Ada Skillern

English Teacher

Bowling Green High School

Bowling Green, KY

The Gratitude Experiment

Spread gratitude across the school community with this simple activity.

View the practice »

My mother was a stickler with her three children about just a few things: if you start something, you finish it; if you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all; if someone goes out of their way to give you a gift or do something kind for you, then you write them a thank you note. And so we did, in our early years under her watchful eye at the kitchen table, and then on our own as adults, because we knew how good, how fundamentally right, it feels to do so.

Gratitude, for me, means reflection. I do believe that one of the great struggles of this stage of my life is setting aside time to examine it. Think about the effect on your own spirit when you receive an unexpected token of thanks-it literally has the power to reverse the trajectory of a challenging day, and it costs nothing. But gratitude is a gift that serves the giver even more than the intended recipient. It is a gift that I want to nurture in my students, just as we seek to instill in our own eight year-old: Some years, I have lost my way and failed to express adequately my gratitude. Last year was a particularly challenging one professionally, and when I came up for air, I found myself resolved to get back to my roots-one of those resolutions was to re-dedicate myself to consistent expressions of thankfulness and encouragement.

Some of the ways I incorporate gratitude in the classroom and broader educational community:

THANK YOU LETTERS: Seniors, a week before graduation-this is their final exam. We encourage them to reflect on those individuals who have helped them get to this point in some way, who might otherwise go unthanked-elementary & middle school teachers, coaches, pastors, counselors, principals… the responses to those letters have been enormously satisfying-elementary teachers who are moved to tears by a handwritten letter from a student they had in class ten years before; and who reciprocate with their own letter, or make a point to find them in the halls before commencement ceremonies, to give them congratulatory hugs and express their own appreciation for being remembered.

“It is a village!” This love affair of teaching and parenting and living is too intense, too full of missteps, good intentions gone awry… it is also overflowing with those who inspire us through wisdom, kindness, hard work, decency. Gratitude comes in the form of this “village” mantra I share with my students, from Day One of our time together. We are all going to screw up. It’s okay. Let’s be gentle with each other, let us help each other, let us recognize that when we are being challenged, we naturally will fall down-your parents probably took adorable pictures of you with food all over your beatific faces when you were learning to feed yourselves-our classroom is like that, as we grow. This year, my English II class was thrilled with this idea and came up with our class slogan: the GVO’s (Good Vibes Only), and they call it out often.

THANK YOU notes for those who take the time to write you a tailored letter of recommendation.

THANK YOU notes, composed by a different student volunteer, each time we have a guest speaker, that include a specific and thoughtful takeaway, and thank them for their time.

LOVE NOTES. The Sevenzo February #SpreadtheLove challenge struck a particular chord for me. I LOVED reading other educators’ practices for spreading the love in their own classrooms — in fact, I found myself taking mental notes of ways I can interweave many of them, so that I am more deliberate in spreading gratitude throughout the year. Would also like to be more intentional about celebrating the incredible international diversity that is represented by our student body.

OLD-FASHIONED POSTCARDS sent to students’ homes.

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Our daughter’s second grade teacher ends each week with a “Student of the Week” activity that moved me to tears. Each child brings pictures from home, to be featured on the SotW bulletin board, but what is truly heartwarming are the individual notes that each classmate writes to complete the sentence, “______ is special because ____________”. Mrs. Sine then puts together all of these notes into a “Why I Am Special” keepsake that is sent home. It is one of our daughter’s prize possessions, and she loves coming home to tell us about what she and her classmates wrote for their peers.

Ron: the design of his room-murals & inspiring quotations chosen & created by students; asking his students who have immigrated from different countries to bring the flags of their native countries, so he can display them as part of his classroom.

From the moment we rise, to the moment we sleep, we have opportunities to make the world a little kinder or a little colder.

I remember listening to an interview that the actress Susan Sarandon gave, years ago, during which she said, “We need a witness to our lives.” Someone who is paying attention to us, who recognizes that we matter. I tell my students that I believe with all of my heart that there really is no “neutral” — from the moment we rise, to the moment we sleep, we have opportunities to make the world a little kinder or a little colder. Something else that struck me years ago was watching Oprah’s interview with Toni Morrison, who asked the question, “Does your face light up [when you see children]? because that allows your face to speak how your heart feels.” Taking the time to express our appreciation to others is recognizing the humanity in all of us, and helping our students rise to that noble impulse is some of the deepest and most life-affirming, important learning of all.