The sun was up, but the TV was on. In our house there was a strict rule: When the sun was up, anything with a screen had to be off. But as a 17-year-old whose parents were in the midst of getting a divorce, I was moody and all about breaking the rules. I turned on my secret indulgence, Oprah, curled up on the couch, and tuned in to hear what wisdom she had to impart to me on this sunny day.
This particular show was focused on gratitude. As a teenager who was feeling quite ungrateful in the throes of family transitions and general adolescent gloom, I listened with bated breath.
Oprah and her guest spoke about the power of keeping a journal of gratitude. She preached about how consumed we are in our culture with what is wrong in our lives, and how little energy we spend reflecting on that which makes our lives more meaningful. Her words seemed like magic on the airwaves. She was speaking to me!
A lightbulb turned on in my head, and the very next day during my summer job lunch break, I purchased my very first grateful journal (coincidentally with a large lightbulb on the cover). I wrote in it religiously that summer. Living up to the cliché, I kept my journal under my pillow and found the self-discipline to write five things each night that I deemed worthy of recognition.
Though this evening exercise did not diminish my self-centered teenage attitude, it did teach me the practice of being more aware and present. I learned that summer to find solace and enjoyment in the littlest of things, and would conjure up the memory of them at bedtime each evening. Some nights were more difficult than others, particularly as my family became more and more fragmented, but I forced myself to follow this routine and find gratitude for the roof over my head, a shared laugh at the grocery store, and my morning mocha.
Nine summers later I found myself dusting off that old gratitude journal. It took me a few hours to read through the summer of 1998 as it was encapsulated in the yellow spiral-bound notebook with the lightbulb on the cover. There were laughs, tears, and more than a few cringes, which forced me to step away from the document that captured my raw and often silly teenage gratitude.
Teaching and Gratitude
At age 26 I was full of gratitude, having just landed my dream job, teaching in an elementary school. Yet I no longer took the time to write in a journal each night. Why was that? The moments I had taken to write about my gratitude each night had brought me such peace. I thought about this concept for a while and decided this was a routine I needed in my classroom each day. I reasoned that if this simple writing act had made such a difference in my life, maybe it could have the same impact on my young students. I put small notebooks on my “to purchase” list and waited for September to arrive.
Those little journals sat in my classroom closet for several weeks as the first few weeks of second-grade chaos ensued. When it seemed we had found our rhythm (albeit a little bumpily) and started to form a classroom family, I knew it was time to introduce grateful journals.
I told students I had a special surprise to share with them. “Candy?” a brave seven-year-old asked.
“No, this surprise is much more special and enduring than candy.” I smiled and realized I should probably have explained what the word enduring meant. When I went to the closet and pulled out a basket brimming with miniature spiral notebooks and placed it in the middle of the quiet circle with a dramatic pause, there were a few small gasps.
“What is gratitude?” I asked, speaking over the basket all of their eyes were glued to; mini-notebooks were a big deal in second grade.
“Gravel?” one little voice tried.
“Attitude?” another piped up.
I smiled and tried to remember the importance of wait time. The room fell quiet, and I thought students might be losing their excitement. “Gratitude means you are taking time to be thankful for something or someone.”
The heads nodded and there was some confirmation from the crowd. “Oh, like Thanksgiving!”
“Yes, yes, like Thanksgiving! Only in our class we are going to try to be grateful or thankful a little bit each day.” I showed the students my special lightbulb journal and explained that in a few days, they too would have their own grateful journal to cherish.
For several days we practiced having each student say one thing they were grateful for so they could understand the concept of gratitude. After the excitement was built, it was time to give them the gift of a grateful journal. Each child wrote their name on the label of their fancy Walgreen’s notebook and was charged with writing a list of as many things they were grateful for as possible. In our circle, many little tummies lay on the ground as their hands flew across the mini-pages. We wrote for 15 minutes. Some students wrote beautifully penned lists of 10 things to be grateful for; others struggled to get the name of one person on their page. I was nervous that I was going to find this was not a good use of the last half hour of our day.
But just when I started to doubt, each child began to share what they were grateful for. The recognition students shared filled our room with quiet smiles.
“I am grateful for Dean because he knew I didn’t have anyone to play with on the playground today and he played with me.”
Dean scooted back out of the circle a bit with a gracious smile across his lips.
“I am grateful to Alek because he is so, so funny!”
No one had thanked Alek out loud before in class; he was floating.
Those afternoons in second grade were magical. Children, adults, objects, and seemingly ordinary moments that would normally go unnoticed were identified and properly thanked in our grateful journals. The gratitude had a special power over our classroom, much like it had had over me as a pouty teenager. By mid-year we had staff members coming to our classroom in the afternoon just to be a part of grateful journals. A few asked if I had any extra journals so they could keep one with us. My grateful journal became a record of the special, small moments that keep a teacher going.
The Nuts and Bolts of Grateful Journals
Each year since that very first one, I have incorporated grateful journals into my classroom routine. I’ve tried making them different and more complicated, but have found sticking to a few simple principles often produces the most powerful writing.
- Become Comfortable with the Concept of Gratitude: In the past few years I have used several different texts to spur great discussions about the concept of gratitude. I believe the journals are a gift and establishing them as a sacred place for grateful thoughts is important to build up to. Some texts that have sparked great discussions are An Awesome Book of Thanks! by Dallas Clayton, The Three Questions by Jon Muth, The Dot by Peter Reynolds (really, many of his books have the ability to connect to the idea of gratitude), Thank You, Mr. Falker by Patricia Polacco, The Heart and the Bottle by Oliver Jeffers, and This Plus That: Life’s Little Equations by Amy Krouse Rosenthal.
- Model Expectations and Remember the Heart of the Matter: For quite a few years I worried that handwriting in grateful journals wasn’t clean enough or there was too much listing. In those few times that I tried to over-prompt students, I found I stifled their creativity and ability to tune in to the little moments. I’ve found that it is best to model simplicity in grateful journals, even with older students. In my fourth-grade community this past year, the expectation was that students would try to write two to five things they were grateful for and the reason why those people, things, moments, and ideas are important to them. I encourage students to work on one page per day, and date the top of their page so they have a timeline of their own thoughts.
- Write Together: I have found it best for everyone to stay together at the carpet and write together in a circle for seven to 10 minutes, no matter the age of the students. It is a calm routine, and no one talks until the last writer is done. This quiet, reflective atmosphere sets the tone for the work.
- Allow Time for Everyone to Share, Every Time: Grateful journals in the classroom communities I have been a part of tend to work best toward the end of the day and serve as our closing meeting. The entire process usually takes about 20 minutes (10 minutes to write and 10 minutes to share). In my current fourth-grade classroom the agreements around sharing are to find something you would be willing to share with everyone, speak to the group; when we listen to each other, we truly listen from our heads to our toes; and you may respond to gratitude with gratitude (typically the sign for “thank you” or a quiet smile).
Recently I asked the fourth graders in our community to explain what grateful journals have meant to them. Christian shared, “Grateful journals let out all of our feelings. Even if you don’t show you are friends with someone, you tell it to your grateful journal.”
Antonio (who is normally quite reserved) added, “Grateful journals get your thankfulness for people out.” He looked back down at the journal he was holding tight, and it was clear that our daily writing ritual was time well spent.
Time is coveted in the classroom. As I plan out my schedule each year, I have a little debate with myself about dedicating 20 minutes each day to writing in grateful journals. But the power of these little journals is reaffirmed when we sit together with quiet appreciation in the center of our circle year after year.