I Asked My Students What They Carry in Their “Invisible Backpacks”

 //  Dec 20, 2016

I Asked My Students What They Carry in Their “Invisible Backpacks”

I had an eye-opening moment one morning while driving into the City of Newburgh for a meeting with my superintendent. I was born on one of the many streets that comprise the City of Newburgh. It has changed a great deal since then. The streets and homes are in disrepair and the city sometimes looks tired. However, there were bright spots on the corners this particular morning: the children about to board their buses, standing alongside an adult or older sibling.  

As I was waiting at a stoplight, I happened to glance in the direction of one intersection. A mother was opening a backpack, placing in it items such as a notebook, a brown bag, and what looked to be a note. I asked myself before the light turned green, what hopes and dreams does that parent have for their child? And then I thought, a teacher will soon be on the receiving end of that child, with that backpack. 

Teachers do not usually see the care that someone takes in making sure that everything is just right before sending their child to school, or know the hopes and dreams that they may have for their child.

That backpack, a little too big, held what the child needed to start the day. But I asked myself, What else does it hold?

When I returned to school, I thought of my own students and imagined them waiting on the corner for their buses. The next morning, I paid closer attention to my students as they entered my classroom. I watched as they unceremoniously unpacked their items. However, it was with a little less care than the mother who was on the corner the previous morning. I observed what was coming out of their pack, and it made me wonder what it was that I may not be seeing. What is it that the children carry with them that is not visible, but all the same, impacts who they are and how they learn?

I realize that maybe it isn’t what you see that matters most, but what is "invisible." So I tried something different as we started the day. 

As we gathered at the rug that morning, I asked them to share what they brought with them to school that day. They mentioned things like snacks, lunch money, water, books, and notes.  

I then asked, "what is in your ‘invisible back pack’ today?"  That piqued their interest!  I explained that I watched them that morning as they unpacked their bags. I also explained that I wondered what I didn’t see. How were they feeling this morning, what kind of night did they have, were they ready to learn, was there a goal that they wanted to set for the day?

I asked them to think about it for a few moments and turn and talk to a partner before they would share out to the whole class. There was a level of excitement as the children shared their thoughts. I asked if there was anyone who wanted to share. One little girl stood up and said, "I didn’t sleep much last night, my baby brother cried a lot."

Another girl stood and shared that her stomach hurt because she is afraid of another child on the bus, then one little boy stood up and said that he was supposed to see his mother under a court order and she didn't show up. 

It was very apparent at that moment that in order to teach each child, we have to reach each child.  Their ‘invisible backpacks’ are very telling.  We, as teachers, need to create a safe environment that will allow our children to share their stories.  This sharing has also turned into goal setting for the day, and I am so honored to have an opportunity to really get to know my students. 

I have made it a point to pay closer attention to what I don’t see in the course of a day. The impact on learning is often hindered by many invisible barriers. My role is to unearth these barriers, help when I can and let them know that I am there for them.  

My journey as a teacher has taken me to a place where I now realize the importance of reaching each child beyond the curriculum and classroom walls. I want my students to realize that I am there for them, I truly care about what they are feeling and I want to help them reach their goals.  

When I am fortunate enough to be the one to share their ‘invisible backpack,’ it truly is an eye-opening experience to what shapes each child. It can help me meet them where they are and bring them along as they continue their educational journey. What I refer to as ‘invisible’ has actually made me see my students more now than ever before.


(With a nod to Peggy McIntosh’s 1989 essay “Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack.”)

Photo of Dana McDonough: Lee Ferris; Backpack image via Steven Depolo