Throwing Snowballs for Safe Spaces

Most of us have been taught that it’s not nice to throw things, especially at other people. Let me let you in on a little secret: sometimes it makes for a really great learning space. No, I’m not encouraging violence, I’m advocating for safe spaces by using the snowball method.

What is the snowball method, you ask, if I’m not talking about that cold winter mess? A snowball is a method of eliciting difficult conversations from people anonymously with the intention that their responses will be read aloud, and create a safe space and an open dialogue. 

How do you instigate a snowball?

  1. Begin the conversation that you’ll be having with the group, and warm them up a little bit to what you’ll be talking about.
  2. Ask the group a question, provide them with writing utensils, and ask them to anonymously write their responses down. (As I mentioned in my previous blog post, Calling Everyone: A Diversity Welcome, I used a few safe space techniques when I spoke at the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force‘s Creating Change. Snowballing was one of them, and the prompt that I provided the group was to write down different things that they felt shame about related to their sex and sexuality.)
  3. Give the group a sufficient amount of time to write.  I’d suggest about 5 minutes, give or take depending on the topic. (During an abortion snowball I did with fem*ex, the handout was 5 questions long, so we allotted much more time for them to fill the paper out.)
  4. As people finish writing, ask them to them to crumble up their piece of paper and throw it at you. It’s a fun interlude while you’re waiting for others to finish writing, and it tends to make people smile. Let folks know that if they don’t feel comfortable throwing, they can ask a neighbor to do it for them, or you can come by and grab it from them.
  5. Collect the wads of paper (this can either be by hand, or into a hat, jar, box, etc.) and begin throwing them back to everyone in the room.
  6. Once all of the papers have been passed out, repeat the original question, let people know that if they got their own, they should just read it as if it’s a stranger’s, and have people begin reading their answers.

This kind of activity can be an extremely effective method for a myriad of lesson plans. I’ve used them for discussions about masturbation, body shame, abortion, and shame around sexuality, to name a few. Most recently using the snowball, at Creating Change, it was really powerful to hear all of the shame that people feel about sexuality. It was scary, sad, and empowering to know that we were airing some of these secrets out. After people read the paper that was thrown to them, I walked around with a brown box that said “COFFIN” on it. The concept was that people would read the sexuality shame people felt, and then we would “bury” it, or “kill” it in the “coffin.”

After all of the slips of paper are read, I always ask people how they’re feeling. Usually this activity elicits a lot of feelings. In many cases, people are sharing things that they’ve never admitted before, particularly to a group. The beauty in this activity is that it can be anonymous and participants can often see how similar so many responses are to their own. It’s a method of creating solidarity and safety. Participants are able to share their stories without outing themselves, unless they want to own their story. I was in one group, and someone asked if they could keep what they’d written. They didn’t want it read anonymously, but instead felt empowered to read it out loud for the first time.

One educator provides another take on a snowball:

What do you think about the snowball method? Have you used it before? In the video, the educator said that you have to be careful that your students don’t “gang up on you.” I’ve never experienced this, but can think think about how this could happen? What benefits do you see?

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5 responses to “Throwing Snowballs for Safe Spaces

  1. Justyn, I learn so much awesome stuff from your posts. This is another one that is going in the tool box of teaching activities.

    Keep this up and I’m going to need another index card holder.

  2. This is great! Such a fun and safe way to share personal responses!

    The only time I would be hesitant to use a snowball activity is in a school setting. Often the students have known each other for years; therefore, they may recognize each other’s handwriting or be able to guess from the content. I went to an elementary school to discuss puberty with fourth and fifth graders once. We did anonymous questions (and had each student write something even if they didn’t have a question or comment). It seemed like the students could tell who had written some of the questions despite the steps we took to prevent that. However, the hands-on aspect of crumbling and throwing paper sounds fun that age group. Do you have any suggestions for using this activity effectively with a group that already knows each other well?

  3. I really like this technique for sharing personal information but I echo Rae’s concerns. Sometimes handwriting is recognizable or student peek at each other’s papers while writing. I would tell the students that they can sit wherever they want in the classroom for the writing portion and then everyone can come back when it’s time to share. Also, maybe telling the students before that their answers will be shared anonymously. If a student thinks they are only sharing with the teacher, they might include more identifying details. If the students know the exercise beforehand then they can leave out specific details.

  4. Pingback: Diving Into the Deep End | Teaching Sex Ed·

  5. Pingback: Activities, Activities, Activities | Teaching Sex Ed·

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