INTRODUCTION: I am a counselor at Illinois Valley Community College in the Student Support Services TRIO Program. I also teach a college strategies course for women in transition. The women in the class have returned to education after being away from it for five years or more. Most of them are twenty-five years of age or older, married, have children, and work. The class meets one night per week for eight weeks. Each class is three and one-half hours long.
On the first night of class we did an ice-breaker activity in which I asked the students to write the three things they liked most about themselves. The women struggled with this request, and several could not come up with three qualities. They had difficulty thinking of and expressing positive attributes about themselves. They seemed to lack self-awareness, self-confidence and self-esteem. As a first step to addressing these issues, I decided that the women in the class would work on writing their personal affirmations.
I have facilitated this activity in a previous Strategies for College class and in workshops on self-esteem and self-awareness. The activity works best with groups of 20-30 participants, but can be done with as few as ten. Total time for activity: 30-40 minutes.
*To help students identify positive attributes about themselves
*To assist students in writing personal affirmations
*To get students up from their seats and moving
*To build a community of learners
*White paper plates, about 10-15 per student
*Colored markers, 1 per student
*Note cards, 3 x 5 or larger, 1 per student
*On Course textbook (if available)
1. Divide the class into groups of 4-5, depending on class size.
2. Give each student 10-15 blank white paper plates and a colored marker.
3. Ask students to take turns in their group to say out loud and then write on their paper plate one positive attribute that they now possess or would like to possess. For example, the first person in the group might say and then write “confident” on his/her plate. The next might write “kind,” and so on. Instruct students not to re-use attributes. Explain that each group’s goal is to make enough paper plates that they can line them up on the floor from the front wall to the back wall of the room. (10 minutes)
4. When each group thinks it has enough plates to reach from one end of the room to the other, students can begin to line them up on the floor. If they discover they do not have enough plates, they need to think of more attributes and create more plates. (5 minutes)
5. After all groups have placed their plates on the floor, invite all students to walk around and read what the other groups have written. You will find that several attributes are listed more than once; this is OK. (2 minutes)
6. Have each student pick up 3-5 plates that have attributes written on them that they would like to possess or improve upon. After they have collected their plates, instruct them to go back to their seats. (2-3 minutes)
7. Explain the purpose of a personal affirmation. (You can refer to Chapter 3 of the On Course text for this.) Ask the students to fill in the blanks of the following sentence using the attributes written on the plates they have chosen. (Give them the option of choosing an attribute that was not written on a plate if they wish.) I am a _______, _______, _______ woman/man. (5 minutes)
8. Have the students write their affirmation on an index card to carry with them. They may also keep the paper plates. (2 minutes)
9. Have them practice saying their affirmation out loud to each other. I had my students walk around the room and say their affirmation out loud to anyone they chose, but you can decide on any method that you want to use. (3-5 minutes)
10. OPTIONAL: Have the students complete a “mini-evaluation” of this activity in their journals, on a thought card or 3×5 index card, or through class discussion. (I had my students write about this experience on a thought card; see SOURCES section below for more information.)
The women in my class seemed to enjoy this exercise. After I directed them to their groups and explained the directions, they jumped right in and began working on their attributes. Some things I heard were, “This is hard,” “Do they have to be positive?” and “We might be here all night.”
I observed that although the students had a large paper plate to write on, they usually wrote the word in small print. I had to encourage them several times to write the words larger. It was as if they were almost afraid to write big and claim the quality for themselves. The groups got stuck once in a while and could not think of any more positive attributes so I would prompt them with suggestions such as, Think of a person whom you admire. What qualities does he/she possess?” This would get them thinking again.
The groups were hesitant at first to start laying out their plates, but once the first group started, they all joined in. There was some competing going on to see which group finished their line of plates first, but it was minimal. When I asked the students to walk around and read what other groups had written, most did. There were a few students who, instead, took this time to stand back and chat. Only when I asked them to choose their three plates did they finally join in.
I think the students enjoyed writing their personal affirmations but were hesitant to speak them out loud. When I asked them to go around the room and say their affirmations to others I heard a lot of laughter and remarks about being uncomfortable. I noticed that some students approached one or two other students and then sat down. However, others couldn’t say their affirmations enough.
One of my goals was to get the students out of their seats and interacting with others. This activity accomplished that goal. The students had to move around a lot during the activity.
Another goal of the activity was to strengthen self-awareness and self-esteem and to help students identify positive attributes. I think many students accomplished this. Here is what they had to say afterwards:
“I really enjoyed this. It boosted my self-esteem.”
“I had a hard time thinking of a positive me. I was a little nervous at the beginning of the activity, but felt better about myself by the end.”
“I enjoyed the activity because I interacted with the other ladies. It was fun to verbalize attributes that I feel that I have and need, that don’t always get mentioned on a day-to-day basis. I tend to like myself more and learn to discover who I am after these exercises.”
“This activity was good. It made me look at myself, my strengths and weaknesses and the areas that I need improvement in. It was a little strange but it was an exercise that made you be a little assertive. It’s fun sharing and seeing that other people have the same problems as you.”
“I think that this activity can give people better self-esteem if they would just say it more often. It was hard for me, though, to come up with positive attributes because I am so negative about myself. I should practice this game more often so I feel better self-worth.”
I facilitated this activity in the third of eight class sessions. I find that the sooner you can do this in the class the better. I often refer back to this exercise and the students’ personal affirmations through the remainder of the class sessions when I sense that their self-esteem may need a boost.
This exercise was a high-energy activity that got them out of their seats and interacting with one-another. An added bonus was that the students realized they had a lot in common with each other. One student said, “Everyone in here seems to be unhappy with some aspects in their lives and it helps me realize that I’m not alone.” Another said, “I thought it was interesting to find out that the other women in my group had the same kind of attributions as I did.” For me, the exercise reinforced the power of group work.
By helping the students write their personal affirmation, I was reminded how important it is for me to say mine more often. As one student put it, “I feel that from time to time everyone, especially women, need to be reminded of their positive attributes.” Although my self-esteem is high at the moment, I know that it is a very fragile thing. To me, self-esteem is like a flag on a flagpole. You pull and pull to raise it and, with one little slip of the rope, it drops.” I share this metaphor with my students each semester. I have to admit that I once thought that personal affirmations were lame, but now I have a copy of my affirmation in my grade-book and another one on my bulletin board in my office. I’ve been converted. Behold the power of the personal affirmation!
I learned about the paper plate activity in a workshop facilitated by Dr. Susan Goodale from Illinois State University.
The personal affirmation writing activity was adapted from the On Course textbook.
–Meg Kowalczyk, Counselor, Illinois Valley Community College, IL