A few years ago at a WATAC conference, I had the privilege to learn from the venerable Nate Bowling. Prior to diving into the afternoon’s workshop content, he described his preferred classroom strategy for gathering attention to an audience of educators eager to engage in rich discussion with colleagues. The practice is simple - saying thank you. He explained that when he wanted to retrieve attention after releasing students to small group discussions, he simply and clearly says “thank you” once, pauses for expected student follow-through, and if need be repeats the phrase. “Students shouldn’t need a third time,” he quipped to our empathetic chuckles, and we moved on.
Among the larger take-aways from that weekend, this kernel stuck with me over the years. I began to employ it regularly in my own classroom of adolescents as well as when leading adult professional development and with often little to no explanation, receive near immediate results.
“Thank you for entering quietly and taking materials to your seats.”
“Thank you for turning your attention over here.”
“Thank you for for pausing conversations to look back at your first responses.”
People hear appreciation first and foremost; requests, directions, and implications, second. After a while I realized that likely the most-often heard phrase in my classroom is one of gratitude and I wanted to further support that pattern.
I know that there are all manner of clapping patterns, charming phrases, or sign language folks can use to silence the masses but there’s something special about imbuing a frequent message with respect and recognition. I wondered how to measure the effects of this communication and what other practices would similarly lend themselves to this type of environment. I also looked around for other evidence of giving thanks and for any measurable effects to be found.
Thanksgiving as a practice is often linked to positive effects. In a collaborative study, researchers found that expressions of thankfulness were connected to increased perceptions of communal strength. An article in Harvard Health stresses that gratitude is cultivated and benefits from a multi-tiered approach. Further, Wong and Brown found that positive effects, while readily identifiable in data sets, take time to manifest and amplify.
These studies only skim the surface of the research of using gratitude as a guide, and the work of educators across the country to build classroom experiences based on thank yous only further amplifies those findings. Berkley released a curriculum based on saying thanks , there are lists of activities to use in your classroom, and apparently having a thankitude is a thing. Consider how we prepare students for college and career successes and imagine the application of gratitude as a character trait students bring to opportunities.
I built an approach that works with my subject, schedule, background, and personality, curating a collection to serve a variety of needs. I use combinations of these practices throughout the year to create and hone the energy I wish to nurture, and here are a few of my most regular tools:
- Daily brain breaks - I share science-backed practices for breathing exercises, mindfulness opportunities, stretching, and other ways to give thanks to our minds and bodies for working intently. Students give thanks for this work by building healthy practices to balance stress, allow for metacognition, and find enjoyment in that care.
- Communicate Clearly - As Brene Brown espouses, clear is kind, and we show our respect for each other’s time, feelings, and needs when we say what needs to be said in a way that it is best received. Being thankful for the presence and work of others is evident in both delivery and reception of ideas in a collaborative environment. Teaching this style happens in two parts :students need to learn that not only is it important to be clear when sharing what you mean, it is just as important to probe for more meaning when you aren’t sure you understand.
- Friday Stand-Ups - at the end of Friday’s classes, I ask three or more student volunteers to stand and share something positive happening in their lives. The two norms are that we speak the truth and we clap for everyone. Many students share that this is their favorite part of the week.
- Community Circles - After each unit at our PBL school, students have generally just spent an intensive period of time deeply involved in demonstrating their learning. This is the perfect time to meet in a circle, debrief projects, get to know each other even better, and generally celebrate the closure of one activity in order to welcome the next. In this practice, we share appreciation for each other and our learning environment both through the respect we show each other in the circle and the appreciation we grant our design process that carries us through our learning opportunities.
- Community Service Learning - Something newer to my repertoire is creating learning experiences cultivated to send thank yous into our community. Last year, I collaborated with other teachers and a local organization to give students the opportunity to engage in a park clean up while studying the environment, and the feedback was overwhelmingly positive. Considering the starfish parable gives students a foothold in believing that they have thanks worth giving and their efforts will make a palpable difference.
- Saying Thank You - as is now my habit, whenever I can .
How do I measure the annual success of this campaign? At some point in the year I cut back on one or more activities, waiting in anticipation of a student noticing the absence. It may take a day or two, but I’ve yet to break our habit when I’m not shortly thereafter queried as to reasons for the missed moment and for a requested make up. Students notice, whether subconsciously or otherwise, the energy of gratitude in the room and appreciate its constant hum.
In a 1920 edition of The Journal of the New York Teachers’ Association, among advertisements for quick-drying art enamel, an OpEd on the importance of teaching civics, and an article discussing the educational results of Kindergarten training, can be found the following quote that’s been (mis-?)attributed to several people since:
“It isn’t the mountain ahead that wears you down, it is the grain of sand in your shoe.”
When I think about what makes teaching hard, learning hard, or life in general a landscape of seemingly insurmountable peaks, it is not human failure to presume future struggle. I’ve yet to find an educator who nicknamed their career a cakewalk, a third grade classroom where fractions became an involuntary reflex, or an adult who’s never known pain. Gratitude, while unable to erase hardships, can help us leave new markings to carry with us along our journey.
Thank you for reading.