Like most people, the Thanksgiving holiday has me thinking about gratitude. And, it occurs to me that gratitude may be a useful thematic tool to use in schools right now.
I wrote about student stress, anxiety, estrangement and the general mental and emotional well being of kids in my previous post. As I lay those concerns along side the concept of gratitude, the proverbial light bulb illuminates. We have been focusing on virtually everything except feeling grateful for the past couple of years-with understandable reason. Yet, in the process, we have overlooked many gifts and opportunities.
I’m reminded of the method of describing the amount of liquid in one’s glass. Is your glass half empty or is it half full? We’ve been collectively considering our glass to be half empty. Again for good reasons. But, couldn’t that be a huge contributor to the fragile emotional and mental health of children? (Adults too, for that matter.) Isn’t it not only possible but also likely that wallowing in a prolonged general state of negativity is an underlying reason why many kids are having a difficult time finding a sense of hope as they navigate a new normal? If I’m right, and I believe I am, schools should seize the “half full” opportunity and apply it instructionally.
Let me be clear. I am not advocating a Polly Anna, kum ba yah, feel good curriculum. But, I am advocating that incorporating gratitude into lesson planning may offer some rich instructional moments while lifting the veil of negativity that has surrounded us all for far too long.
In a post earlier this fall, I suggested that a way to rebuild a sense of community and to assist students and teachers in easing back into the business of in-person learning could come in the form of thematic approaches. Themes afford the opportunity to unify and clarify the instructional focus. They provide kids the opportunity to make meaningful connections with the content being studied to their own experience. And, a thematic approach encourages teachers to collaborate with one another in building rich and seamless experiences for their students. Gratitude is a reasonable, and timely, example from a long list of thematic possibilities. Some ideas:
Scientific discoveries are worthy of gratitude. Consider the break-through development of life saving vaccines. Many of us carry these in our bodies as a viable means of staving off critical illness through this current pandemic. How are they developed? What are virus mutations and how do they happen? The list of discoveries within this category alone, worthy of appreciation and gratitude, are endless.
How about global warming? If not for scientists paying attention to the changing weather patterns and effects of temperature creep, we could have carried on, blindly spewing poison into the atmosphere until, one day, the world as we know it, and the one we depend on for survival, would be finished. Now, there is plenty of gloom in this topic and the dire projections that it contains. But, how wonderful that science sounded the alarm bell and, because of that “just in time” warning, we have the opportunity to change course. That is deserving of gratitude! Gratitude and action: what is it? What caused it? Now what? What can we do individually and collectively?
Think about the endless possibilities contained in the arts. The very process of creating encourages reflection and an altered way of looking at one’s circumstances and the world. Music, theater, dance fine arts, filmmaking, creative writing can each be powerful avenues of not only self-expression, but also achieving a balanced self-actualization.
A personal biography is a common writing prompt. “Write about something significant in your life.” It’s personal. It’s open ended. It’s relevant. And, it’s a manageable tool to guide students toward more competent writing. I can easily imagine myself responding to that prompt as a sophomore in high school with authentic pain. My mother died when I was thirteen years old. My biography would be filled with grief and loss. However, if the second component of the assignment was to include: “and describe something about this experience that you are grateful for,” the focus of my piece would change dramatically. For, through my personal pain and loss, I got to better know and appreciate my maternal grandmother who came to live with us and to care for my brother and I - an opportunity I am forever grateful for. An assignment extension like this would allow the teacher a much richer understanding of who their student is and it would have supported the student’s efforts to turn a half-empty glass into one that could be half-full.
My wife and I gave each of the two households of grandchildren we saw during the holiday a Gratitude Tree. The clever design consists of a freestanding balsa wood tree and sheets of green paper with pre-scored “leaves.” It was fascinating to observe two ten year old girls eagerly assemble their tree and complete the installation of its first two leaves, each containing an individual statement of gratitude. The most interesting thing to me was that neither of these children showed any hesitation. There wasn’t any time spent pondering what to write on their leaf. I’m convinced that if the expectation of completing one leaf of gratitude each day wasn’t in place, they could have filled half of the tree in one sitting.
Kids do have things to be grateful for. We simply must provide opportunities that encourage them to stop dwelling on the negativity and uncertainty that appears to be everywhere by asking “what is the volume in your glass?” The opportunity for students to recognize what’s half-full in their lives, and to express it, may be both therapeutic and life changing.