Introspective Swirls: Lesson Plan

Want to include social emotional learning in a classroom? Want a fun lesson plan to getting students thinking about what makes them individual?

…Don’t care about any of those things, but are curious about the social implications of the movie Inside Out and group interactions?

Look no further, my friends!

This lesson plan will give you what you need to create this cute swirly brain person from my last post and incorporate social emotional learning (SEL). Especially after a hit movie like Inside Out, the timing is great for students to be thinking about interiority, emotions and what makes them unique. What I think is great about Inside Out is that it presents complex content about emotions, mental health, theory of mind in a applicable way for young people. This lesson plan continues the work of examining the inside of a person, but uses the group setting to explore empathy and recognizing how what’s going on inside effects the way we interact.

Lesson Plan

Objective: Examine emotions and self-identity to uncover unique qualities that make up the group.

How to get started: Make sure you have colored/patterned paper, plain white paper, scissors, scotch tape and colored pencils/crayons. Warm the class up by asking some questions. Who are some of your favorite characters? What qualities do you like about them? How do you think they feel when they use show those qualities?


1. Have students start with drawing a self portrait on the plain white paper. It should only be the face from the nose up and span lengthwise all the way across and only go to about halfway heightwise. This is where they can think about what other people see when they look at them. As they wrap up, it might be good to encourage them to write down what things they were thinking about in their self portrait are conveyed on the outside.

Cartoon Self Portrait

2. Start the swirl station! Prepare the colored/patterned paper and scissors. Students should pick about 3-4 sheets (number of sheets correlates to complexity). They will cut the paper in a spiral, starting on the outside and working in.

Swirls Spiraling

3. Have the students write along the swirls qualities about themselves that makes them special inside. Each swirl can be a different quality or attribute and challenge them to explain it as much as they can to take up the whole length of the swirl. Encourage them to think about things they feel or experience internally that are important to them, but that the outside world doesn’t always get to see.

This engages with the SEL guidelines of identifying and managing one’s emotions and recognizing personal qualities (SEL 1A and 1B).

4. Wrap up the swirls into little coils. This is what makes them extra curly. I recommend curling them with the writing on the inside, so that it is inside when it unravels. Roll it up so that it fits in the hand tightly, give it a little squeeze, hold for a couple seconds and voila!


5. Then attach the swirls to the top of the self-portrait. Once all the swirls are prepared, the should be twisted together and arranged on the top half of the paper. Then ends can be attached with scotch tape (or a glue stick).

Share: Students can share their work touching on 1) what they put in their self-portrait that others see and 2) what they wrote on their swirls about what is inside. Make sure students feel comfortable and aren’t pressured to share more than they are comfortable. Setting up rules about sharing decorum ahead of time is a good way to help make this feel safe. I like to set terms of: we listen when some else is sharing like we want to be listened to and we give everyone a round of applause.

Reflect: Once everyone has shared their work, wrap up with some questions to summarize the key points.

What similarities surprised you across the group? In what ways do we show our inner self? How do we create interactions that help us feel celebrate our full self?

This extends the activity to the next step of the SEL guidelines, recognizing the feelings and perspectives of others, recognizing individual and group similarities and differences and using communication and social skills to interact effectively (SEL 2A, 2B, 2C). It will get the group connecting with one another and themselves all while developing important life skills.


Extending the activity: This would be an excellent activity for elementary school students, but can be taken to the next level for middle school by extending the lesson to then talk about the person they want to be. To help middle school students recognize external supports (SEL 1.B), they can create a strand that is their future self. Middle schoolers can make this intellectual leap better. Then the lesson will shift to helping them strategize using their unique qualities and emotions to achieve their goals. Thus, demonstrating skills related to achieving personal and academic goals (SEL 1.C). and  considering ethical and societal factors in making decisions (SEL 3A).

