Magazine Feature

The Emotion Map

A Connecticut teacher helps teens navigate the landscape of feelings

"Slump Swamp" … "The Geyser of Goofiness" … "Boring Boulevard" … These are just a few of the place-names students coined as part of an exercise I call the Emotion Map -- a popular collaboration project that is also a key step in building emotional literacy.

The 11th and 12th graders who created the map at Watkinson School in Hartford, Conn., all aspire to become professional artists: actors, dancers, visual artists, musicians or writers. As director of the creative arts program at the school, I drew upon an experience I had at a professional actors' workshop to develop an activity to help these young people learn to deal with their emotions.

During a month-long residency at Shakespeare & Company, the renowned theater performance and training center based in Lenox, Mass., the other 63 adults and I were encouraged to note our shifting emotional states on a painted canvas that represented a fabulous geography of feelings. Since emotions constitute the "palette" that actors and directors use, this activity proved an effective way to promote self-awareness and improve communication.

Those of us who teach know well how intensely young people experience their emotions and how their handling of these feelings can help or hinder personal growth. We probably have countless examples from our own experience that could support educational researcher Daniel Goleman's description of emotional intelligence as the master aptitude, a "meta-ability determining how well or how poorly people are able to use their other mental capacities."

The teens I worked with on the Emotion Map project led high-pressure lives with hours of rehearsal time on top of full academic schedules. Although they were seldom openly hostile to one another, there were unspoken tensions among them. Several members of the group were highly competitive and turf-conscious; some tended to squelch distressing feelings or ignore injuries so they could concentrate on their goals. Often, the highest achievers in the group were envied by others and ostracized in subtle ways. Meeting for only an hour each week, students had difficulty building relationships strong enough to overcome these barriers.

And, like all of us, they often had to face serious inner challenges that were not easy to talk about. Death brushed our school community when two students died in a car accident and another succumbed to leukemia. One participant's mother passed away very suddenly. And, as in every teen group, there were tensions related to emerging sexuality and to body image. For instance, an extremely fit male dancer had made disparaging remarks about large girls that were interpreted by some as harassment.

I had private conversations with students who said, "I don't feel safe sharing my work" or "I can't talk when Sheila is in the room." But when I asked the group what they wanted their art to express, most of them said, "Feeling!" This gave me the last nudge I needed to experiment with the Emotion Map to help them uncover underlying tensions in a way that was enjoyable and nonthreatening.


Inner Cartography

We began the activity by recalling other imaginative maps students remembered from favorite old books like The Hobbit and The Phantom Tollbooth. I invited students to brainstorm lists of imaginary places we could use to create our own map, and we quickly filled the board with more than 30 suggestions: places like Revenge Rapids and The Pinnacles of Achievement. The laughter and ease in the room were a marked contrast to some of our earlier meetings.

Then I rolled out a huge piece of paper on the floor, handed out pencils, and invited each student to pick the features they wanted to sketch. Spontaneously, discussions emerged about what sites might be near each other; thus the Rotary of Annoyance was placed near Guilt Garage and the Park Bench of Contentment was planted in Pleasure Park.

On Post-it notes, I invited each student to draw an "icon of the self" -- some marker they would recognize as their own but that would not identify them publicly. That done, I suggested they each take a reading of what they were feeling right then and place the marker wherever it belonged on the map -- surreptitiously, if they desired.

I was pleased to see that the anonymity of the Post-it provided enough emotional cover for students to place their markers even while other students were in the room. Because they were all swarming over the map at the same time, it was hard to track where any particular person put their marker. And a norm became established -- quickly and wordlessly -- that you could notice the location of markers but not ask whose they were.

At each of our meetings over subsequent weeks, I encouraged students to move their markers around on the map in accordance with how they were feeling at the time. I "mapped" my own feelings, too. Because of tight classroom space, we sometimes rolled the map out in the hallway at our lunchtime meetings. Other students passing by saw what we were doing and asked to join in. Soon the map had many Post-its on it. The teens could clearly see that they were often not alone in feeling a particular way, even if their companions were anonymous.

