Faith CoLab: Tapestry of Faith: Exploring Our Values Through Poetry: A Program for High School Youth

Activity 1: Different On The Outside

Activity time: 25 minutes

Materials for Activity

  • Drawing paper
  • Pencils
  • Mirrors, one for each participant
  • Handout 1, "The Face in the Mirror," by Robert Graves
  • Newsprint or dry erase board and markers
  • Journals and pens or pencils

Preparation for Activity

  • Photocopy Handout 1, "The Face in the Mirror," one for each participant.
  • On sheets of newsprint or on the dry erase board, write the unusual words that appear in Robert Graves' poem and their definitions (if using newsprint, post the words and definitions in advance of the workshop):
    • inhering: the act of being a natural or integral part of something
    • furrowed: rutted or grooved in its surface
    • frenetic: characterized by feverish activity, confusion, and hurry
    • jowl: the jaw, especially the lower one; a cheek, especially a prominent one
    • pugilistic: characterized by the practice, sport, or profession of boxing
    • ruddy: red or reddish in color; with a healthy reddish glow
    • ascetic: choosing or selecting self-denial and austerity
    • derision: contempt and mockery

Description of Activity

An older poet's thoughtful tour of his own face informs a self-portraiture exercise.

While a volunteer passes out journals and pens or pencils, divide a sheet of newsprint into two columns labeled "Your Personal History" and "Your Personality." Direct participants to draw the same two columns on their own paper.

Ask the group to respond, on the paper, to the following questions. If participants are comfortable with one another, you may also invite them to share their answers aloud. Be sure to leave time between prompts for participants to respond.

  • What could someone tell about your personal history just from gazing at your face? How could they tell? (Write responses in the personal history column.)
  • What could someone tell about your personality? How could they tell from your face? (Write responses in the personality column.)
  • When you look in the mirror, how do you think you see yourself differently than someone else might see you? Be as specific as possible.
  • Why might we see ourselves differently than others do?
  • When do you worry least about how you look? Why do you think that is?

Tell participants that the poem they are about to read uses some words that they might not know, and direct them to read the posted definitions. Read and define each word aloud, as you feel necessary.

Distribute copies of Handout 1, "The Face in the Mirror." Ask for two volunteers to read the poem aloud. Allow at least thirty seconds of silence after each reading.

Lead a "What do we have here?" discussion about the poem, using these questions:

  • What happens in the poem?
  • What can we infer, or guess, about the speaker's life? Where has he been; what has he done?
  • What do we know, literally, about how the speaker looks? Be specific.
  • What is unclear in the poem?

Lead a "What's the Big Idea?" discussion, using these questions:

  • How does the speaker feel about himself? How do we know?
  • In the last stanza the speaker seems to wonder why, after all he's been through, he still sees a boy full of confidence and hope in the mirror. Do you think the speaker sees himself realistically? Do you think our true spirit is reflected in our outer selves? If yes or no, what are the consequences of how we interact with each other?

Now explain that each participant will have a chance to look at him-/herself as Robert Graves does in the poem, and to document what she/he sees in a self-portrait poem. Distribute mirrors, pencils, and drawing paper to the group.

Ask participants to look in the mirror and try to see what their faces say about their personal history. Ask participants to look still deeper and try to see what their faces reveal about who they are inside. How do they feel about what, or who, they see looking back?


Here is a chance to view your face clearly and appreciatively. If you feel the urge to look away, try to notice why. Try not to look away. Look at your face as if seeing it for the first time. What do you see? Where has it been? Are there scars that tell a story? Or does your face tell a story in a more subtle way? What is that story? What is your inner reaction to what you see? Here is the real challenge: Can you see yourself as someone who loves you very much would see you? Can you look at yourself with complete acceptance? With objectivity? Without judgment? With love?

Invite participants to choose one of these approaches to a self-portrait:

  • Write a three-stanza poem, modeled after the Graves poem
  • Use a completely different form for your poem
  • Instead of writing a poem, draw a self-portrait

(Participants who choose to draw may use words or a poem within their drawing; it need not be a conventional, representative self-portrait.)

NOTE: The self-scrutiny required for a mirror-based self-portrait can feel too intense and/or threatening for some participants. If this seems to be the case for an individual in your group, suggest that she/he observe her/his hand instead; or envision another person whom the youth knows very well and loves very much and use that person's face as the subject to complete the assignment.

Instruct participants to use the mirror as a tool and not worry about sounding poetic or sounding any particular way. Participants who are drawing need not worry about making their faces look a certain way. Most importantly, participants should try to document not just physical observations, but also their own knowledge about what they see, their memories that are inspired by the act of looking, and anything else their faces are trying to tell them.

When everyone has completed a self-portrait, form small groups of no more than four people each. Within the small groups, invite participants to take one minute each to share their self-portrait and anything about the process they wish to add. Tell participants that since this activity is about how we see ourselves, only the self-portrait maker is allowed to speak during the minute; listeners may not ask questions or comment. Remind the group that everyone has the right to pass.

NOTE: A Few Words about the Poem

In "The Face in the Mirror," the speaker uses his face as a timeline or map to trace his personal history. He is mercilessly honest and gives us a portrait of a craggy-faced old man. Still, there is wonder in the last stanza; why is this rugged old man-an ex-fighter, soldier, and football player-still full of a boy's confidence and hope?