Social Emotional Learning is valuable to any classroom or group of people of any discipline because it guides us to engage with each other on a human level for greater understanding. Art is a great vehicle to convey these complex concepts in a condensed, fun way!

Hope you enjoy and can apply some of these ideas!


Something Old, Something New

This weekend brought two great openings of theatrical shows, The Arc Theatre’s Macbeth and Steppenwolf Theatre’s Grand Concourse. It’s been a little while since I’ve seen theatre without dancing (maybe 3 weeks…). I was impressed and excited for the run of these two shows. And as one such as myself is bound to do, I was drawn to how they both interacted with audience engagement; one old script adapted and one new script.

Macbeth by The Arc Theatre

The Arc Theatre’s Macbeth unravels outdoors in South Evanston. Actors sprawl across the park just on the brink of the urban world; apartments behind, a hospital to the south. It was stunning to watch theatre interact with real life as this production did.

The show started silently, which I’m a total sucker for because I love the way the audience isn’t sure if the production is actually starting and the gap between before the show and during the show is blurred. One pagan witch started by setting up twine along the border of the stage. On opening night, admittedly, I thought “oh a last minute detail they forgot to set up.” The witches are interpreted not as mystical beings, but pagans making them seem more real and present.

Weird "Sisters" from The Arc Theatre's Macbeth in RIdgeville Park

Weird “Sisters” from The Arc Theatre’s Macbeth in Ridgeville Park

On a light summer evening, the intense mental drama of Macbeth seemed extremely present. The apex of Lady Macbeth sleep walking seemed like we could encounter her as a slightly off person in the park. Until, with gasps from the audience, we get a peak into her mental state as water turns to blood.

Interior anguish juxtaposed with an everyday environment of a park with people passing by, a playground stage right, updated and brought the insanity to a very real place.

In some ways it seems like mental illness is a hot topic in today’s society, moreso than in the past. We strive to take away stigmas and provide resources (and often drugs) for treatment. Does it just seem we think about it more because we are starting to know more about it medically or it’s more common? Seeing Macbeth reminded me how much of the mystery of mental illness takes effect in Shakespeare‘s work.
View of the window display outside Steppenwolf Theatre.

View of the window display outside Steppenwolf

A real modern day tale, Grand Concourse, takes place in an urban soup kitchen with twists and turns of mental wellness. A dynamic 4 person cast rounds out a number of mental intricacies.  Sister Shelley, a faith questioning nun, seems like the rock of the group, but then shows struggles with God and the outside world. Emma, the new girl, shakes things up (and is even called crazy within the first 20 min of the show). “What is going on with her” stacks up and weighs on her as she considers her mental wellness. Oscar, the kitchen maintenance worker, seems down to earth, but struggles with his impulses. Frog, a patron of the soup kitchen, has a list of mental afflictions attached to him, bi-polar, anger management, and shines in personality as an aging flower child.
The set was remarkable at transporting the audience to the environment inside the soup kitchen. I’ll leave some surprises, but it becomes very easy to believe a fully working kitchen unfolds before our eyes. Further considering interiority, we get hints at the outside world of the alley behind the kitchen, but we are entirely within this soup kitchen in the church. Inside. The kitchen acts as a safe space where characters escape from the problems of the outside world (death, cancer, family drama). But it also hosts moments of mental anguish. Extending the themes of mental interiority, the kitchen acts as the shell from the outside world and characters don’t know what they’ll find on their inside. From breakdowns to celebrations, every mind runs the spectrum on in the kitchen.
As for audience engagement, neither show had an intermission; no break to reality, to talk to your friends about the show, check your phone, relieve bodily functions. Without this intermission break, audience members spend more time in their own heads. A different way to engage the audience; engage them with themselves.
Art finds a way to bring out inner dramas. It can bring groups closer together, but also bring us closer to ourselves. I decided to create a self-portrait with just the eyes and the “mind” swirling out the top with lovely patterned paper. Losely inspired by the new film, Inside Out, I intertwined the paper swirls to represent different aspects of the self. There many aspects that make up who a person is and the mind can often be secretive or hard to control. Creating and participating in art can be a tool to look into others and reflect on the self.
Two great performances with many shows left. Macbeth runs Saturdays and Sundays until August 2 and Grand Concourse closes August 30. Worth spending some time exploring and exploring yourself.