As the classmates became more comfortable using the map, they became more open with their dialogue. Some would commiserate around exam time, for instance, when a cluster of markers appeared in the Amphitheater of Angst and another in the Airplane of Anxiety. I overheard one student tell another, only partly in jest, "I spent the last few days in the Thicket of Complications, but I finished the paper and now I'm on the Bridge of Elation!"

The action of moving the markers to reflect their emotional states provided the teens a physical demonstration that feelings change and that emotional highs as well as lows are temporary. As a result, they began to develop greater assurance that they could survive hard times. Rather than pretend not to be experiencing a powerful feeling, they could freely and safely acknowledge the emotion and move through it more easily. As one student said, "I'm sick and tired of getting slapped around in the Car Wash of Confusion, but I know it can't last forever."

Since the map had become rather unwieldy, I proposed that we ask a talented visual artist in our group to create a smaller version. Kristen, a quiet sophomore, had only recently begun to share her artwork with her peers. After we agreed on a long, narrow format that could be folded for portability, Kristen used color pencils to condense the original map into an image 7 inches wide and 2 1/2 feet long.

After I made a color photocopy of the new, smaller map for each student, we held a "bookmaking" workshop with Marcia Buch, an art teacher at Watkinson. Using spray adhesive, students glued their maps onto colorful heavy-duty paper, creased the paper along preplanned fold lines and created original covers, which were as varied and ingenious as the students themselves. A writing student used calligraphy to decorate her cover with favorite quotes, including this from Erica Jong, one of her idols: "The drive to write is a lifesaver to one who is drowning in her own feelings."

At the local mall I purchased metal nose studs for students to use as moveable markers on their personal Emotion maps. Placing the two magnetized pieces on their books -- one on front and one on back -- students could slide the stud around to track their emotional journeys. With the new format, the project took on a more intimate role, and I soon saw the books poking out of backpacks around campus.

We shared Kristen's map and explained the purpose of the activity at a meeting of the entire school. I also posted one in the faculty room in hopes that by tracking their own emotional meanderings teachers might feel less isolated and perhaps better appreciate their students' changing emotional states.


A Rewarding Journey

As the project progressed, I could see my students forming a new understanding of how complicated and intriguing our emotions can be. Some who had been resistant to verbalizing or writing down their self-reflections found this exercise to be a safer method of taking stock. And I saw a new kind of emotional resilience and self-acceptance replace some of the tensions in the most competitive and high-achieving students. As they placed their markers, they wordlessly revealed that they, too, felt vulnerable at times. Other students noticed this, and it seemed to soften the animosity between them.

In other cases, students who thought they had little in common or who felt defensive toward each other began to show more empathy. Near the end of the year, two talented violinists who had avoided situations where their playing might be compared chose to rehearse and perform a duet together for the first time. In another instance, three young women who were not close friends collaborated on a performance about the pressure girls in our culture can feel about body image. On a stage littered with dismembered Barbie dolls and advertising images, they combined original monologues and poetry with historical quotations. To address this topic before a mixed-gender group -- while also mediating their own tensions -- required considerable emotional flexibility.

Even though the Emotion Map project is complete, I continue to use and hear the vocabulary we developed when I'm talking with students in the group. They can now tell me how they're feeling with much less embarrassment or fumbling for words. Part of what made it work was that it permitted conversation about difficult issues while also providing an appropriate zone of privacy for each of us. And it was fun!

A map of Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana and Mississippi with overlaid images of key state symbols and of people in community

Learning for Justice in the South

When it comes to investing in racial justice in education, we believe that the South is the best place to start. If you’re an educator, parent or caregiver, or community member living and working in Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana or Mississippi, we’ll mail you a free introductory package of our resources when you join our community and subscribe to our magazine.

Learn More