Principal’s book taps minds of teens

Students share thoughts, dreams and aspirations in ‘Cardboard Confessionals’

BROOKINGS – “In six words, define your life.”

That was the imperative Mitch Reed put to middle school and high school students in a six-week sociology project during his fifth and final year at Waverly/South Shore, where he served as high school/middle school principal and taught a few classes.

Those six words followed six probing questions: “What do you want to do before you die? What makes for a meaningful life? What is one thing in life you have given up on? What is something that people misunderstand about you? What is something you are most proud of? What do you think about when you are alone?”

The six questions and the final request came one per day for seven days. And each one drew about 60 to 80 responses.

The final product of the project is “Cardboard Confessionals,” a 162-page book by Reed due out Feb. 6. 

The author is now principal of Deubrook Elementary School in Toronto. 

“I got the idea driving down Main (Avenue) in Brookings, the ‘Before I Die’ wall,” Reed explained. “I did a little research. It was Candy Chang (a New Orleans artist) who came up with that idea (after a friend died). Those walls are in 70 different countries around the world. There are 1,500 or so.

“I figured I could probably learn quite a bit about our students by asking them questions like this, to really make them think about where they’ve come from, their past experiences and backgrounds. Questions like that, that are pretty deep.”

Absolute anonymity

A couple of analogies noted for anonymity – “What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas” and the Catholic Seal of the Confessional – were major drivers of the project. 

“It’s all anonymous,” Reed explained of the written responses given by his Waverly students. “It was a cardboard box in the lunchroom. That’s why it’s called ‘Cardboard Confessionals.’”

All sixth- through 12th-grade students could answer the questions. The daily 60 to 80 responses over seven school days were collected and drove the dialogue between Reed and the seven students in his sociology class project. The book fleshes out the responses to the questions.

“What it kind of does is talk about my educational perspective on why these things impact kids,” Reed explained. “I talk a little bit about the dialogue we had in our classroom about these things and the kids’ perceptions of them.

“Then I talk personally of stories that hit home with me. I give motivational speeches on this, so a lot of these ideas come from that. They kind of all revolve around each other.”

Helping kids cope

Some answers might be seen as exhilarating, some as disturbing. The Register asked Reed if he was scared for some of these kids, because of their answers. 

“Yes and no,” he replied. “Yes, I was, because these kids have been around me for years and I haven’t been able to see that or reach out and help them.

“But at the same time, no, because I feel like this project helped them to cope with some of those things they were dealing with in their lives.”

While most of the class dialogue veered toward the positive, a couple of the questions elicited some negative responses.

One, “What do you want to do before you die?” was answered with “Going one day without wanting to die.”

Another, “What is one thing in life you have given up on?” got the answer “My dad.” 

Continuing, he explained, “There are some stories that I talk about in the book where I do think that this project may have saved lives in the long run. Maybe as someone reads this message it can give them courage to move forward. That’s what’s so inspiring about it.”

Reed noted again that the respondents were anonymous, so there was no way he would have been able to respond to a troubling answer even had he been inclined to do so.

One student, whose anonymity Reed respected, did come forward and personally hand him a note “reaching out for help. She was in a pretty dark place. I think this project really did help this individual student. That’s why I’m so passionate about it. And I think there’s a lot more along the way.”

Pencil, paper, no lecturing

While Reed and the students taking part in the project talked a little about social media, it did not factor into what they were doing.

“The book is not based at all on social media,” he said. “That was the nice thing about this. It’s pencil and paper; it’s kind of old fashioned. They weren’t texting it. They were writing it down on a piece of paper, and I think that became more genuine for a lot of these students.

“The social media part, we talked briefly about how easy it is to get your word out there; that can be a good and a bad thing.”

While the answers came at random from middle and high school students at large who answered questions they felt comfortable with, the book is driven by Reed’s seven sociology students who took part in the project. Over six weeks they engaged in dialogue with him on the questions and answered all of them.

“That was kind of what my search was in this class: to get something that made kids think outside the box,” he explained. “I didn’t necessarily want to be lecturing; I wanted it student-driven. This served as a perfect purpose.

“We would just put something up on the board that was said in the cardboard confessional. And students would start talking about their personal lives and personal experiences with the things on the board.

“You’ve got to establish quite the relationship. It’s got to be very secure in there. We did. We eventually broke the shell and started talking a little bit. Anything with a positive connotation really went off well. It’s easy to talk about the good things in life.”

Fulfilling work

What Reed found most fulfilling was “the seven students who walked out of that classroom and took a stance to get to know the people around them and understand what they’re going through.

“I think all seven of them learned something about themselves. I hope that they became better people because of it.”

He added, “A teacher’s goal throughout any class is for the students to teach us more than we teach them. I think in this I learned so much from those kids. They’re resilient; kids are super resilient. We don’t give them enough credit.”

Reed is a Redford native. He graduated from Northwestern High School in Mellette, got an undergraduate degree at Dakota Wesleyan University (Mitchell), a master’s degree in education from Northern State University (Aberdeen), and from the University of Sioux Falls a special degree and endorsement for being a superintendent. 

Reed will be a guest on KSFY Sioux Falls television Feb. 12 and he has book talks coming up in Watertown and Brookings in the near future.

Additionally, he’s exploring outlets for book sales. The book will be for sale on Amazon. Anyone looking for additional information about the project may contact Reed at [email protected]      

Contact John Kubal at [email protected]

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