Thirsty for more interiority?

Check out this trailer to see a great character portrayal of Sister Shelley in Grand Concourse.

Fearing the Storm

“How long will you stay in your comfort zones?”

-Chicago Tap Theatre, Circo Tap

Approaching storm, change to new, threat of power, all things that evoke fear were central to Walkabout Theater Company‘s adaptation of The Tempest, Storm. The troupe pushed audience engagement by nearly sending a wrecking ball through the fourth wall.

Walkabout Theater Company's STORM

Walkabout Theater Company’s STORM

The show starts with the beckoning of an actor through entering though the the front door, making his way through the lobby stride by stride, drawing out glances leading the audience into the theater. Actors leap, move through and direct the audience all through body movement. Beckoning engagement while using their force to make it seem natural, toeing line just next to the comfort zone.

With some main characters and the general structure of the tempest, but fear and change guided thematically. The feud between Prospero and Caliban becomes a central piece.

What do audience members fear the most?

Fresh on my mind from seeing Chicago Tap Theatre’s latest, Circo Tap.  Combining tap dance with circus performance made for a daring combination. Tap dancers turned acrobats, turned clowns, turned escape artists! Something about the novelty of circus acts evoked that edge of the seat fear. They reached out, engaged by utilizing surrounding balconies to echo sound, spewing down aisles with gymnastic feats, even literally reaching out and shaking audience members hands. The whole performance was strikingly narrated by Marc Kelly Smith as the ring master seeking inspiration for a new act. The audience gasps with fear at tightrope walkers at lion tamers, but his fear draws them in and makes it impossible to look away. After storm, I had a new lens to examine what is intriguing about circus is that fear involved in live performance.

circo tap

One can often see the fear course through an audience when an actor is going to pull someone up on stage. You know this scene; a comedy club, audience members sink deeper into their chairs dreading that contact with the performer.

Engaging can be scary.

Both storm and Circo tap evoked this fear strongly, but once the audience was in, the emotional investment was apparent. Like a ritual, the audience had just enough fear to unite and invest fully to the performance.

I couldn’t help but think of my own fear and how what I dreaded most was also engaging. I DID NOT WANT TO WRITE! Like really did not. It was great thinking about this blog, imagining what it could be like, but the fear of an audience reading it made me freeze in my tracks. There is a fear mounting inside of myself that I can’t please my toughest audience member, me.

Fear drawing

I drew this picture simply with a sharpie (that had “write!” written on the cap). It shows the tension of being held back by fear and the cusp of breaking away. Tempestuous clouds, many forces pushing and pulling. I placed the sharpie in the frame with its shadow weighing down, just at the grasp of the hand. Reaching out of the comfort zone compelled me to do something that may not be good, but helped engage others in something more important, art.

Sometimes a healthy push towards that limit of the comfort zone is what pushes art, what engages community. Perhaps in this realm, the dreaded fomo (fear of missing out) can be greater to get more butts in seats enjoying daring performances like Storm and Circo tap. It is better to be there, to be present than to stay stagnant.

And lucky for you, it’s not too late! Walkabout theater performs The Wild at Links Hall July 8 and 9. More audience gripping fear this time with dionsyian elements is sure to engage at the Physical Festival!

In the Castle

CSO French Passions and Reveries

While playing Pelleas et Melisande for some elementary schoolers, we discussed how music changes understanding of text. The Chicago Symphony Orchestra presents a festival of French Reveries & Passions this month. But I couldn’t help but take away the setting of scene two “in the castle” to represent the dubious accessibility of classical music to the lesser experienced listener.

