Lesson Plan: Residential Schools, Emotional Weight, and Supporting Each Other

By: Renee Allen

Renee Allen

Education Collaborator

Renee Allen is a multi-hyphenate Jamaican-born, Toronto-based, writer-educator, with a passion for working with children and youth. She is deeply committed to work that interrogates and addresses interlocking systems of oppression. Her writing appears in Zora, THIS magazine and PREE. Renee is also a recent graduate of the Masters of Teaching program at the University of Toronto, with a book collection that keeps outgrowing her bookcase.

You can download a PDF copy of this lesson here:

Suggested Subject Areas

Social Studies
Social-Emotional Learning (e.g. Homeroom or Advisory)

Grade Level

Grades 4-6


For students to gain coping strategies to support themselves and each other through challenging times, while developing their understanding of residential school experiences.

Essential Question

How might we best support each other during challenging times?

Enduring Understandings

Learning Outcomes

These learning outcomes are not tied to specific provincial or territorial curriculum documents and are intended as a jumping off point. Teachers are invited to draw connections between these outcomes and the curriculum where they are located.


Students will be able to:

Oral Communication

Students will be able to:


Students will be able to:

Cross-Curricular: Art

Students will be able to:

Inquiry Lesson Outline 

Planning and Preparation

Teacher Background Knowledge
Student Background Knowledge
Planning for Anticipated Challenges

It’s essential to cultivate an environment for responsible dialogue in your classroom before starting this activity. Though students won’t be directly discussing their experiences, calling to mind its emotional weight could be overwhelming. This activity is not recommended in a classroom setting that is volatile or where there is a lack of emotional safety due to social dynamics. If accessible, please create opportunities for students to connect with their school social worker, guidance counsellor, or hold space for private discussions.

These resources can also be shared with students:


Introducing the Lesson

This lesson is most supportively and thoughtfully done in a circle, with the teacher also sitting in the circle at the same level as the students. If outdoor space and weather allows, it is a great lesson to do outside in the natural environment as well.

This lesson should take place slowly and intentionally, when there is time for reflection, discussion, and thoughtful engagement with the concepts. It is unlikely there will be time to complete all steps at once, unless a full day is dedicated to the task. Teachers could choose to complete steps #1 and #2 in one session, then #3, then #4, as long as they happen in close proximity to each other in time.

The teacher can introduce the lesson by sharing the guiding question and context with students. This can happen on the board, via projector (e.g. on a slide deck), on chart paper, etc:

How might we best support each other during challenging times?

The teacher is also welcome to share the central learning task, which will be to redistribute rocks in small groups to support each other in coping with our emotional loads.

Then, the teacher will ask students to call to mind an experience they’ve had that felt heavy, sad, or challenging. This does not have to be an especially traumatic moment, and the purpose of the lesson is not to push students into places of recalling trauma. Rather, students can be guided to think of something difficult they experienced, whatever that means for them. Students will not be asked to share this experience aloud, and the teacher should let them know that from the beginning.

The teacher will ask the students: Given the emotional weight you’re feeling, how many rocks in the bucket would this represent?

Students place the number of rocks they decide on into their bucket. The number of rocks should represent the emotional weight of their experience. If the teacher feels it’s necessary, they can also emphasize that the activity is not a competition for placing the most rocks in the bucket or carrying the heaviest load. A diversity of experiences and buckets is accurate to human experience and is important to understand and celebrate. Ideally, the teacher will also participate alongside the students and place rocks in a bucket at this stage of the lesson.

If the teacher feels it is appropriate in their classroom setting, students can briefly share, either with the whole group or their elbow partner, how many rocks they placed in their bucket, and can also generally describe the process of decision-making without bringing in extensive personal details (e.g. “I placed five heavy rocks in the bucket because the experience I’m thinking of was one of the more difficult ones of my life and that felt like a lot of rocks,” or “I placed two small rocks in the bucket because what came to mind was a sad experience but not one of the most difficult ones I’ve had so far”).

Inquiry Step #1

This step is guided by the question: How similar or different are the rocks to the emotional weight we carry?

Students examine the buckets they’ve filled with rocks. This can happen like a gallery walk, where students stand and walk around the circle to observe all the buckets and the rocks inside. The class can communally decide in advance whether there are boundaries or agreements around touching the buckets and the rocks.

Students return to the circle and engage in discussion—as a class or in small groups based on seating—where they share their observations. What kinds of patterns did they notice? Similarities? Differences? This conversation can focus on the number of rocks, their size, their weight, and overall reflections on class patterns (e.g. “I noticed almost everyone had at least two rocks or more”). These can be documented by the teacher with a thought web, mind map, or other form of note-taking.

Inquiry Step #2

This step is guided by the question: What are we communicating when we redistribute the rocks?

Students select one rock from their bucket that they’d like to hold on to. This is the rock they will ultimately decorate in the next step of the process.

