite far from reality.

My students were struck by her story. In many ways, Russell's life as a model defied logic they assumed to be true: if you were as thin/beautiful/sexy as she was, how could you be anything BUT happy?

To bring this point home, I passed out index cards. I asked the students to identify only their gender, not their name.

On one side of the card, I asked them to write down the answer to this question: "How do you think other people see you? If they were to look at a picture of you, or walk into a room and see you, what words would come to mind?"

I then compiled all their answers, by gender, combining some answers into larger categories to protect identity.

Then I created a word cloud.

Here is the boys' word cloud for the answer to this first question: How do you think others see YOU?

The larger a word in a word cloud, the more times that word appeared on the note cards.

And here it is for the girls:

On the flip side of the index cards, I then asked the students to "complete the picture." If image is "powerful" and image is "superficial," then what is the rest of YOUR story? What are the things that make you YOU that we can't see on the outside? Here is the boys' word cloud:

And here it is for the girls:

Things really change; don't they? While many boys think others perceive them as being athletic, for example, not many identified that as key to the rest of their image. Additionally, several boys described that internally they are "sensitive" or "insecure."

For the girls, the external also highlights athleticism as well as body size and shape, hair color, style, or clothing. Yet inside, girls describe themselves as "insecure," "self-conscious," and "unhappy," and list "family problems" as a huge part of their identity.

I have to stop for a moment and point out something important. There were many positive things also listed on the clouds that don't appear large in size because they indicate individual tastes and interests. This is a good thing—it shows there is diversity in our class. But the key point here is that while there is much diversity, there is also far more that they have in common.

So Why Does This Matter?

We all know that what we see is not always the full story. Teachers are always reading between the mumbles and the "I'm okays."

When I was in the 7th grade, hiding, mortified, behind Mr. Walden on the portable steps, I wish I had known that I wasn't the only 7th grader feeling that way—because I probably wasn't.

I do not think it is that different for our students today. We can and do help them to see that they are not alone. When I showed the students their word clouds, they were amazed. They wanted to analyze them. They wanted copies. I think, maybe, some of them felt less alone.

I know many teachers already do many of these things all the time. So, if you are a teacher, or a parent, seeking to connect with a young person, I just want to leave you with three things to think about:

  1. Remember what it was like for you when you were the age you are teaching. When did you get pantsed?
  2. Relate—share these stories with your students. Showing vulnerability may mean they will open up too.
  3. Connect—bridge the gap between the students themselves. Do exercises and assignments that allow them to hear from each other and find each other. Show them they aren't alone.

I always conclude my lessons with saying it is an honor and a privilege to be your teacher. So, it is an honor and a privilege to share my story.

*Not his real name.

Image source: Flickr, Creative Commons and the author

Emily Cherkin is a full-time mother to Max, age 5, and Sylvie, age 2, and works part-time with 7th graders, teaching an anti-bullying and media literacy curriculum at a private school in Seattle, Wa. When she finds free hours, she likes to blog about parenting and eat food from her garden. This article was originally featured on the StartEmpathy Blog in April 2013.

Comments (2)


July 25, 2013

I really like your activity and will “borrow” it for the opening of the school year.  It was an excellent idea to separate boys and girls.  I use Wordle with my 8th graders but it has been limited to content standards only, such as analyzing speeches.  This activity can introduce students to each other & to word clouds in a powerful way.  Thanks.


June 26, 2015

i want 7th class syllabus with answers

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