Family Sculpture

It is an exercise that I assign to my students in order to learn from them.  It’s a great activity, and I have made literally hundreds of students do it.  I remember many of them, and they’re pretty easy to facilitate.  Basically, a student will take students from the class and have them play their family members – and they sculpt their family using the students from the class in a way that represents their perspective of their family when they were 10 years old.

I am currently teaching a course where I have assigned this exercise.  I showed them my family sculpture – of my in-laws.  It was rather fascinating.  I chose my wife’s family because I have a new niece that has become the center of the family, and I wanted to see how I would set it up in light of my new niece.

Typically, I warn my students about a few things.  One, that they will communicate information about themselves and their families, but inevitably, they also communicate information that they don’t intend.  Two, that as we make observations, we will make correct ones, and some that are way far off, but it’s not always easy to hear.   Three, the emotions that you experience during the exercise is part of the learning.

I did mine today.  I was blown away by the emotions and the thoughts that I experienced during the exercise.  I learned about myself and my family.  I have former students that came to class today that wanted to do theirs again.

How well do you know how you think about your family?

3 thoughts on “Family Sculpture

  1. This sounds like a really interesting idea. I’d love to know more about it. I think the better teaching sessions are those where students really focus on what they can relate to, which makes their learning feel more relevant to them. Slightly unrelated, but we run a seminar at Lancaster University in the UK about sustainable consumption and the students love it. The idea is that it is run prior to the lecture series and students are asked to bring along an item that they think relates to the concept i.e. something they consume that they think is sustainable or unsustainable. We then discuss the contradictions with this and I get them to identify a variety of themes and contradictions relating to the items. Students have bought all sorts of things along because it is part of their everyday lives and routines and it allows them to connect these ‘real’ objects to the more conceptual/theoretical lecture material. The students always seem to love it (I have taught it now for 3 years running) and even my quieter groups become chattier and more engaged. I think identity is an important part of this learning process and empowers them because they are the experts of their own lives. If teaching can incorporate this more, I’m all for it!

    One slight issue with your method that I was wondering about, was how you deal with potentially less positive family stories, if and when they arise. Is there an option for students to opt out if this feels uncomfortable for them?

    1. Okay, first of all – how did you find that post. You are good. Thank you for digging through some posts. Really though, how did you get to this particular post? Just curious.

      I want to address your issue first. I have been doing this assignment for about 8 years now – like the post said – with literally hundreds of students. I really wanted to share how I deal with less positive family stories. By the time we get to the family sculptures, they would have completed a few other assignments to set up this assignment. They do a timeline of their lives, they will do a personality test, and a few other things before we get to the family sculptures. So by this assignment, we would have already had multiple conversations about our lives – as a class. By this assignment, we will already have a picture of each student so there is a sense of community and closeness by the time we’re sharing our family sculptures.
      We also try to have what I have been calling ‘values-free’ conversations about ourselves. We don’t necessarily speak of family or our selves in terms of positive or negative. There are so many things in our lives that we don’t have control over. We can’t control if our parents divorce or when we are born or what family we are born into.
      Another thing is we observe the family sculpture in light of some family systems theory. We use these categories to have conversations about our families – enmeshed family, connected family, who’s the center of the family, is it disconnected, adults playing parent and spouse roles, and children playing sibling and son/daughter roles. It’s a fun conversation. We aren’t just saying things that come from our mind – we are using these categories to have conversations. Okay, I think I can keep writing about this, and I have stories about stories of wonderful conversations that I have with students because of this exercise. This exercise allows me to say things to students – that they’ve never heard before. For many it’s the beginning of a long journey to self-discovery. Oh my – It’s not me. The exercise is just that cool. I can give you more stories if you’re interested.

      I want to see if I can work your exercise into one of my courses. I would like my students to explore your ideas. I do a similar exercise where they bring something that represents their identity. I want to try the sustainable perspective. Good stuff.

      Thanks for reading. Thanks for having me reflect on this further. I hope it helps. Let me know if it doesn’t. Thank you Dr. Tarrant.

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