Next, the teacher will ask the students—either in small groups or as a whole class—to redistribute the rest of the rocks (not the ones they’re holding onto) across all the buckets so that the weight is more even, more equally shared. The class could first discuss what kinds of elements to consider (number of rocks in each bucket, weight of rocks, size of rocks, size of bucket) or could be left to make these decisions while they work—whatever is best for the specific class environment. Students should be encouraged to communicate aloud in their groups or as a whole group while they work through their thinking and decisions.

After the redistribution is done, the teacher should invite discussion amongst the whole group about how they made decisions about redistribution. What factors did they consider? How evenly distributed is the weight in the buckets now?

Since the rocks are a representation of emotional weight, the teacher can guide the students in thinking about the redistribution of emotional weight here as well. While helping others carry the weight of something heavy seems abstract, how can the rocks in the buckets and the process of redistributing them help the class think about strategies to help redistribute and carry emotional weight amongst the class, or out in the world? What kinds of practices and behaviours in our emotional lives are ways of helping to redistribute the weight of difficult experiences? Students can be prompted to think of a time when they felt sad or experienced something challenging: did other people around them do things that helped them feel “lighter” or that their sadness was shared in some way? What can people do to support others in difficult times? How do we find out what makes people feel supported?

If students have journals, they can reflect there before, throughout, or after this discussion, as per class routines.

Inquiry Step #3

This step is guided by the question: How can we decorate a rock we’ve held onto to honour the emotional weight carried by residential school survivors and the families of youth who attended residential schools?

If the class has prior knowledge of and has already learned about residential schools, the teacher can facilitate a task where students recall what they remember from that learning, either in conversation (whole class or small groups) or first independently (on a post-it note, index card, etc) and then in conversation. The teacher should be sure to clarify any misunderstandings and ensure the students have a shared age and stage appropriate understanding of what residential schools were, why they were harmful, and how that harm persists.

If the class has not previously discussed or learned about residential schools together, the teacher can introduce the topic in an age and stage appropriate way, by using resources such as picture books (suggestions here and here), timelines, or, for older students, articles (such as this one by Miles Morrisseau). If the teacher or school has an ongoing relationship with an Indigenous Elder or Knowledge Keeper, the teacher could plan ahead for that person to be present and share from their perspective, ensuring to ask in a respectful way and compensating them for their time.

Using art supplies such as paint, ink, or other supplies appropriate for the task, students will then decorate their rocks as a way to honour the emotional weight of residential school experiences. The teacher can show them examples of other such memorializing, such as Saskatoon youth art studio paints 215 rocks in tribute to residential school survivors, missing children (CBC News) or Project of Heart’s commemoration tiles. The teacher can also first discuss with the class what kinds of decorating would be a respectful way to honour the weight and legacies of residential schools.

Once the rocks are decorated, the class could come together to decide where they would most appropriately live. Should each student keep theirs? Can they create a memorial space inside or outside the school (with the possibility of documentation of what they are and why they’re there)? Is there a garden space to add them to?

During these stages, the class can also engage in a gallery walk where they observe each other’s rocks now that they are decorated. The teacher could invite individual reflection in a journal or class discussion about why students made the artistic choices they made when decorating the rock.

The teacher can also guide the students in an age and stage appropriate way to consider what we can do out in the world in our actions and words to help support survivors of residential schools and the families of youth who attended residential schools. Are there actions the class could take? The school? The community? If appropriate, refer to the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society child-friendly adaptation of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s Calls to Action.

Inquiry Step #4

This step is guided by the question: To what degree does the emotional weight we carry connect us to our ancestors?

If students are not already familiar with Grandfather Rocks, introduce the concept to them with the help of resources like Talking Earth – First Nation Teachings and Science (Wawatay News). The teacher might invite conversation about: What is a Grandfather Rock? How do rocks carry knowledge of many times at once? How are rocks a reflection of our own connection with our ancestors and the past?

This conversation can be used as a jumping-off point for reflection, either individually, in small groups, or as a class, about the connection between the past, our ancestors, and the emotional weight we carry. How might the families of youth who attended residential school continue to carry the weight of those experiences today? How might difficult experiences continue to be passed like rocks across families for generations? Are there ways we can support our ancestors in carrying that weight or in supporting them through it? Are there ways we can support the ancestors of other families who have experienced difficult things?

At the end of this step, students should have time to process and ground themselves emotionally in a supportive way. That could mean going for a class walk outside, journaling, meditating together, stretching, sitting quietly, or finding other ways to end intentionally, as per the teacher’s knowledge of how best to support their students.

Option for Additional Consolidation or Extension

As an act of intergenerational sharing, students could share their rocks with a class of younger or older students, as is appropriate based on the school context. In small groups or individually, students can share the decorations on their rocks, how they honour youth who attended residential schools, and what they’ve learned about how to carry and support the emotional weight of others as well as their own. In advance, the class of students with the rocks can co-create criteria for what is appropriate to share and how best to share it.

Alternatively, this additional step can also be done with adults, like parents. If the school and/or teacher has been connected with an Indigenous Elder, Knowledge Keeper, organization, or community throughout this process, they can also be invited to attend a sharing of the rocks.

Afterward, students can reflect together or individually about how the process of sharing went, what they appreciated about it, and what they found challenging.