The Emotions Tree: Building Emotional Vocabulary & A Sense of Classroom Community

A Cross-Curricular Grade One “Feelings” Unit

By Lindsay Zebrowski (MEd in Imaginative Education, Kindergarten Teacher)

Primary students are solidly engrossed in developing the literacy skills that will radically alter the ways they engage with the world. They are fascinated with reading, writing, and using a rapidly expanding bank of language and show genuine elation about their growing vocabularies. Accessing the vast scope of vocabulary for conveying emotions is engaging because it gives students the tools to make sense of their inner world.

While pursuing my graduate degree in Imaginative Education I embarked on a project to develop a full-year overview that outlined a vision of the grade one and two curriculum as a Learning in Depth-inspired study of trees. The image that sparked the development of the Emotions Tree[1] unit was obtained from a google search on “trees” as I gathered resources for my “Tree Story” project. I revisited the Emotions Tree several months later and it served as a powerful guiding image for a unit on feelings and building classroom community.

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The central narrative of the Emotions Tree unit is shaped around shared human experiences. The activities serve a dual purpose – to provide students with more sophisticated language for identifying and communicating their emotions; and to develop their ability to recognize and relate to how others are feeling. The stories I use to introduce this unit – “Fuzzyland”[2] and How Full is Your Bucket? For Kids [3] – provide students with powerful metaphors for assessing their current emotional state and empathizing with others. Both stories set up binary oppositions of good and bad for children to use as they begin to grasp the range of emotions they may be experiencing.

The collection of figures on the Emotions Tree can be used to illustrate that no matter how disconnected one figure might feel, they are still in the tree together. The tree represents the classroom community and reflects the variety of moods that may be present in the classroom at any given time. Students begin to recognize their responsibilities as members of a community include reaching out to those who may feel isolated or disconnected.

In addition to providing students with an expanded emotional vocabulary, the Emotions Tree activities also help to foster a sense of classroom community through shared experiences. Students identify emotions conveyed in images and stories by relating to their own experiences and their current emotional state. The use of the Emotions Tree provides a safety net for students who might feel uncomfortable sharing personal accounts directly. The students can choose to tell a story about a chosen figure on the tree instead of speaking about their own experience in the first person.

Students also engage with the five senses and explore how memories and emotions can be inextricably bound to various colours, scents, sounds, and movements. We explore associations commonly made between sensations and emotions and students begin to identify and share their own personal associations. A common theme of connected/disconnected links the stories and the figures on the Emotions Tree. The characters that are depicted as feeling bad are usually isolated or disconnected from the others. The figures on the Emotions Tree whose facial expressions and body language communicate “bad” feelings appear separate or disconnected from the happier figures. An important aim of this unit is to promote care and empathy in the classroom community by emphasizing the importance of making meaningful connections with others.

A clear message is conveyed that doing good for others enhances your own mood as well (and vice versa). In “Fuzzyland” – townspeople become disconnected from each other when they stop sharing their “warm fuzzies”. A good witch and the children she befriends help the people reconnect through “giving warm fuzzies freely”. In How Full is Your Bucket? For Kids – a young boy is able to connect more positively with his sister and others when he sees their metaphorical “buckets” and recognizes that his positive and negative actions affect his own mood as much as the well-being of the people he interacts with.

Assessment

During the unit students are assessed on their active participation during discussions and their willingness to share the connections they are making between stories, images, movements, memories, and associations with the five senses. Their journal writings are reviewed for reflective quality and increased use of emotional vocabulary.  After the unit concludes, students demonstrate increased attentiveness to the feelings of others, noticing body language cues, facial expressions, and overall attitudes and responding with questions such as “are you feeling _____? They may respond by offering assistance, inviting another student to join them in an activity, or providing comfort or reassurance.

I continue to draw on the vocabulary that emerges out of these activities throughout the year and prompt students to communicate how they are feeling and to infer how others may be feeling. A word wall of emotional vocabulary may be on display for reference, as well as a class version of the Emotions tree, constructed from pictures of the students. These activities should help equip students with tools and language for dealing with conflict and help contribute to a caring classroom community.

Suggested Activities and Timeline: Free Download

[1] My initial search was conducted in March 2013. When I revisited the image several months later to develop my unit I attempted to determine the original source of the Emotions Tree but I was unsuccessful. Multiple variations of the Emotions Tree can be found on different counselling and teaching-related blog sites.

[2] “This story was adapted from A Fairy Tale by Claude Steiner, Sacramento, CA: JALMAR Press, Inc. 1977 in Gibbs, J. (2006). Reaching All By Creating Tribes Learning Communities. Windsor, CA: CenterSource Systems, LLC (pp. 252-253).

[3] By Tom Rath and Mary Reckmeyer.

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