There is the conception that the symphony concert goer fits the profile of a typically, older and financially up-scale patron of the arts. This “monarchy” can snatch up tickets at the highest rates and escape for an evening to the elaborate landscape of the castle-resembling concert hall. While counterparts, of the citizenship, stay outside the castle potentially barred by barriers of cost of entry or distance or priorities elsewhere or the perceived notion of the space of classical music as inaccessible. After Tuesday’s closing performance of Debussy’s opera, I thought it would be a perfect vehicle to discuss adaptation with the tools of music and text with young listeners in order to take steps to lower the draw bridge into the castle.

First, we watched a video of singers with an orchestra, no staging, no subtitles, to challenge them to look at the music for cues about the storyline. The CSO production went a step above this basic staging incorporating movement of the singers at their stands, surtitles and a complex light projected set. These elements played nicely to strike a balance between pure operatic performance and a strictly concert presentation.

A lovely drawing of an adaptation in which the princess' bunny gets stuck in a tree and saved by a flying superhero. (After they all go out for pizza)

A lovely drawing of an adaptation in which the princess’ bunny gets stuck in a tree and saved by a flying superhero. (After they all go out for pizza)

I centered our analysis in the “Tower Scene” in which Melisande finds her hair miraculously lengthened after it dipping in the pool and Pelleas walks by the base of the tower encountering her hair reaching down. This element of the story seemed relatable to students as similar to a Rapunzel story. There are clear differences between both tellings, but the similar elements laid groundwork to talk about adaptation. We took to writing and drawing our own Rapunzel stories in a modern setting.

What elements are essential in our adaptations to make the story similar enough, but apply to a modern setting?

All the stories had some sort of tower and magical elements. There were Wizards with potions at the top of a shelf, a suspended cage in a tree kept by a witch, and the bunny in the tree who gets down and goes out for pizza. I was pleasantly surprised with how the students chose different elements of the story to maintain and change.

Debussy adapted Maeterlinck’s text by setting it to music and then the CSO’s adapted it to performance. The magical qualities are suspended throughout, the music adds a layer of mysticism, and the lights and dramatization of the CSO illuminated the setting. The impressionism of Debussy’s music felt copied by the lighting design with its blurry, “almost-there”ness. This setting employed a narrator that tied together scenes and transported the audience from the outside world into the soundscape of the story with ease.

My interpretation takes the theme of the hand and using it to complete the picture. Like music and words, the hand and the background fit in together. One setting the scene, the other manifesting the action.

My interpretation takes the theme of the hand and using it to complete the picture. Like music and words, the hand and the background fit in together. One setting the scene, the other manifesting the action.

I went to the performance with my friend who is an engineer/casual oboist, which made talking about the symbols and themes of the story a little bit different than the conversation with a typical twenty-something artsy type. She was adept analyzing the structural elements of the story, she vigorously flipped through the pages of the program during intermission trying to learn everything about it. So when I brought up some of the symbols and metaphors that stood out to me, she replied that she didn’t note that, but could see where I was coming from (very analytical). One of the most strikingly symbols of the story that stood out to me was the hand. Metonymically, the hand stands for marriage, (taking someone’s hand in marriage), Melisande feels a hand grabbing her hair (her being is trapped and tied down), she loses the ring from her hand (loses the love of her husband).

Music and the text seem to marry metnoymically; the music is one piece that represents the story as a whole.

Next for the CSO is the French Reveries and Passions Festival is Messaien’s Turangalila-symphonie. A symphonic piece with no performed text, but based off the tale of Tristan and Isolde. There are clear musical links between the two French composers, but the approach to adaptation of a story is sure to differ. How will the adaptation present itself with Messaien’s work? With his setting, what I can imagine is the themes of passion and strong drama of the death of two lovers. The “reveries and passions” certainly shine in the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s performance.