Thankful Thursday, Teaching Gratitude in High School

What follows is my contribution to the 2014 Thankfulness series. This is a little departure from my traditional thankful essay for the month of November. If our Thankfulness Series were a book, this might be the prologue...

I get to school early. I set the kettle to warm. I turn on my favorite classical music radio station. It’s Thursday, so I also pull out our bowl of construction paper leaves. Students drop in to prepare for their school day. They brew a cup of tea, grab a marker, write something they are thankful for on a construction paper leaf and wish me a “Happy Thankful Thursday.” I teach advanced courses at a public high school, but this early childhood, construction paper lesson may be the most important concept I give my students. I believe gratitude is a practice we can all develop.

Like all skills, we sharpen our aptitude for gratitude with practice. When I started “Thankful Thursdays” many of my students struggled to find an appropriate noun with which to attach their appreciation. My request to “fill out a thankful leaf” was met with scrunched eyebrows and perplexed looks. Students asked tentatively, “My mom?” “Coffee?” “My cross country teammates?” They wanted to know if these were appropriate things to be thankful for. I smiled and said, “absolutely.”

Science of happiness researchers report that cultivating a gratitude practice is one of the most effective things you can do to improve your personal outlook on life. Teaching is heart heavy work.Many times young people are asked to deal with loss and other challenges.  Across the board, my students wrestle with anxiety, stress, pressures from parents, teachers, coaches, self-esteem, self-efficacy, and self image. They are teenagers coming of age in an overachievement culture. In the advanced placement world we are adept at teaching high level learning, yet at what cost? I believe that cost is too little attention given to social emotional health including the importance of gratitude. Thankful Thursday is an opportunity to bring reflection and appreciation to a pace that otherwise moves too quickly for these “softer” practices. 

This is now our second year of the Thankful Thursday tradition and my students are hooked on gratitude. They are also becoming mavens at finding ordinary reasons to be thankful, a skill I hope they carry with them all their lives. To kick off this school year, one of my students engineered us a new three dimensional gratitude tree.  By early October I already had to duck under the lower hanging glitter splattered leaves to make my way to my  desk. Students who formerly struggled to find one noun now write gratitude lists in tiny print on their Thursday leaves.Our tree is heavy with the sweet declarations of young people, “jazz music” “Kristen” “perfect fall weather,” my cat”  “peppermint tea”... 

This past Thursday I was off campus for a field trip. When I returned to school, I opened my desk drawer to find a brown and yellow construction paper leaf. On it was a single word “you.” And sitting under our multi-colored construction paper tree, my high school teacher’s heart swelled. 

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This post is part of our 2013 Thankfulness Series. If you are interested in contributing,  please email me at kathrynfweaver@gmail.com.

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