During the spring of 2017 a group of teachers at Perry High School in Pittsburgh, PA were looking for opportunities to revive students in a post-testing rut. Inspired by a challenge to spread gratitude, each came up with a plan to introduce gratitude in their own way to their students. These teachers’ reflections inspired their peers, students, and community, and illustrated the gratitude they have for one another in the process. Read on to learn how a small step spread beyond one classroom and demonstrated the collective impact of the teachers at Perry High School.
The Gratitude Experiment is a practice that encourages students of all ages to learn about gratitude with a simple activity, encouraging students to recognize the daily contributions of everyone who works to make their schools a positive environment to learn, play, and grow. The goal is to help students think about and acknowledge the people in their school communities who support them and help them succeed, but may not always receive recognition for their efforts. It’s a small change, with the potential for big impact.
Research shows that gratitude can have multiple benefits for both children and adults, including fostering stronger relationships, improving physical and psychological health, and increasing self-esteem. Students thrive when they are able to foster positive, supporting relationships in the classroom, and through this practice students work to build connections with others in their school.
Taking on the Challenge in Their Own Way
At Perry High School, the first teacher to hear about the challenge was Brice Hostutler, and it spread to his colleagues from there. Each teacher uniquely adapted the practice to best meet the needs of their students.
Brice Hostutler | Therapeutic Teacher
“Every student had a role.”
Brice was the first to try the practice, coupling gratitude with reflection and mindfulness for a student-led project. His therapeutic classroom included twelve students whose needs vary. His goal: to help students become advocates for themselves and their disabilities.
Earlier in the semester, students worked with artist Kevin Clancy to design and build a physical space that they could use for meditation and reflection. Building relationships and trust with his students was key to getting them involved. Students modified the fabric tent and plastic “bubble” they created to include music, and brought their journals into the space for reflection. The physical space provided a perfect opportunity to introduce the gratitude practice.
Brice began by modelling for his students: reading a series of personal notes explaining his gratitude for them, and then opened the floor to allow students to share. A few students opened up and shared statements of gratitude with their peers. All students then wrote reflections for people outside of their class — past teachers, other adults, friends. The space created a safe environment that allowed each student to reflect. They were proud of what they designed together, and some even stayed after school to serve as docents for the space, opening it up to other students, parents, and the community. Every student had a role. In the end, students felt proud of the learning they did, and the gratitude experiment spread.
With a little nudge of encouragement, more teachers got on board.
Derek Long | English Teacher
“The Gratitude Experiment was an opportunity to slow down and appreciate things.”
Derek is a teacher who listens to his students. As simple as that may seem, he’s always willing to pause and pay attention to what his students need, adjusting his own plans to take time to talk. He emphasizes the importance of building relationships, every day: “By showing your students that they are more than just a student in your classroom and by opening up your life to them, you allow them to see you as a person who wants them to be successful.”
Toward the end of spring testing, Derek was looking for an opportunity to refocus his students. He looked through the Gratitude Experiment toolkit and pulled together a sequence of writing activities for his English classes, extending the lesson over a few days. He kept the prompt simple: Who could students thank for what was going well at Perry? Think of all the roles in the school, from teachers to the lunch staff who prepare your tacos.
Students reflected on the people at home and school that they may have taken for granted. The class brainstormed for a bit, and each wrote thank you cards to people of their choice. Some students did a rough draft and a single note, others wrote many. The response from teachers and staff was overwhelming.
For Derek’s class, the Gratitude Experiment was an opportunity for students to slow down and look at the little things — not just within school, but at home and within the community — for which they were grateful.
Jason Boll | English Teacher
In Jason’s class, it’s his belief that when students feel they fit into a space and belong in a space, they start to feel like their needs are met. When they describe places where they feel valued and loved, these are the spaces they describe. His hope is that his classroom becomes that space for every student he teaches.
Jason’s students would tell you that he’s extremely cheesy. This is the high school student response to his sincerity. He’s aware of the experiences his students are bringing to his class: the language they use, the approaches they have, and their style of learning. His classroom is a space where the conversations he and his students have with one another are built on the backs of the relationships that they’ve formed.
When Brice told him about spreading gratitude to his students, he was intrigued. It seemed important and timely to think about students from a lens of gratitude. So, taking advantage of a free weekend, Jason wrote a thank you note to each of his 80 students. Not academic notes, not feedback notes or “glows and grows”. His goal was to share something with each one that was entirely not academic. He started with why he was thankful for them, then why the school and community were thankful for them.
On Monday, he printed each note and handed them to his students. His instructions were simple: Read this, and write for a few minutes a response or reaction. And then, pay it forward. Thank someone. Anyone. Each class responded differently. In one, students were brought to tears, sharing deep experiences with one another. What happened blew his mind, and made him happier. Being thankful makes you happier — that’s a simple truth in the world.
Jason already had a habit of writing to students often. If he had one piece of advice to give to teachers, especially in areas where students are struggling with the educational model, he’d say write to your students. They keep the letters. They read the letters. They believe and internalize what’s in the letters. Consider how showing gratitude might positively affect all involved.
Read more of Jason’s own take on The Gratitude Experiment on his blog.
Take Advantage of the “In-Between” Times
One common belief held by the Perry teachers is the importance of taking advantage of the “in-between” times throughout the school day to build relationships with students. Think about the moments in the hall between classes, in the lunchroom, before and after school.
As Jason put it, “From 7:11-2:09 is not my time. This is the student’s time. For five periods my job is to instruct and teach, and for the rest of my day my job is to listen and learn as much as I can from my students.” Teaching is relational and by spending time listening to and getting to know students as people, the academic and behaviors pieces become much easier.
Gratitude spread at Perry because these teachers have strong relationships not just with their students, but also with one another. They value one another’s perspectives. They describe one another as “like sunshine” and “grace-filled.” Not only did these teachers model and engage their students in this gratitude practice, but at the same time they shared a meaningful experience together as peers.
Inspired to spread gratitude to your students and peers? Learn more about The Gratitude Experiment and make it your own!